Remembering César Pelli

South Coast Plaza pays tribute to the internationally renowned architect, César Pelli, who died at 92 on July 19 at his home in New Haven, Conn.  Pelli designed buildings which are part of an arts, culture and business hub in Orange County that South Coast Plaza’s cofounder, Henry Segerstrom, envisioned more than 50 years ago.


Henry Segerstrom (left) and Architect César Pelli (right)



Located steps away from each other in Costa Mesa, Pelli’s body of work in Orange County consists of the Plaza Tower skyscraper on Anton Blvd., the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Samueli Theater and the extension of South Coast Repertory. 

“Together, they exemplify César Pelli’s immense talent and profound understanding of the role those buildings played in fulfilling Henry’s vision of a cosmopolitan center,” said Elizabeth Segerstrom, co-managing partner at South Coast Plaza.




In 1990, the Segerstrom family selected Pelli to design Plaza Tower, one of three skyscrapers in the South Coast Plaza office building portfolio. The building opened a year later, becoming Orange County’s first commercial skyscraper clad in stainless steel – a recognizable landmark visible from the 405 freeway. At twilight, the western-facing stainless steel massive surface displays a beautiful reflection of the Southern California sunset.




Pelli told the Los Angeles Times at the time, “It was an early decision to use stainless steel. The reflections are diffused by an almost invisible pattern stamped onto the panels, eliminating hot spots in the reflection and creating a warm and lively feeling.”


Photo by Lance Gordon / McLarand Vasquez Emsiek & Partners, Inc.


For the expansion of the adjacent South Coast Repertory, which was completed in 2002, he created a new façade and lobby that flawlessly fused the original theater with the additions: a new 336-seat proscenium stage, offices and classrooms.



 Photo by RMA Photography



What followed was much larger and more ambitious in scope and scale. Nearby is the 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which opened in October 2006 after the Segerstrom family donated $40 million and the land for the hall. 

“I wanted to design a very Southern California building,” Pelli told the Orange County Register in 2005. “The undulations of the walls reflect for me a number of things: the waves of the Pacific Ocean as well as the waves of sound that will be emanating from the performers.”



Photo by RMA Photography



The façade is made of an acre of glass, which allows expansive views of the plaza below, Segerstrom Hall, “Connector,” a steel sculpture by Richard Serra, and “Fire Bird,” an aluminum and stainless steel sculpture by Richard Lippold that was integrated into the interior and exterior of Segerstrom Hall.



Photo by RMA Photography



The multi-tiered lobby features a silver leaf ceiling that invites the eye to look upward.  The Constellation lighting installation by Francesca Bettridge consists of a spiral arrangement of 300 suspended pendants illuminated by Swarovski crystal LED bulbs and made brilliant with Baccarat crystal globes. 



Photo by RMA Photography



The same silver leaf in the lobby also covers the three acoustical canopies and pipe organ in concert hall itself. The silver leaf was applied to the gently curving ribbons of each canopy, forming a shimmering ceiling that reflects the colors of the performers and audience below. Not visible to the public are the music library, two large orchestra chambers for rehearsals, eight individual rehearsal rooms, and fifteen dressing rooms.

The hall is home to the Pacific Symphony, Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Pacific Chorale. and a stop for music performers of many genres from all over the world.  

Pelli told the Los Angeles Times in 2006, “What is important is that this building is very elegant and also very relaxed. Full of dynamism, energy, faith in the future.”



Photo by RMA Photography



The last piece of Pelli’s body of work in Costa Mesa is the Samueli Theater, which he situated on the opposite end of the building housing the concert hall.




He seamlessly connected the two performing arts venues using a contiguous exterior surface of beige Portuguese limestone. The Samueli Theater, which seats up to 320, opened a month after the concert hall debuted in 2006.


Photo by RMA Photography


If there might have been an insight into Pelli’s guiding principles in designing iconic places – no matter their stature, purpose or location –  it is his simple but meaningful  sentence in the Los Angeles Times 28 years ago that remains relevant to this day: “Buildings, like people, need to be alive.”