Cesar Pelli: In Celebration of a Life Well-lived

Date: Jul 25, 2019 10:40:00 AM

By: Laura Pirie

On July 19, 2019 Cesar Pelli passed away at the age of 92.

While many thorough and honoring obituaries have been published since his passing, I want to offer a personal account of my experience with Cesar.

My intention is to celebrate the mentor and leader I knew through personal anecdotes, and to recognize the profound influence he had on the foundation of our practice: empowering people to do their best work.

Ever gracious, Cesar was never caught off guard. I first met Cesar while he was on one of my final design reviews at the Yale School of Architecture. At the end of the review he pulled me aside to ask if I would come work for him. Honored (but also wanting to “test” him a bit), I replied that I had already accepted a position at his office. His eyes sparkled, he threw his head back, and he laughed - the exuberant, resonate, and unapologetic laugh that would make me chuckle every time I heard it for the next 10 years, and said, “Wonderful! That’s wonderful!”

Ever generous, Cesar was caring and inclusive. Several years into my time at the office, I had my first child. After a short maternity leave, I returned to work 4 days per week. Once during this period, I had to schedule a design review with Cesar on my day off.  Being a bit of a rebel (and also determined to not miss a day with my kid) I made the appointment thinking I would just bring my infant son with me. I prepared for the meeting: drawings and images on the wall, materials on the table, and baby blanket, toys, and infant in the opposite corner.  Not knowing how Cesar would react, I set up everything to keep my son entertained, hoping he would not make too much noise… Cesar arrived, and I jumped right into the meeting.  He scanned the topic at hand and quickly looked over to the corner of the room, and said, “Well, who do we have here?!” In an instant my son was in his arms, and with the adeptness that only comes from being a parent, he held my son for the entire meeting while multi-tasking to complete our design review.

Ever respectful, Cesar always met clients where they were. He did not judge their values or perspective: in fact, he understood their wisdom as valuable insight into what was important to them. At that point into my seventh year in the office, I met with Cesar to discuss how to approach the design of a building with a challenging budget.  The client’s expectations and budget clearly did not align.  Rather than push back, or insist that the budget be raised, or the scope cut, Cesar created a plan to demonstrate to the client several approaches that would prioritize different aspects of the project. The purpose of this effort was to help the client choose where they wanted to spend their resources to align with their priorities. Respecting the client’s view, listening carefully to their priorities, and designing from there, was a lesson that I have taken forward into my practice, now 17 years old and 24 years after this meeting. 

I didn’t realize until I read so many accounts of Cesar’s life how his gracious, generous, and respectful manner had influenced my own view of how an architecture practice can be in the world. As shared in the New York Times this week, Cesar had a clear view of his work in service to others:

Architects, he wrote, “must produce what is needed of us. This is not a weakness in our discipline, but a source of strength.”

That says it all.

Rest in peace, Cesar Pelli. You are most deserving for a life spent creating beauty in the world - through both your work and your humanity.

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