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Interview with Cesar Pelli
January 24, 2005
(plus a phone interview with Rafael Pelli on March 29, 2005)
The Russian version of the interview was published in Architectural Digest Russia.
VP: One can probably create a computer program that will generate a typical Richard Meier building, but I don’t think you can generate a typical Cesar Pelli building.
CP: (laughing) I never thought about it in these terms but you are absolutely right. I love it.
VP: So, can there be such a program?
CP: I don’t think so. It would be possible if the program is very elaborate and if you receive the input of all functions, the number of people visiting the site and so on. In other words, it is possible but the forms it will generate will be not recognizable as my forms. Each building for me is a unique condition that requires a separate act of creation. It’s the coincidence of all of the information we receive and my feelings at that moment — they come together.
VP: Let’s say two different architects receive the same information about the client, the building, etc. Still, they will come up with two completely different solutions.
CP: Of course.
VP: They will bring their own language.
CP: Of course.
VP: Do you have your own language?
CP: It depends on how you define language. If language is equated with something recognizable as signature then I don’t. If language means a certain preference for how things go with each other, some materials, sets of colors, then unquestionable I do. If we don’t have a language we cannot design. If you don’t have a language you cannot write a novel. Some novelists will write books that are extremely recognizable. Others will write in such a way that each new book is a whole new discovery.
VP: But it seems to me there are a few typical spatial solutions that can be attributed to you. One of them is “extruded molding” shape…
VP: …which I can see in the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, Rice University in Houston, Owens Corning in Toledo, Ohio…
CP: You are absolutely right.
VP: Do you use methods other than extrusion in your design vocabulary?
CP: There are a few things I tend to use when the situation is appropriate. I like single central lines of movement, spines as I call them. I have several buildings based on spines, I wrote a thesis on that subject when I was in school in Argentina, I proposed this idea to Universal Studios, nothing came out of it. The first building with this attitude was the COMSAT Laboratories in Clarksburg. The competition that we won for UN City in Vienna was based on the same idea. This idea reappeared in the Rice University’s Herring Hall. I want my building design to define the use of the outdoor open spaces whenever I can. There may be a number of other things that I tend to prefer, but I don’t think in these terms, I don’t have them ready in my mind, I really have to start thinking… If I design a very tall building I will be very partial to recognizable centrality. So that through the axis (real or implied) of the building I can sense the axis of the world connecting heaven and earth. Those are the things I will seek if they are appropriate but I will not impose them if they are not appropriate. That’s a huge-huge difference.
VP: What is the spine of a building?
CP: It’s two things. It’s a way of organizing a plan. It’s also the most social place within the building. If the functions of the building are not directly connected within themselves, everybody has to use the spine. We even designed two private houses based on that principal. The spine allows everybody to gather. It intensifies the social aspects of the project.
VP: The spine doesn’t have to be vertical, does it?
CP: Not at all. It’s a social collector of people. It’s the social function of the spine that interests me the most, not so much its formal aspects.
VP: So the spine is not a physical entity…
CP: It can take a physical definition but the intention is social.
VP: What allows you to make a jump from verbally expressed requirements and intentions — social, financial, etc. — and come up with the shape, let’s say, with a triangle or a sphere?
CP: The jump takes place only after I understand fully what this project needs to be. If we get a commission we will visit the site, take hundreds of photographs, somebody will go to the local libraries or archives to collect images of how the city used to be because memory is very important. We will build a model of the site, with all topography and surrounding structures, and we will start putting on this model just boxes that represent the volume of the program. So before I start, I have an idea of how large an animal this is and the effect of its size on the surrounding elements. Typically I will then ask for two or three very simple obvious schemes, depending on what the function is, because there are other limitations: if there are classrooms there can be only a certain width, certain size of the site, there are places where you have to enter, to do loading, etc. We'll develop two or three schemes quickly in cardboard. These are not really schemes, they are just tests. Only at that time when I really understand it, I will take the leap. Of course, by that time I have been thinking of a number of possibilities but I hold myself from sketching them. As soon as you sketch them you are hooked to that particular image. But if they are still loose forms in my mind then there is what I call a marriage between my thoughts at that time (and they are affected by everything I've been reading and looking at that moment) with the realities of the project. And then I would propose two or three things to my team, and there would be models of two or three things, and the idea will be allowed to grow. Design for me is not a single idea that comes complete in your mind, not like Athena born with her armor; it is more like a plant. You start with a small plant and you allow it to grow. If it's a pear tree, you let it grow so it yields very good fruits.
VP: You also have to manage a whole team of gardeners.
CP: Absolutely. But here's what's interesting and sometimes difficult for young people collaborating with me. Somebody may propose a very good idea. But it doesn't fit a particular purpose. It's very difficult for them to understand that good ideas may not necessarily be good for a specific project. (On the other hand, you keep it in the back of you mind, and there may be another occasion when that idea make sense.) Anyway, that's the moment when you leap. How one leaps? That very complicated. Sometimes images come easily to my mind, another time I have to sweat it.
VP: So you don't allow yourself to start sketching until you gather all the information and create the basic volume.
CP: Absolutely. I find this very seductive. One seduces oneself. We like the sketch, we like the trace of the line — oh, how pretty this looks. Even worse if you show it to the client and they like it. Then you are stuck with an idea too early. Some architects like it, and they like the client to get stuck, I hate it. It is very unfair to the project.
VP: When you look through the whole scope of the buildings you've created one gets the impression (maybe it's a wrong impression) that you are almost playing a game with the public, saying: you think you've figured me out — I am going to surprise you. Are you playing such a game?
CP: (laughing) No, but the effect is similar. Unquestionably, if I am doing something that start looking too much like things I have done, I get tired. I like to explore new ways of doing things.
VP: Are you trying to surprise yourself or the public?
CP: Yourself. Absolutely. I need to keep myself energized. I admire Richard Meier enormously, I think he is incredibly talented, but it would be impossible for me to work like Richard. He elaborates the same form time after time. I would be out of my mind. I need the challenge of working with the new materials, new forms, having to develop a whole set of new details. Richard has his details for staircases, handrails, doorjambs perfectly worked out. I need to sweat them every time on every project. What he does is very efficient but it would not satisfy me.
VP: What about Frank Gehry?
CP: Frank is very creative but there has been a period, since Bilbao, where you can recognize many of his forms — all of those billowing stainless steel or titanium shapes. Disney Hall is a very close cousin (or brother) of Bilbao, even the thing he did for the Millennium Park in Chicago is in the same family, as well as what he did for Bard College. But his new house is very different, I was very pleased to see that this is something else again. Frank is extremely facile and he can change. What I think happens is most clients go to him and say: we want this.
VP: You worked for Gruen and Associates. So did he.
CP: He worked there before I joined the firm.
VP: So you never worked together?
CP: A little. We were very good friends in LA when none of us was known at all. I was working for another firm and he had no work. We have remained good friends. Once we were asked to do a large master plan in Boston. We proposed to invite several other architects to work with me, one of those was Frank, he came up with a very handsome design. Unfortunately, our client and the owner of the land started suing each other, and the whole project disappeared. So we did collaborate, and we had innumerable panels, juries and schools together. I have a great admiration for Frank. I was thinking about his flexibility. His building in Berlin is quite wonderful, the one with a horse's head inside [DG Bank]. The exterior wall, which is in a very different idiom, is very handsome.
VP: I remember about 20 years ago you name was associated with postmodernism.
CP: No postmodernist ever saw me as a postmodernist.
VP: Did you?
CP: Never, on the contrary, I remember arguments about my position as a “modern architect,” but, unquestionably, some of the things postmodernists were advocating were extremely valuable. These ideas had a great attraction for me and I experimented with them a great deal. A concern for the context, memory, history, the concern about the whole texture of the city, for the connection of buildings across time — we collaborate not only with people around us but also with architects that preceded us and in many ways we prepare the ground for collaboration with the people that come after we are gone — these were very valuable ideas, and they indeed affected me. But I tried to incorporate many of these concerns while keeping within my own terms, always a modern architect. I believe that concerns of modernism — about honesty, integrity of construction, the social concerns — all those issues remain important. I never believed in the reaction against modernism, I thought that the most useful thing postmodernist did was a reconsideration of some of the modernist ideas. I never liked any of the historical pastiches that were done at that time, particularly the caricatures — that was terrible.
VP: Le Corbusier's five principles — are they still valid?
CP: These were not really principles, these were devices — lifting the building from the ground, free plan, free façade, horizontal windows, roof gardens — and very few architects followed them. Even he, in many of his buildings he did not use any of these principles, in Ronchamps, for example.
VP: You've said that 9/11 was a human tragedy but not an architectural tragedy. Why?
CP: For me, the towers primarily were too big.
VP: Were they taller than your Petronas towers?
CP: Yes and no. WTC towers had 110 floors. Petronas towers have 88 floors, and from there they taper into a pinnacle. The pinnacle is higher than the parapet of WTC towers, but if you see Petronas towers against the sky they will look much thinner and shorter. But it's not just the incorrect size; it’s their abstractness. I think the Empire State building is marvelous and I also believe that the top of the antenna of the Empire State is taller than the parapet of WTC towers, but the antenna was added afterwards, so they usually don't count it. So it's not just the size, it's the abstractness of two identical blocks. And also the fact that they were inserted into one of the most beautiful groupings of tall buildings anywhere on Earth. There was no sense of scale. All other building in this group came to the sky with some respect. It's like if you enter a room of an old and important person you tip your hat or you bow or you do something, and these did nothing. They were very arrogant. I don't think this was Yamasaki's fault, this was rather the Port Authority's fault, but the towers destroyed the quality that downtown Manhattan used to have. The first building to do that was Chase Manhattan Bank by SOM, as tall as WCT towers, a big flat slab.
VP: Is Mies van der Rohe guilty of the same thing?
CP: Mies' Seagram building on Park Avenue fits perfectly well; he built it respectfully and very sensitively. The building is set back from the street. Mies was hoping, perhaps too optimistically, that this would be the only building set back on Park Avenue, creating an oasis, which is intensely used by the way. I don’t know if he did it because really cared about people using the building or just his instincts were extremely good. Either way, he did it very well.
VP: When an architect’s work is destroyed it probably is very painful.
VP: What you have done for the MOMA doesn’t exist anymore. Is there anything left there?
CP: Oh, yes, the tower.
VP: I know the tower is still there, but the exhibition space is completely gone?
VP: How does it feel to see your work demolished?
CP: (sighing) Well, mixed feelings. You are sorry to loose a child. But when we designed it, MOMA was in a desperate financial situation, they had almost no money. Our budget to build the addition, which doubled the exhibit space, had been 29 million dollars (construction cost); the new museum’s budget was 400 million. So at that time the MOMA was very poor, the earlier patrons had all died or left the museum. Now they have new wealthy patrons, they have the money, they can do it well, and this was very well done. So in some respects, I am very happy for the museum and for the art, that they were able to go beyond the limitations they had in the past. On the other hand, it was a very dear building to me. I am still very grateful to the museum. That was the beginning of our firm.
VP: Do you like what Yoshio Taniguchi has done there?
CP: I think what he did is very good, it’s very sensible. I do have my questions about how you look at art in general, and I have questions about some spaces, I think that some paintings, Water Lilies, for example, looked perfect, now they look tiny in this huge space. That is not Taniguchi’s fault. When we were designing the museum the curators said some things that I did not agree with, but it’s their building.
VP: How old were you when you came from Argentina?
CP: I was 26 years old.
VP: So you were an adult.
CP: Oh, yes, I was an adult, I was married, I was an architect.
VP: Does your Argentinean heritage play any role in your creative thinking?
CP: In certain aspects — unquestionably. I remain very interested in social outdoor life that is much more important in Latin America than it is in the US. That’s why I like to create gathering places as much as I can. In the World Financial Center we did two things: we did a very well defined exterior plaza, with two perpendicular walls, and we did an interior plaza — both are gathering places. These impulses come from my upbringing. I could have had the same impulses if I was from here, but my background has helped.
VP: Any architect, it seems to me, sits between two chairs. As a creative person, an architect tends to be on the left, but as somebody connected to construction, money, government, an architect tends to be on the right. Do you have this dichotomy?
CP: True, this does exist but it’s not a serious issue. If you have a client who is really interested in what they are building, that’s the ground where you meet. At that point it’s not very important if the client leans to the right or to the left. We have had many clients who are very conservative, and I am sure they are politically to the right, but they have supported us and they invested money in doing very public-oriented things. Fortunately, these divisions in America are very-very soft — it’s different on other parts of the world. Very few people take it so seriously that you cannot be friends across those divisions.
VP: Let’s imagine a world catastrophe, all building will be destroyed, and you can save three of them. Which ones?
CP: (laughing) That’s a dreadful task. Oh, my God! I will have a hard time selecting just three, but let me pick three of the top of my head. Chartres Cathedral, Hagia Sophia, and the Zen Garden in Ryoan-ji in Japan.
VP: I don’t think I know the last one.
CP: It’s an extraordinary beautiful place. You should go and visit it.
VP: Now, if you had to eliminate three buildings from the face of the Earth?
CP: Oh, no. I hate too many, and some were done by friends of mine, so I couldn't’t name them.
VP: My favorite building in Los Angeles is the Pacific Design Center…
CP: Thank you, we are building the third one…
VP: The pink one?
CP: No, the red one.
VP: On some renderings it looked pink.
CP: No, no. It’s just bad reproduction. It has always been red.
VP: I’ve always known there should be three but for a while the third one was put on hold.
CP: What happened is after the green building was finished, there was a huge change in the industry, and the business of showrooms diminished dramatically. Instead of 50 companies making furniture, we now have about 5. The attitudes have changed. The green building has been successfully transformed into normal offices. The red building will be all offices — mostly for people in the design trade .
VP: And finally a few personal details. Are you married?
CP: I am divorced at the moment but we keep collaborating with my wife, she is a landscape designer. We just won a competition in the Canary Islands. I have no idea if it will ever be executed, but we keep my fingers crossed.
VP: Was it your first marriage?
CP: My first and only marriage.
VP: Do you have children?
CP: Yes, we have two sons. The youngest one is an architect and he runs our New York office.
CP: Rafael. Very good! The older is Dennis. He is a research scientist at the New York University. He studies vision — how the brain sees things.
VP: Is your ex-wife also from Argentina?
CP: She came with me from Argentina but she is from Spain.
VP: Did you speak English at home?
CP: At home we speak primarily Spanish.
VP: And you kids?
CP: They speak English.
VP: Do they speak any Spanish?
CP: Yes, they do. But we always spoke to them in English.
An Interview with Rafael Pelli
March 28, 2005 (on telephone)
VP: Theoretically, a father-son collaboration can lead to creative problems, can it?
RP: (laughing) Theoretically, yes. There are good and bad examples.
VP: Have you seen the documentary “My architect” by Louis Kahn’s son, Nathaniel?
RP: I know of it, I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve heard it’s a wonderful film. But the situation there is a very different one. He is trying to learn about his father with whom he didn’t spent much time or have an adult relationship. My father and I have a very long time working together as adults. I am 48 years old; I’ve been working with him since graduating from college. I think I worked with him 16 or 17 of the last 26 or 27 years. So, I’ve had a long time the working relationship to grow and mature and to complement the personal relationship — so it’s a very different set of circumstances.
VP: How much creative freedom do you have?
RP: Very much. There are a lot of father-son architect combinations. But each one varies. In the end it depends a lot on who the father is and who the son is. It’s also true for mothers and daughters. My creative formation is certainly influenced as much by my mother as by my father. They are both very creative people but in a different way. It was a part of our lives to draw and to look at things and to respond to things we looked at and to think about what it was about things we were seeing that stimulated us or interested us or didn’t interest us and why. It was just a part of breathing to us. So, I benefited from two things.
First, as a son, I benefited from the creative environment where both my parents stressed the need to think critically for yourself. They saw a necessary condition to being creative in having your own opinion and your own way of looking at the world, which is inherently different form anybody else’s. That is very important because it was not proscriptive. Neither of them looked at the world and said this is the way it must be. They saw creativity as a journey and an exploration and a very personal one. It was always in my upbringing to form my own opinion and find my own solution.
Secondly, as a professional, I was fortunate because my father has always run his office with a very open mind towards different possibilities. There is creative input into all our projects from other partners and senior designers. He runs a very open studio environment where everyone is encouraged to contribute. That’s one of the things that what makes it attractive and exciting for young designers. His guiding principles are more conceptual ones — how architecture needs to respond to different conditions — they are not stylistic or formal ones. He does not begin with an idea about what a shape should be or how a building should look like or how it should be expressed. There is a very strong idea about what makes a good building and how one approaches the process of designing a building but there is no stylistic predetermination.
If you look at the body of my father’s work you’ll see a real range of solutions. It’s unlike many of his peers, which have sought the refinement of a very narrow set of artistic ideas. He has always sought different artistic solutions to different problems. Our office has always encouraged designers, particularly senior designers, to have a certain amount of authorship. So it was very natural for me to have a certain amount of authorship in the projects. My position is more to an extreme because now I have a great deal of authorship in the projects we work on together but it’s very much consistent with the way the whole office is run.
My father has a very interesting model of a father-son relationship. He has worked for 11 years for Eero Saarinen and Associates. Eero himself was a son of a very talented and successful architect Eliel Saarinen. He saw that relationship, he saw how they worked together and separately and they both were very talented and very successful. It’s one of the best and the most interesting examples of a father-son relationship. Looking at their work in retrospect you can clearly distinguish the work of one from the other but they worked very well together as well. So my father observed and learned it first hand, and it probably helped to find how he thinks about it.
VP: You work for the company called “Cesar Pelli and Associates.” Any plans for having “Rafael Pelli and Associates”?
RP: (laughing) Some day, when it’s appropriate, my name will be on the firm, whether it’s just me or with other people — that’s to be determined.