César Pelli and the art of glass skin architecture


The creator of “The Blue Whale” has passed away. Argentine-born architect César Pelli died on Friday at the age of 92, after a long career designing some of the world’s most famous buildings.

But in LA, he made his mark with innovative, sleek, glass-skinned buildings inspired by LA artists working with light, surface and perception.

Pelli was born in 1926 in San Miguel de Tucumán, in northern Argentina, and moved to the United States to study at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois.

He then founded a company that built the World Financial Center in New York, the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, for a time the tallest structure in the world.

San Bernardino Town Hall, designed by César Pelli and completed in 1973.

But in the 1960s, he came to work for the big company DMJM in Los Angeles. There, explains architectural historian Daniel Paul, he developed, with his partner Anthony Lumsden, a “Miesian design language based around the curtain wall but making the mullions thinner…. so that from the outside of the building it looks like a continuous grid of glass reflecting from top to bottom.

One of its first structures to use this seemingly unbroken glass covering was San Bernardino Town Hall, a six-story building designed in 1969. It was intended to reflect the urban environment that surrounded it and was intended to be a tribute to LA artist Larry Bell.

Pelli “wrote entire articles on perceptual transparency,” says Paul, “He wanted to play with building skin. He wanted buildings to “celebrate the joy of their own skin”.

Federal Aviation Administration Headquarters on the West Coast: a rounded six-story glass and aluminum office designed by Cesar Pelli and Anthony Lumsden of Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM) in 1966

It was while working in Los Angeles for Victor Gruen Associates that he designed the Pacific Design Center, or PDC: three colorful, fancifully shaped glass structures on Melrose Avenue that towered over neighboring homes and stores.

The gigantic Blue Center, nicknamed “The Blue Whale”, opened in 1976.

Center Green followed in 1988. The complex was finally completed in 2013 with the addition of Center Red – even as the design industry changed, showrooms moved and new tenants moved in.

A young César Pelli

Pelli also designed and built another Southland institution: the Renée and Henry Segerstrom concert hall in corrugated glass in Costa Mesa.

In later buildings, however, he tended to opt for more solid materials or more decorative facade treatments. Part of the reason is that elegant glass skins have fallen into disuse.

But Pelli’s early works were reflections, literally and metaphorically, of their time. “They were trying to refer to high tech, they were trying to refer to something locked up like a computer or a 747 jet or some sort of old machine,” Paul said.

Reactions to the PDC have long been mixed. Paul recounts how Pauline Schindler berated Pelli at the opening of Center Blue. She was horrified by the exhibition complex that overlooked the district of low-rise stores and homes like the Schindler House, designed by her Rudolf Schindler.

But Pelli was proud of it, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1986 that the Blue Whale, “sits there like an intruder in an environment filled with small houses yet, in juxtaposition, it does not destroy the scale.


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