WHEN architect Cesar Pelli was designing a skyscraper in Minneapolis in the 1980s, he asked his client to reduce its height so it wouldn't become the tallest building on the skyline. The local spirit of modesty and deference, he explained, made that seem inappropriate -- and his corporate client bought the pitch.
A decade later in Malaysia, a booming Muslim country ready to announce its emergence on the world stage, Pelli designed a towering structure of interlocking Islamic motifs that became the world's tallest building.
He's the kind of chameleon designer, then, who fits his projects to the culture in which he works. Still, during a recent visit to Orange County, Pelli, 79, comes across like a distinguished visitor from another world. Through eyes smiling behind bifocals, he looks out at a late-morning party that seems oddly anachronistic -- Southern California as a blond, wealthy, Caucasian paradise. Almost a head taller than most of the guests, the lank Argentine seems genial and wise as he leans down to shake hands and converse.
And when Pelli takes the microphone to introduce his $200-million Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which he promises will be "one of the best in the world," he speaks with a mellifluous accent to cheers and flashbulbs. "A concert hall is a building, but it is also an instrument at the same time," he says. "This is going to be the Stradivarius of concert halls!"
The scene would overwhelm many scholarly men approaching their ninth decade, but the New Haven, Conn.based Pelli hardly seems wearied. A few hours later, as he dons a hardhat in the baking sun to offer another tour of the hall, he waves off any suggestion of fatigue. "I like these long days," he says with a laugh.
That's a good thing, because the project has been a very long day already. Dreamed up in the late '60s as part of the original concept of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the idea hibernated until fundraising began in late 1998 -- shortly before the dot-com bust. Subcontractor trouble, construction challenges and escalating material prices have deviled the project; the county's libertarian streak means public funding won't ride to the rescue. Despite a mostly completed hall and scheduled galas that will kick off a fall concert season with the resident Pacific Symphony and other groups, about $60 million still needs to be raised.
Pelli, though, is five decades into a career that inspires confidence. To design writer John Pastier, whose essay appears in "Cesar Pelli: Buildings and Projects 1965-1990," he's an elegant Apollonian who "would fit very nicely into a 1930s film about life on the Riviera" -- a pragmatic problem solver with no hobbies and few outside interests who pours himself entirely into his work. "Had he not become an architect," Pastier writes, "he very well could have been a scientist, a law professor, an essayist, a corporate head or a philosopher."
He's also, clearly, a diplomat who can charm captains of industry and leave the construction crew calling him "a great guy." When he talks about Orange County, he emphasizes the area's growth, its relaxed prosperity. It's not hard to tell why clients love him: Henry Segerstrom, the developer who has donated millions to the hall complex, praises "his versatility, his adaptability, his flexibility and his ability to listen."
For all his high-placed admirers, others whisper, when the microphones are turned off, that Pelli hasn't designed a compelling structure since 1975's Pacific Design Center or that his personal charm has gotten him further than his talent could. It's hard to find anyone to assail him personally, but it can be just as difficult to find enthusiasm for his last few decades of output.
Pelli doesn't mind that he's unfashionable. His career has been defined by a lover's quarrel with Modernism and a quest to re-create the spirit of place in glass and steel. As his new Orange County hall prepares to open, some see signs that the master may be back on his stride.
At Saarinen's side
TUCUMaN, Argentina, sometimes called the nation's garden, is better known for its sugar cane than modern architecture. In 1952, in his mid-20s, Pelli left his native region for the United States and, after receiving a master's in architecture at the University of Illinois, took his first important job in the offices of Eero Saarinen. It was a natural place for Pelli to begin, since the Finnish modernist kept high standards and worked in a wide range of projects -- from hip chairs to corporate towers -- each calling for its own solution.
Pelli says he picked up a dedication more than a philosophy. "He wasn't one for making big statements," Pelli says. "He was very pragmatic."
Pelli gained recognition as project designer of the swooping TWA terminal at what is now New York's Kennedy International Airport, completed in 1962, which may be the Saarinen office's most lyrical project.