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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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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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