Cesar Pelli: The Architect Behind the Aronoff Center for the Arts

Michelle Roth Museum Studies Jay Zumeta 09/29/08

The architecture of downtown Cincinnati instantly brings to mind several outstanding gems including the art deco Carew Tower, historic row houses of Over-the-Rhine and the innovative Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art. Unfortunately, one very large and significant building is

often overlooked, the Aronoff Center for the Arts (see fig. 1). Renowned architect Cesar Pelli designed the building, incorporating many of the themes commonly found in his work.

In 1991 Pelli was unanimously selected by the committee planning the Ohio Center for the Arts (later named Aronoff Center for the Arts) from an impressive list of thirteen superstar architectural firms including Frank Gehry, Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman. Upon the announcement, Cincinnati

Post writer Douglas Bolton felt it was “…perhaps the biggest plum to be awarded in the local development design field this year” (7B).

The center was an $82.4 million, 250,000-square-foot project housing Procter & Gamble Hall’s 2,700-seat theater, the Jarson-Kaplan Theater featuring 440 seats, the Fifth Third Bank Theater with 150 seats and the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery. The building consumes three-fourths of the

block bounded by Walnut, Main, Sixth and Seventh streets.

Cesar Pelli was born in Argentina in 1926, he later moved to the United States to study architecture at the University of Illinois. He worked for

Eero Saarinen, Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall, Gruen Associates and served as the dean of the Yale School of Architecture. In 1977 he founded

Pelli and Associates, a full-service architecture firm in New Haven, Connecticut. Pelli has earned numerous awards for his work and is most

commonly recognized as the architect of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, once the highest buildings in the world.


Cesar Pelli’s prolific career includes a wide variety of commissions around the world including shopping malls, skyscrapers, private residences, laboratories, corporate offices, arts centers and even college dormitories. Although he employs unique solutions for each project, there are some themes that he revisits repeatedly, creating a recognizable style. also be found in design of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. These themes can

First, Pelli embraces color.

This is clearly illustrated in his design of

the Pacific Design Center, a three-building complex in the heart of West Hollywood, at the corner of Melrose Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard. In 1975 the first of the three buildings in the complex was completed. This

expansive 750,000-square-foot furniture mart and design showplace (see fig. 2) is often referred to as “The Blue Whale” because it is completely covered in reflective bright blue glass.

In 1988, the second phase of the complex was added. A striking green building, (see fig. 3) also designed by Pelli, was erected complementing the existing blue structure. In 2009, a third building will complete the triad

of Pacific Design Center buildings designed by Pelli. The new addition to the complex will feature 400,000 square feet of office space packaged in two bright red towers (see fig. 4).

Another example of Pelli’s use of color can be seen in the National Airport Terminal (see fig. 5), now Ronald Reagan International Airport, in Washington D.C. Steel beams of the interior and exterior are painted an unexpected Paul Goldberger describes the hue in the book National Airport

yellow. Terminal:


The yellow color … is striking; it is stronger than a canary yellow, softer than a taxicab yellow, and it seems at first to be trying a little too hard to be endearing. Yellow for an airport? Soft colors

for any kind of large-scale civic building?

But the initial sense of Pelli’s

sweetness gives way quickly to something stronger.

in-between color turns out to be oddly likable, and to have a certain staying power. (15-16)

Pelli also incorporated color in the Four-Leaf Towers (see fig. 6) a highrise condominium complex built in 1982 in Houston, Texas. Rich brick and

terra cotta colors native to Texas inspired Pelli to incorporate warm red and mauve into the design. The tower’s distinctive red roofs and salmon pink To

exterior quickly made the towers a unique landmark in Houston’s skyline. contrast these red tones, the buildings also feature three colors of blue opaque glass and gray reflective vision glass.

Pelli explained in his book Observations for Young Architects “Glass towers are often associated with office buildings … I wanted to design simple and taut glass towers that looked residential. The color modulations make the

internal purpose visible on the exterior” (88).

The design of the Aronoff Center for the Arts also illustrates Pelli’s use of color. Red-orange brickwork was selected to reflect the tradition of brick The base of the building is wrapped in a 14-foot This honey-colored limestone also

construction in Cincinnati.

tall band of pale gold kasota limestone. covers the exterior columns.

Small square windows in the building are framed All of the brick and stonework is

in a similar shade of pale yellow.

accented with thin horizontal stripes of green Vermont slate.


Even the sidewalks surrounding the building (see fig. 7) participate in Pelli’s color strategy. The brick walkways feature the same colors used in These

the exterior of the building, artfully arranged in a pattern of grids.

color selections continue in the building interior for a consistent effect. The interior floors (see fig. 8) translate the sidewalk grid pattern into 12,000 square feet of exotic marble imported from Spain, Italy, France and Guatemala. Orange red Rosso Sicilia marble was selected by Pelli to resemble Accent stripes of pale yellow Crema

the color of the exterior red brickwork.

Valencia reflect the kasota limestone and teal green Quetzal marble mirrors the exterior green slate.

In reviewing Pelli’s extensive career of work spanning from the mid-1950’s to today one pattern is obvious, his love of glass. showcases the material in a unique way. Nearly all of his work

The effect is often a sleek surface, This

as though a tight sheath of glass has been wrapped around the building. is referred to as skins or curtain walls. John Pastier explained “Pelli

would quite likely clad his structures in a single huge glass sheet, or perhaps even shrink wrap them, if such things were technologically feasible” (16).

To create this slick exterior illusion, extremely small exterior mullions are used to support windowpanes and window corners are beveled to appear as one continuous surface. In more recent works, complex systems of insulated glass

are supported by stainless steel panels and interior trusses.

One example of Pelli’s use of glass is the Columbus Commons and Courthouse Center (see fig. 9) built in 1972 in Columbus, Indiana. From the exterior,

the building is encased in a faceted bronze glass skin, resembling an


anonymous modern office building.

This is a stark contrast to the building’s

charming Victorian small town surroundings.

Immediately inside the Commons is a lively public space featuring a two-story high room, abundant natural light from windows and a flurry of activity. building serves as a town center, indoor courtyard and meeting place. Visitors can enjoy playgrounds, sitting areas, galleries, performances, shops and eateries. The

Another clear illustration of Pelli’s use of glass is Rainbow Center Mall and Winter Garden (see fig. 10) built in 1977 in Niagara Falls, New York. main entrance welcomes visitors with a 120-foot tall glass-enclosed conservatory filled with exotic lush landscaping, small pools, stone pathways and raised walkways. The glass admits maximum amounts of natural light, The

making the building an escape from the rough winter climate of upstate New York.

A more recent example of glass in Pelli’s work can be seen in Hotel Sea Hawk, 1995, the largest hotel in Kyushu, Japan (see fig. 11). It consists of a

gently bowed vertical tower in which each floor boasts generous windows to capture expansive views of Hakata Bay. Like the Columbus Commons and

Courthouse Center and Rainbow Center Mall and Winter Garden this design also features an atrium that functions as a gathering place. Attached to the

Hotel Sea Hawk tower stands a 120-foot tall laminated glass construction with seashell-like curves. This portion of the hotel functions as a place where This area houses restaurants, bars,

guests can congregate and relax. ballrooms and conference centers.


Glass is also a major theme in the Aronoff Center for the Arts design.


curtain wall overlooking Walnut Street (see fig. 12) consists of 16,000 square feet of glass and the Seventh Street side of the building (see fig. 13) required 361 two-by-six-foot glass panels.

Pelli’s attention to glass is also obvious when visitors step into the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The main entrance doors of Procter & Gamble

Hall open to an expansive three-story room with one wall made almost entirely of glass (see fig. 14). In this towering room, exposed staircases lead up to Like Pelli’s other

floors on the Balcony, Loge and Orchestra levels.

dramatic glass rooms, this space also serves as a gathering spot, a place for guests to mingle and relax before shows or during intermissions.

Another common theme in Pelli’s work is the use of a circulation spine.


spine refers to a complex of rooms or buildings sharing one common corridor, which becomes an important artery and a dominant space in the complex. The

corridor functions like a Main Street in a small town, connecting several buildings and places with one common route.

This design strategy allows for future expansion and flexibility.

New spaces

can easily be added along the spine, stacked on top of existing spaces or specific areas can be removed. A second corridor, parallel to the first

spine could be added to accommodate extensive growth, and the two spines along with their connecting routes would function like the grid of streets in a city.

The first design in which Pelli incorporated this strategy was Teledyne Laboratories, built in 1968 in Los Angeles (see fig. 15). Most of the work

areas in the building, such as assembly, testing and laboratories could not


have windows.

Those areas were designated to one side of the spine.


other side of the spine was dedicated to common areas such as the cafeteria, drafting and administration. This important corridor features a continuous

wall of windows as a relief from the production areas encased in metal panels. The spine is two-stories tall and sprawls over 800 feet in length.

In 1969 Pelli developed a proposal for UN City (see fig. 16) in Vienna that also incorporated the spine concept. The spine strategy for this building is In this design, the main

far more complex than Teledyne Laboratories.

corridor features sloping glass panels and stretches over 1,500 feet in length. This long hallway functions as a dramatic public space for 25,000 The important artery links offices for

workers and 5,000 visitors each day.

six international organizations, 15 conference halls, seven office towers, rapid transit rail lines, parking garages, walkways, elevators and escalators. Unlike Teledyne Laboratories, UN City’s spine organizes spaces

that are horizontal and vertical, with towers up to 38 stories tall. Although the building was never constructed, Pelli’s design earned first place in a prestigious international design competition. As a disappointed

John Pastier explained “Had it been built…this might well have become one of the textbook examples of 20th-century architecture” (54).

The spine principle is also illustrated in the Long Gallery House developed in 1980 (see fig. 17). This whimsical house was never constructed; Pelli

developed the concept for a family-home-themed architecture show at Leo Castelli Gallery. This house looks like a traditional one-story home from

the street, but features a long spine running perpendicular to the sidewalk. Rooms are constructed as separate buildings that plug into the main spine. As the homeowner’s life changes more rooms can be added to the spine, or reconfigured along the spine for convenience. The house offers the owner


flexibility and choices to accommodate life’s transitions.

Rooms could be

reworked, but the building spine would always remain constant.

Pelli describes the spine in his Long Gallery House design brief published in the book Houses for Sale:

It structures the house and gives it its character.

It is a means of

circulation, the only way to reach all the rooms or to go from room to room, and it is also everything the rooms are not. also a void. It is a center but

It is a connector of different spaces or of different

family members, facilitating communication among them. (75)

The Aronoff Center for the Arts also features a circulation spine, although it is not as pronounced as the Long Gallery House. The Walnut Street side of

the building consumes nearly the entire length of the block and the spine runs parallel to the street. Visitors can enter the building at the corner

of Seventh and Walnut and walk through the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, Procter & Gamble Hall lobby, theater box offices and Jarson-Kaplan Theater lobby all in one long corridor. The hallway opens into a plaza and

Nada restaurant, (also part of the Aronoff Center for the Arts complex) at the corner of Sixth and Walnut. Like other Pelli spine configurations this

important artery connects main components of the complex, features dramatic windows and also serves as a common gathering area. Visitors can mingle, buy

tickets and relax before and after shows in the long hallway.

Cesar Pelli’s design of the Aronoff Center for the Arts is consistent with other work developed throughout his career spanning over a half-century. Although the arts facility is unique, Pelli incorporated dramatic color, extensive glass skins and a circulation spine, all themes explored


consistently in his other designs, reinforcing his distinct, recognizable style.

In 1991 the design of the Aronoff Center for the Arts was just beginning. an interview with Jerry Stein for The Cincinnati Post Pelli explained his plan for the building:


I have walked around a lot…the architectural characteristics of Cincinnati are very strong brick buildings firmly planted on the ground, very simple. They are not extroverted but very friendly. And

that is what I try to capture…without being imitative, without being nostalgic (the Center) is like a new member of a handsome and proud family. (12C)

Pelli’s design fit this vision.

The Aronoff Center for the Arts has become

an important addition to the family of buildings in downtown Cincinnati, and a friendly and welcoming place to showcase performing and visual arts. The

complex has been a success and will celebrate its 13th anniversary in late October.


Works Cited Archer, B.J. Houses for Sale. New York: Rizzoli, 1980. The Cincinnati

Bolton, Douglas.

“Designers Chosen For City's Arts Center.”

Post 1 May 1991: 7B. Goldberger, Paul, and Oscar Riera Ojeda. National Airport Terminal.

Gloucester, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2000. Pastier, John. 1980. Pelli, Cesar. Observations for Young Architects. New York: Monacelli Cesar Pelli. New York: Whitney Library of Design,

Press, 1999. Stein, Jerry. “Soaring Curved-Glass Walls Will Distinguish Arts Center.” The Cincinnati Post 5 December 1991: 12C.


Figure 1 Cesar Pelli Aronoff Center for the Arts, 1995 Cincinnati, OH


Figure 2 Cesar Pelli Pacific Design Center (Blue Building), 1975 West Hollywood, CA


Figure 3 Cesar Pelli Pacific Design Center (Green Building), 1988 West Hollywood, CA


Figure 4 Cesar Pelli Pacific Design Center (Red Building), to be completed in 2009 West Hollywood, CA


Figure 5 Cesar Pelli National Airport Terminal, 1997 Washington D.C.


Figure 6 Cesar Pelli Four-Leaf Towers, 1982 Houston, Texas


Figure 7 Cesar Pelli Aronoff Center for the Arts, 1995 (View of exterior walkways) Cincinnati, OH


Figure 8 Cesar Pelli Aronoff Center for the Arts, 1995 (View of interior floors) Cincinnati, OH


Figure 9 Cesar Pelli Columbus Commons and Courthouse Center, 1972 Columbus, Indiana


Figure 10 Cesar Pelli Rainbow Center Mall and Winter Garden, 1977 Niagara Falls, New York


Figure 11 Cesar Pelli Hotel Sea Hawk, 1995 Kyushu, Japan


Figure 12 Cesar Pelli Aronoff Center for the Arts, 1995 (View of Walnut Street side) Cincinnati, OH


Figure 13 Cesar Pelli Aronoff Center for the Arts, 1995 (View of Seventh Street side) Cincinnati, OH


Figure 14 Cesar Pelli Aronoff Center for the Arts, 1995 (View of Procter and Gamble Hall lobby) Cincinnati, OH


Figure 15 Cesar Pelli Teledyne Laboratories, 1968 Los Angeles, CA


Figure 16 Cesar Pelli UN City Proposal, 1969 Vienna, Austria


Figure 17 Cesar Pelli Long Gallery House Proposal, 1980 (No location)


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