An Architect's Tallest Ambition, Just A Corner Of A Beautiful City

César Pelli has designed some of the world's best known skyscrapers. But he writes that the wonder of a beautiful city is collaboration over generations of many talented architects who care about the way people live.

A plane flies over Buenos Aires
A plane flies over Buenos Aires
César Pelli*


BUENOS AIRES — I write as one who loves architecture. It gave me a direction in life and has been the source of much delight. I admit that I derive particular pleasure from seeing my own buildings, but I also enjoy visiting the well-designed works of others. I love visiting beautiful cities like Venice, Paris, Istanbul or Kyoto where many years ago, many talented people constructed beauty with technologies that have disappeared. On these occasions I reflect on what a beautiful gift architects have given us, even if many of them are unknown today.

Our work is curious, certainly. We have limitations that are inconceivable in other artistic realms. A client or a program guides our activity. We work within the limits of a terrain we never picked and a budget that is usually restrained. We must adjust according to a range of codes and regulations, and yet incredibly, with all the limitations, we sometimes produce works of great beauty, even works of art. Buildings that resonate with us just like paintings or sculptures.

For this, you need not only talent but also much dedication, both to the profession and the project at hand. The architect's job has greatly changed in the 72 years since I discovered it as a first-year student at the Tucumán Institute of Architecture and City Planning. And it keeps changing.

Personally, I see some very positive developments. The main one is that young architects in Argentina and elsewhere seem to be intelligent, very well trained and full of enthusiasm and dedication. I also think it is important that there are so many extremely capable women working in architecture. I believe they are injecting new life into the profession.

The computer has certainly changed what we can do and how we do it. I never learned to draw with a computer, but still it has opened some practical opportunities. And it undoubtedly allows us to do things that would have been impossible without it. Our customers are also asking for great precision and an enormous amount of detail.

Another positive development is our attention to sustainability. Humans have made tremendous advances, but have also put the world in great danger, threatening to make the world uninhabitable.

What architects can do to delay the disaster is limited but very useful, and we are doing it. Almost all architects try to design sustainable buildings, and have come to appreciate that green spaces are essential to leading healthy lives. Parks and squares are being inserted into old cities and are usually immediately embraced and integrated into the city's life.

I would also applaud our dedication to conservation. It is a healthy thing. It means we recognize that there were wise, competent people in the past and that new does not always mean better. It also allows us to enjoy marvelous works we could not replicate today. At the time, they depended on particular social structures that no longer exist, and technologies that required many highly specialized craftsmen who today would be too costly. Conservation means we can enjoy those buildings, and they give sense to our new designs.

But I think our main responsibility as architects is to help make cities livable and beautiful, because cities are built building by building. Every new building makes the city a little better, or worse.

I am worried by the trend to create ostentatious buildings with a recognizable personal signature. These tend to depart from the general context, and strive to be noticed. To remain recognizable, some architects feels the need to follow their inner impulses, like painters or sculptors with a known signature. But the building might not necessarily fit in with the character of a place or a city's evolving form.

Many of these striking buildings are the works of talented architects and are created to serve exceptional purposes, which is understandable. The problem arises when lesser talents decide to create similar constructions for ordinary purposes, or buildings that are meant to be a part of the city's fabric.

I see this as a failure to understand what makes architecture unique.

Our greatest responsibility is to help make cities harmonious, beautiful and agreeable to their inhabitants.

Thankfully Buenos Aires and Argentina are not yet unduly affected by this, though I fear it is coming our way. And no amount of regulation will stop it. An easier solution would be to recognize the problem and react in time, resisting the temptation to imitate the superstars of architecture.

Perhaps our greatest responsibility when signing a contract is to help make cities harmonious, beautiful and agreeable to their inhabitants. This means we must design with an understanding and respect for what is already there, the city's traditions and character. It requires that we design buildings that contribute to the modalities of the city and, above all, the area where our building will be located. Because cities have very distinct areas, with their own structure and character.

Architect César Pelli — Photo: Presidencia de la N. Argentina

Districts in the Argentinean capital, like Palermo Hollywood, Catalinas Norte or the waterside Puerto Madero differ in character. The design of buildings varies from area to area, though they all remain typical of Buenos Aires, which has its own unique character.

I have never lived in Buenos Aires, though I have visited it a dozen times and designed four buildings there. I admire the flow of its pedestrian avenues, with a good distribution of restaurants, shops and cafés. It means walking in this city is a pleasure. Only one of my four designs, the Republic Building, was in a traditional district, and I made sure it fit in with its surroundings.

There is no building, however beautiful, that I would enjoy visiting more than a beautiful city, even if a city's beauty consists in part of its beautiful buildings. I am thinking of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the French capital's ample avenues, or Venice's palaces and the Piazza San Marco.

The wonder of a beautiful city is that it was not designed by one person. It is the collaboration over years, or centuries, of many talented architects who managed to control their egos and work for the bigger space. For me, beautiful cities are the most valuable works of art that humans have produced, and I am fortunate to have been part of this process. Contributing to a city's creation is, quite simply, an honor.

It is wonderful to be able to think or say that a little bit of Buenos Aires, or any city, is mine. That is what lasts.

*César Pelli is an Argentinean-American architect of many major urban landmarks, like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the World Financial Center in New York City.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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