Cesar Pelli’s most visible contribution to Minnesota’s built environment was born of fire but characterized by finesse.
The iconic architect, who died Friday at 92, designed what now is the Wells Fargo Center, a sand-blond skyscraper (and nighttime torchiere) that, along with the sleek IDS Center and the haloed Capella Tower, forms a visually harmonic triad that has anchored the compact Minneapolis skyline for more than a quarter-century.
The story begins on Thanksgiving Day in 1982 as fire consumes a full city block, including the headquarters of Northwestern National Bank.
Pelli gets the commission to rebuild. In an era in which glass is good, he designs a 57-story structure with columns of Minnesota limestone and wedding-cake tiers. In a city of throwaway tendencies, it bridges present and past. It is, according to a New York Times critic, “romantic without being sentimental — a tower that has the emotional presence of the great skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s, but that achieves this without indulging in literal reproduction.”
Though some think it undaring, most appreciate its elegance. In 2006, Pelli explains his philosophy to the Star Tribune’s Linda Mack: “If you are an architect who is concerned with how critics and other architects will respond, you don’t have to worry about [beauty]. If you are concerned with the general public’s response, then you have to be concerned with [it]. Beauty is a very basic human need. It is something like water or air. We need it in our lives.”
Such perception was typical of Pelli, who also once said that it was a “mistake to have a style. We architects, today we work in too many different places, too many different uses … we need to be more responsive to what we do.” That was evident when he later got the commission for a new Central Library in downtown Minneapolis and gave the destination the unconfined atmosphere and flexible future it needed.
Pelli was born in Argentina and lived in New Haven, Conn., where he had moved to become dean of the Yale School of Architecture. He didn’t open his own firm until he was 50, but then literally heightened his reputation.
He’s best-known globally for Malaysia’s Petronas Towers — twin 88-story structures connected by a skybridge. Designs in Minnesota include Gaviidae Common (the replacement for the other half of the burned block in downtown Minneapolis, and a creation whose charm endures even as the shopping-arcade side of its aspirations suffers in scope) and the copper-domed Weber Music Hall on the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth.