gb&d: Some architects are known for shaping the architecture of a certain city, but you’ve designed major landmarks all around the world. How does a global portfolio affect your style and approach to architecture?
César Pelli: It doesn’t so much affect the style, but it gives me an expanded understanding from working with different people, with different traditions, and different expectations. It really forces you to open your mind, and that has been very useful for me and everybody in my firm.
gb&d: How does the individual city shape its respective project?
CP: We try to respond as closely as we can to the nature of each city, to the traditions, to their expectations. I don’t believe that architects should be imposing their style or their plans on every city in the world; it is a bad development at this moment in architecture. Too many architects are just trying to make all of their buildings look like a brand, and that may be good for business, but that is terrible for the cities because they lose character. If I go to Paris, I go to see the beauty of Paris and the coherence of Paris.
gb&d: Your buildings are so unique from one another that I don’t know if I could look at a building and say, “That’s Cesar Pelli.” Do you have a signature that everyone is just missing or do you like the anonymity of your design aesthetic?
CP: I have avoided what is called a ‘signature.’ Unquestionably, I have preferences about proportions, about colors—which colors go with which colors—that would be different from project to project, but somebody who knows me well could tell that these different projects have the same sensitivities. But that is the only thing.
gb&d: How do you make every project unique then?
CP: The main thing I do is that I don’t try to repeat myself. I try to respond as closely as I can to the nature of each place. The place is extremely important—the place one builds, the neighboring buildings, the orientation, the climate, the traditions of the place. If you focus on the uniqueness of each project, then each project ends up different.
gb&d: How does sustainability affect those projects?
CP: Sustainable design is one of the best developments of this period. It is something that forces us to be responsible, and responsibility to society is an axis of architecture; it’s one of the things that gives architecture a reason for being and strength. Sustainability is something architects all over the world today have to take seriously. Every building we build is negative, but we need to make that as little negative as we can. I think this is a responsibility that we cannot avoid, we cannot change, and I’m very glad for it. It is one thing that is tying many architects with varying styles with the same preoccupations.
gb&d: When did you come around to sustainable design or was it something that was just inherent to you as an architect?
CP: It has always been somehow important to me, but it has become a question of much more importance in the last 15 years because we are being helped with legislation, materials, and enticements. With the LEED rating system, I can tell my clients that if we do these things, you can have a higher rating, which is a nice thing to have for the universities, for alumni, for donors, for investors because it’s a building that appears more responsible, a better building to anybody who’s going to use it.
gb&d: What about before LEED ratings?
CP: The main thing we were concerned with at that time is what today we would call ‘passive protection.’ I would be concerned with building orientation, with sunshades, trying to keep the sun out of the building as much as I can.
gb&d: Your firm has so many LEED-certified buildings, but I wouldn’t say that your buildings are obviously sustainable on a physical level.
CP: That is correct. The looks of sustainability don’t interest me much. Sometimes we need to do something because our clients request it. Making the building obviously sustainable is not so important for me. It’s more important for the buildings to be sustainable, you know, to really do the least damage to the environment possible, to contribute to making a better world. That is important to me.
gb&d: For someone who has such a long and successful career in architecture, where does the passion come from?
CP: I don’t know where passions come from. That sounds like a good thesis for someone. I love architecture, and it is a passion—I cannot give it up, it would be like giving up life. I’ll only leave if they fire me. (laughs)
gb&d: Well, how did you choose to pursue architecture as a degree?
CP: I decided to study architecture not quite knowing what it was when I was 17 years old. In Argentina, you go straight from high school to a career, which is not a good system, but that’s what it was. I knew very little about real life, but what I learned about architecture seemed interesting and seemed to suit my skills, so I figured I’d give it a try, and I fell in love with it.
gb&d: What were some of those skills that seemed appealing to you?
CP: I’ll tell you a story because that explains this. When I entered into architecture, the school was teaching a very classical system of design. We were designing temples and tombs and palaces for the post-monarchs and analyzing Roman and Greek buildings. I became very good at it, but I couldn’t make any sense of what good this was to society. At the end of my first year, some young architects came in, full of modern ideas, and they immediately changed the program. Instead of studying palaces, we were studying bus stations and hospitals and housing for workers. They also made us very interested in modern art and how modern art connects with modern architecture. For me, the sense that I could build something that has social value and at the same time has the possibility of becoming art, I thought, “Wow that’s fantastic, I love it! I could do this all my life.” And I did.
gb&d: Does your Argentinian heritage play a role in your creative process?
CP: The only thing is that in Latin America we have a much greater use and respect for the public realm than we do in Anglo-Saxon countries. The streets, the plazas are much more important in our daily lives than they are in America. So I always give priority to the public aspects of my projects over the private ones.
gb&d: What was the first building you ever designed?
CP: The first building was a little, cheap vacation house for my future in-laws.
gb&d: Is it still there?
CP: I saw it recently, but it has had pieces added to it and adjusted the proportions. It ceased to be the house that I designed; it became something else.
gb&d: Does that make you sad that it’s changed so much?
CP: No, it happens. I have lost many other very good projects that were built and then torn down. That is part of life in architecture; your buildings get built and torn down. It’s in the life of buildings, it’s a pity, but that’s how it goes.
gb&d: Anything you have designed that, if you could, you would like to go back and redesign?
CP: Probably, but I don’t think like that. They are designed, they are done, that was a moment in my life, and if I think differently today, that’s just because it’s the nature of life. It’s a mistake to dwell too much on the things that one has done. Life changes, and you have to accept it.