Big Yet Still Beautiful

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Cesar Pelli lives and practices architecture in New Haven, Conn., for him the perfect distance from Manhattan: close enough to visit for an afternoon, far enough to experience the New Yorkophile's delight each time he plunges into the city. "Coming down Broadway," Pelli recalls of a recent visit, "I suddenly noticed this burst of golden light up ahead." He smiles his sheepish, civilized grin. "It was this building of mine." Pelli, 64, has designed some of the worthiest large buildings of the past few years: the humpback blue glass Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood; Wall Street's vast, handsome World Financial Center; the romantic 1930ish Norwest Center in Minneapolis -- each one urbane and appealing and unlike the others. But this new building, this burst of golden light in midtown Manhattan, is Pelli's best work yet. Indeed, Carnegie Hall Tower, officially finished last week, is the finest high-rise to go up in New York City in a generation.

The feat is all the more salutary given the building's horribly overbuilt location: just 25 ft. east stands Metropolitan Tower, a grim, 66-story black glass trapezoid finished in 1986 (only the two-story Russian Tea Room separates the two buildings), and less than a block south is architect Helmut Jahn's new 70-story Cityspire. Yet instead of adding to the high-rise pile-on, Carnegie Hall Tower improves the neighborhood and the skyline -- in part by visually eclipsing Metropolitan Tower -- and proves that grandeur need not equal bulk. Pelli's apartment-and-office tower is a full block deep and 60 stories tall, but it is marvelously narrow -- a mere 50 ft. wide. New buildings of this height usually contain two or three times as much square footage; no matter how interesting or tarted up, such behemoths almost inevitably darken and oppress their bit of the city. This slender, elegant slab is like a dancer among thugs.

The unusual difficulties Pelli faced -- squeezed site, Carnegie Hall as partner and next-door neighbor -- are what have made the new tower so special and grand. "Constraints," the architect says, "are not necessarily negative. They force you to try avenues you would have ignored." Contextualism has been the urban-design buzz word of the past decade, but no architect has done a better job of fitting a big building into such an important, tightly woven urban fabric. The 535,000-sq.-ft. tower is technically an addition to Carnegie Hall and takes important aesthetic cues from it.

The hall's century-old Roman brick and terra cotta are suggested on the tower by a skin of brownish and amber brick in five shades, and the molding and cornice lines of Carnegie's beaux arts facade are continued across the front of Pelli's building. The high-rise is wrapped by thick metal bands at six-floor intervals corresponding to the older building's height.

Pelli, however, did not make the standard postmodern mistake of replicating an old form at inappropriately huge size. The interior spaces are modest (no more than about 14,000 sq. ft. per floor), and an intricately detailed exterior suggests a bygone age, not any particular building or style. Four metal grids, each bolted at an upswept angle to the 60th floor, provide a classically inspired, yet unequivocally modern top. "We picked up threads of the past," says Pelli, "with a contemporary technology and contemporary sensibility."

Pelli started picking up threads of the past only in his work of the past decade or so. Born and raised in Argentina, he moved to the U.S. in the 1950s and went to work for Eero Saarinen, the great unorthodox modernist. By the 1970s, Pelli was a well-known partner in a large Los Angeles firm, just beginning the transformation of his work from glassy high tech to highly textured, more or less old-fashioned forms. Even as a modernist, he had never used the international style as an excuse for creating bland, by-the-book monoliths; the electric blue Pacific Design Center (1975) was a devilish, virtuoso stroke.

Then in 1977, at age 50, his life was suddenly transformed. He was named dean of Yale's architecture school and awarded one of the most coveted commissions of the year: to renovate New York City's Museum of Modern Art and design a 56-story apartment tower next door. "I came east without a ((design)) job, without connections, without a client, nothing. My intention was to be a teacher -- and maybe do kitchen additions. A month after I started as dean, I got a call about MOMA." He brought in his former colleague Fred Clarke to help, and the calls kept coming.

Pelli (who left Yale in 1984) and Clarke now oversee 73 architects working on projects ranging from the relatively small (an addition to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) to the enormous (an office-retail complex on Canary Wharf in London, a new main terminal for Washington's National Airport). As it turned out, Pelli says, "I never did kitchen additions."

Time and again, Pelli has proved, as he puts it, that "you can do buildings that have the psychological effects of traditional buildings without having to use the whole traditional paraphernalia. You can use modern technology but still give that richness of feeling."

Pelli's brilliance at making a building fit into a particular block, a particular city -- his sensitivity to context -- may be his one weakness as an architect. When he designs for a site without any strong local style or urban patterns, he can seem at sea. For instance, his design for a new office building on South Figueroa in Los Angeles proposes a white, bowed-front tower with three shallow setbacks and a flat top, twice the bulk of Carnegie Hall Tower and, judging from a model, nothing special.

But then, one of Pelli's virtues is his humility. "I don't feel I'm building masterpieces," he says. "If a building is a masterpiece, that happens after the fact." In a profession where, at Pelli's level, egomaniacal bluster is often part of the act, his craftsman-like long view is a pleasure. He goes out of his way to demystify his job, partly by designing with scale models all along the way. Most architects stick to drawings, which untrained eyes have a hard time imagining in three dimensions. Pelli goes so far as to give clients an explicit Column A-Column B choice. Late this summer, for example, when Vassar College President Frances Daly Fergusson came to look at Pelli's design for a new college art gallery, the architect had laid out several very different models of the gallery reception area; she simply chose her favorite. "I like to make design understandable to the clients," the architect says. "It comes from the belief that there is no perfect solution. There are several good solutions." Among serious architects, that verges on heresy.

Pelli still gets thank-yous from strangers about his MOMA renovation and notes from Minneapolis praising his Norwest Center. Ordinary people instinctively understand his talent. Remarkably, his very big buildings are thoughtful, likable, rich in detail, humane. "If the architecture is very good," he says, "huge scale can be a vehicle for doing an exceptional building." Coming from almost anyone else, that would be disingenuous tripe. When Pelli delivers platitudes about making cities better -- "In a good city every building should be a gift" -- one tends to accept the earnestness. His work has earned it.