Oh, the tension... should I be concerned, or estatic? Cesar Pelli, designer of breathtaking skyscrapers across the globe, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, has been selected to design Duke's Central Campus. My first reaction, I must confess, is that of euphoria. Pelli's towers, to my eye, comprise a truly ridiculous percentage of the most beautiful, inspiring, and striking skyscrapers in the world. The more I look at his portfolio, the more I'm struck at how he seems to have designed what I would pick as the "best skyscraper in town" in a number of cities. I was very sad to see the Petronas Towers lose the "world's tallest building" crown to Taipei 101 a few years ago. Much as I like the city of Chicago, having the Sears Tower be the world's tallest was an embarrassment. It's ugly and boring. The Petronas Towers, on the other hand, are just downright breathtaking. And now Pelli's coming to Durham—just a few blocks from my house. My gut response is to jump up and do the happy dance.
Here's the problem, though: Pelli's skyscrapers are amazing, but looking at his portfolio, when it comes to lower design, I'd give him about a C+, mostly because of how he relates to the street. Gary has spent over a year railing against the preponderance of glass and steel, and while I'd say Pelli does it better than just about anyone else, steel is his bread and glass is his butter. Much of the Freelon Group designs for downtown that I wince at reach for the same elements as Pelli's designs. I think my beef is this: it's one thing to have them soaring up in the sky, but quite a different thing for them to be down on the ground, where they can overwhelm what should be human-scaled space.
Pelli's not a complete failure here—he has some examples where his designs remain in dialog with the street. On the other hand, there are plenty of bad or goofy facades that show a lack of understanding of an urban street.
It's been my hope that the new design of Central Campus would allow it to be a meeting point between Durham and Duke, opening up to Anderson St. and tying in with the neighborhoods to the north. As much as I'd love to have a fresh new Pelli tower rising up from the old Elkins Chrysler dealership location, I worry that given Duke's paranoia about Durham, the result may be disappointing.