The Texas Society of Architects has bestowed its 25-Year Award for 2018 on Pennzoil Place in Houston. Designed by architects Philip Johnson & John Burgee and S. I. Morris Associates for Houston investment builder Gerald D. Hines Interests, the twin-towered, 36-story office building was completed in 1976. Pennzoil Place, a sensation when it opened, has withstood cycles of stylistic change in architecture to achieve the status of a classic.
Pennzoil Place changed the course of high-rise architectural design: Diverging from the models of engineering rationalism and efficiency associated with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in the 1950s and ’60s, Pennzoil Place showcases the free-spirited play with spectacular geometry that is characteristic of the 21st century. Johnson and Burgee derived Pennzoil’s twin tower arrangement, and much else (the towers’ reflectively symmetrical trapezoidal plan configuration, the peaked sections — even the slope of the glass canopies sheltering the entry lobbies) by responding to the directives of Hines’s client for the complex, Pennzoil Chairman J. Hugh Liedtke. As Frank D. Welch wrote in his book, “Philip Johnson and Texas,” Liedtke was emphatic that he did not want a flat-topped orthogonal tower like the one the Chicago office of SOM had just completed for Hines in downtown Houston with One Shell Plaza. Working with a 45-degree geometry in plan and section, Johnson and his associate, John Manley, devised the diagonal planes and profile that give Pennzoil Place its distinctive edge.
The stunning critical success that Pennzoil Place experienced — Ada Louise Huxtable declared it a “towering achievement,” in The New York Times, upon its completion; it won an AIA design award in 1977; and it contributed to Johnson being named the first winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979 — was mirrored in its success in the marketplace. Although Houston was experiencing the economic aftershock of the Arab Oil Embargo as Pennzoil Place was under construction, Hines added two floors to each tower to keep up with demand for space.
Pennzoil Place was instrumental in elevating Hines’s profile nationally from that of a mere client to a “patron” of architecture. And it projected Johnson/Burgee into a new professional role as an immensely successful corporate architectural firm.
Today, Pennzoil is boxed in by taller buildings — one of which is the Bank of America Center, designed by Johnson and Burgee for Hines. In contrast to its neighbors, however, Pennzoil Place seems timeless: It is as precise, crisp, and architecturally authoritative as when new.
Stephen Fox is a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.