César Pelli, 1926-2019

The Argentinean architect César Pelli, who boldly shattered the low-slung streetscape of West Hollywood with his 1975 Pacific Design Center, died on July 19, 2019 at his home in New Haven, aged 92.

Writing about the huge, glass-clad showroom, nicknamed The Blue Whale, in a 1979 article for Time magazine, the art critic Robert Hughes described the exhibition hall as “the Crystal Palace of the west coast,” going on to say that the blue cladding, “is not mirror, but semi-translucent blue glass, which glitters and disappears and re-forms against the dusty blue sky. In form, it resembles an extruded architectural molding: one single block. Its scale is its success; a vast illusion built for the luxury interior-decoration industry, plunked firmly down in Dreamsville.”

The following year, in the Herald Examiner, Esther McCoy described the building as a giant movie set, its glass walls functioning like a green screen, while the chopped-off ends suggest an opening to receive “huge sets from a Busby Berkeley musical.” Pursuing the movie analogy, she wrote, “Glass appeals to Pelli because the multiplicity of superimposed images puts the viewer in the position of feeling before understanding. He likes to wrap a sculptural frame in glass. The buildings are usually increments of extruded space, each segment independent. This design procedure produces the sharp cutoff at the ends of PDC. With skin independent of skeleton, no fine detailing is required. The aesthetics and ease of construction are bound together. Art and economics coincide.”

As well as being a master of new construction techniques, and the economies that made them useful, Pelli was an intellectual and a teacher. He left Los Angeles shortly after completion of the Pacific Design Center to take up the position of dean at the Yale School of Architecture. McCoy again: “I remembered that I had never found it easy to write about him because my notes were stuffed with quotes from him far more provocative and neatly expressed than I could have written. It was exasperating. How could I do my work when he was doing it for me?

“Not until I saw him with Pauline Schindler was I aware of how totally he listened, all the features of his face, all his smallest gestures, cooperating in the process. I recalled how patiently he had listened to students as they presented a project at UCLA where he went as a critic. Other critics were apt to cut off a student if he defended a flawed project, but not Pelli. He heard each one out, then skillfully summed up, causing no damage to tender egos. In the west, where our manners are casual, he had brought a courtesy so large that nothing about it ever suggested our laxness. He brought more harmony into architectural circles during his ten years in Los Angeles than was known before or since.”

The 14-acre campus of the Pacific Design center was a project of Gruen Associates, designed by César Pelli in collaboration with Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first African-American woman to be licensed as an architect in the US. The original blue building opened in 1975, and, realizing the original vision, Center Green followed in 1988, and the final Center Red building in 2012.

Photo: Gruen Associates