New Science Center's Architect Brings Passion For State To Work Pelli's Aerie Provides A View
September 25, 2004
By TOM PULEO, Courant Staff Writer
Cesar Pelli works by feel - whether he's designing a building, cooking his own meals or grabbing a comfortable turquoise denim shirt from his closet.
So when he applied to become the architect of downtown Hartford's new science center in May, he got into his Buick and took a ride up. He wanted to get a better sense of the Connecticut River he knew would power his design.
He strolled onto Riverfront Plaza and let the sun and scenery wash over him. He envisioned himself floating high above the riverbanks, soaring.
It was then that Pelli hatched his idea to hang an eagle's nest observation deck just beneath the planned 140-foot-high cantilevered roof of the building he designed. The nest and roof will extend over I-91 toward the river like a "magic carpet ride."
"You let yourself be taken in by the landscape," Pelli said Friday. "It's like listening to good music. Don't try to think it through, you just take it in."
The lanky, easygoing architect - unanimously selected Friday by the board of trustees of the Connecticut Center for Science & Exploration - predicted that the deck would help draw some of the 400,000 yearly visitors that the science center hopes to attract to the site at Adriaen's Landing.
"When there's been a deep snow, or the foliage is blazing, or there's morning light in spring, you'll want to go up and look at that landscape," he said Friday in his Chapel Street office in New Haven. "You would say, `My God, what a privilege it is to live in Connecticut.'"
The observation deck, known as an "aerie," is one of many features that impressed the trustees enough to name Pelli the winner Friday of an international design competition. In selecting Pelli over three other finalists, the board also announced $10.5 million in new pledges from its own members.
Another Pelli strength is passion. At age 77, the grandfather of two showed more enthusiasm than his peers this week while unveiling his model in public. He said the project carries deep personal meaning for him as a Connecticut resident whose job has taken him across the globe and back.
Science center board members noticed the zeal - important for a project that will require enormous collaboration to get built by October 2007, an aggressive timetable by museum standards. Pelli's budget for his design was also within the $100 million budget organizers had set for the actual building.
"Cesar Pelli's firm was absolutely the most passionate about putting together the kind of team that we need here," selection committee Chairwoman Cheryl Chase said Friday in announcing Pelli as the winner.
Pelli prevailed over Moshe Safdie and Associates Inc.; Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner; and Zaha Hadid Architects.
Pelli is perhaps best known for designing the 88-floor Petronas Twin Towers, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - considered the world's tallest buildings when erected in 1996. That distinction now belongs to the Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan.
A former dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University, Pelli is a city guy who believes in social art. From the public-oriented Winter Garden at New York's World Financial Center to the intimate scale of his Computing and Engineering Center at Trinity College, Pelli's work always pays attention to civic dimensions. He also designed the Village Apartments at the University of Hartford.
"I'm very fond of cities," he said. "Urban centers are where everything comes together - people of different ages, different ethnic groups, different incomes. Suburbs are not like that. Suburbs tend to segregate and separate people."
At nine stories high, Pelli's design was the tallest among the four. The building would rise from Columbus Boulevard via a three-level garage podium, and then climb to a glass, light-filled public room - called "Science Alley" - designed to connect the complex with the river. Exhibits and galleries would be located throughout the mostly glass structure.
Another distinguishing feature is a 50-feet wide by 60-feet tall animated movie screen that will sit above Columbus Avenue. Pelli plans to run science-centered shows touching on anything from ecology to the planet system.
"There's a wealth of film out there today on scientific achievements," he said.
Pelli also is bullish on the educational nature of his building. The observation deck will include exhibits explaining the past, present and future of the Connecticut River. It will be open year-round and include space for about 12 people at the window and a couple dozen more inside the observation area.
The board donations include the Pfizer Foundation, $5 million; United Technologies Corp., $2 million; the Aetna Foundation, $1.5 million; Cheryl Chase & Stuart Bear Family Foundation and the Rhoda and David Chase Family Foundation, $1 million; The Hartford Financial Services Group, $500,000; and Steven A. Denning & Roberta Denning Bowman, $500,000.
The contributions put the center within $26 million of its goal of $150 million. The project, with a $50 million budget for programs and exhibits, includes about $107 million in state funds or bonding.
Visit www.ctnow.com/science to read more on the design competition.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at