At 81, award-winning architect Cesar Pelli shows no sign of losing his passion and energy for designing buildings. We meet for breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, on the upper floors of the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower. The building is a Pelli design. Although unmistakably modern, the 41-storey, glass-clad structure sits comfortably within its neo-classical surroundings and has already been declared an Important Cultural Asset by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government under a programme to encourage preservation of historical buildings. It also illustrates Pelli's intuitive understanding of local aesthetics and helps explain why his firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli (PCP), has enjoyed success in Japan's complex construction world. Architects are not generally known for their humility, but Pelli is an exception. Despite having designed some of the tallest and most striking buildings in the world, from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong's Two IFC, he eschews the unseemly race to build the latest most iconic building. 'That shouldn't be important to anybody. People compare a tower in Shanghai against another tall tower in Dubai, but what is so fascinating about this?' he says. 'They will never be seen next to each other, so why make the comparison? It's so abstract.' Competing to be the most innovative or distinctive building 'is a sure fire way of not making cities', he adds. 'A city is made of buildings and each one should be elegant in itself and with each other. It's like a grouping of very civilised individuals who must get on. Not all can, or should be, such iconic structures. Look at Dubai: it is absolutely tiring just looking at all the buildings competing. 'But some buildings must reflect their position. The [Two] IFC in Hong Kong occupies one of the most beautiful sites in the world and is adjacent to the narrowest crossing of Victoria Harbour. The tower was designed to create a new gateway to the city and strike a simple, strong and memorable presence - a great obelisk at the scale of the city and the harbour.' Pelli laughs when I say that many Japanese believe they alone fully appreciate the complexities and nuances of life in Japan and are therefore best suited to design in their country. 'Good design is universal,' he replies, 'and besides, Japanese architects design successfully elsewhere just like us.' He is quick to agree, however, that building in Japan is a unique experience. 'Regional differences are disappearing very fast around the world, so designing a building in Hong Kong is similar to one for Chicago. Both are international cities with global standards. But in Japan the process is still very different. Design-build standards here are not found anywhere else. The quality of construction is phenomenal. The Japanese have a level of precision you don't get anywhere else.' Fred Clarke, Senior Principal and co-founder of PCP in 1977, attributes the firm's success to its willingness to adapt. 'This is one of the most gratifying places on earth to get a building built because things are done so extraordinarily well. Rather than trying to change Japan to accommodate our American training, education and style, we decided we would try to become 'Japanese'. 'So we relaxed all the procedural and contractual issues that other international architects get so heated up about and decided to accommodate ourselves to the style of work and the value systems here. That is the reason we have done repeat work here, unlike other American architects.' Although widely seen as a modern architect, Pelli, who is also one of Henderson Land Development's architects for the West Kowloon Cultural District, rejects the idea that he has a distinctive style. 'Each building is different. I have always tried to respond to each problem in its own terms and in its own time,' he says. Alistair Gough, redevelopment director for the Tokyo American Club, confirms it was an appreciation of the club's unique needs that led to PCP's appointment as master architects to design 20,000 square metres of new business, leisure, recreation and dining facilities. 'Their ability to work well within a committee-led decision-making environment is what helps make a highly complex project like the current redevelopment of the club possible.' Any design flows from analysing the nature of the project, the people you are designing for and the site, says Pelli, but inspiration for the final form is always a surprise. 'Sometimes you have a great central idea because you can immediately perceive an elegant design from the form. Sometimes the design jumps out at you at once. Sometimes it is step by step and other times you crawl. But you get there in the end.' Unusually for a global practice, PCP operates out of one office in New Haven, Connecticut. 'I want the design to be my design and if my team is very far away from me it will not be mine,' says Pelli. 'Contact with the process is very important. Even though I trust their aesthetic judgment implicitly, by the time you see the design at the end, too many things have happened. I really don't understand very famous architects who have eight to 10 offices all around the world.' Argentinean-born Pelli has adapted to different cultures before. He studied architecture at Universidad Nacional de Tucuman before moving, aged 26, to the US, where he worked with his mentor, Eero Saarinen, from 1954-64. He went on to found Cesar Pelli & Associates [now PCP], which has won more than 200 awards for design excellence, and to become dean of the Yale University School of Architecture. He resigned as dean in 1985, but continues to lecture and write extensively. In 1991 he was recognised by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) as 'one of the 10 most influential living American architects'. In 1995 the AIA awarded Pelli its Gold Medal in recognition of a lifetime of distinguished achievement and outstanding contributions. In 2004 he won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the design of the Petronas Towers. When asked what is the biggest challenge facing young architects today, Pelli says, 'Globalisation. Architecture used to be very regional. Once you were established, your work was secure but today's young architects must be highly mobile and compete for work all over the world.' With a sense of mischief, he adds: 'One thing I know for sure about the future is that it is not going to be how we imagine it! So I decide on the building for today but it will have to fend for itself as time goes by, like a child.' A waiter, noticing we are deep in conversation and ignoring the hotel buffet, appears with two fresh salads. Pelli smiles and graciously accepts the plate, although miso-dressed lettuce is not his usual breakfast fare. 'I've been lucky,' he says, smiling. 'There are many things that interest me, but nothing that comes close to architecture. I don't play golf or do any of those other things. Architecture really is my life.'