Pennzoil Place, a pair of office buildings completed in 1976 in downtown Houston, was one of the most architecturally influential buildings constructed in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. Its combination of unusual design, high style, and shrewd entrepreneurship made Pennzoil Place a model for the generation of tall office buildings designed during the last quarter of the twentieth century. It propelled its chief designer, the New York architect Philip Johnson (b. 1906), into a new and highly productive phase in his long career. And it brought national recognition to the Houston real estate developer Gerald D. Hines (b. 1925), who by the 1990s was acknowledged to be the foremost commercial real estate developer in the United States. Pennzoil Place comprises two thirty-six-story office buildings occupying a full-block site at 711 Louisiana Street in downtown Houston. It was built and owned by the real estate development firm of Gerald D. Hines Interests. The complex's chief tenant was the Pennzoil Company. Other major tenants were the Zapata Corporation, Arthur Andersen and Company, United Energy Resources, and Bracewell and Patterson.
The two towers are 495 feet high and between them contain 1.8 million gross square feet of space. Beneath their ground floor are a basement-level concourse with connections to Houston's system of downtown pedestrian tunnels and a three-level, 550-car parking garage. The building is of welded-steel frame and concrete sheer-wall construction, supported on a reinforced concrete mat foundation with a maximum thickness of 8½ feet. The exterior curtain wall is composed of closely spaced bronze-anodized aluminum mullions and bronze-tinted double-paned solar glass. Between the two towers are a pair of glass-roofed air-conditioned plazas. Above the ground-floor level, the two towers are separated by a ten-foot-wide spatial void. Pennzoil Place was designed by Johnson/Burgee Architects of New York in association with S. I. Morris Associates of Houston. Ellisor Engineers were structural engineers, I. A. Naman and Associates were mechanical engineers, Gensler and Associates of San Francisco were architects for the Pennzoil Company interiors, and Zapata Warrior Constructors was the general contractor. Johnson/Burgee began the design in 1970. Pennzoil Place was built between 1972 and 1976 for about $50 million.
In formulating the design, Philip Johnson responded to directives from J. Hugh Liedtke, chairman of the Pennzoil Company, for a building that was dignified in appearance but not box-shaped and that admitted plentiful natural light. Real estate developer Hines wanted a building that could provide a distinctive identity for more than one major tenant. Johnson/Burgee therefore designed two buildings rather than one and imposed upon them reflective symmetry and a 45-degree geometry, visible in the splayed inner walls of both towers, their counterposed tops, and the tilted glass planes of the plaza roofs. The dark, sharply planed, counterthrust profile of the twin towers diverged so dramatically from accepted models for high-rise building design-the flat-topped slab and tower shapes popular in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s-that it revolutionized tall office building design, first in Houston, and then throughout the United States. Pennzoil Place became the symbol of Hines's skill in masterminding the development process, especially after he added two floors to each tower during construction in 1974 to meet the demand for office space, despite an economic recession that had reduced the market for office space in Houston.
After its completion, Pennzoil Place was critically acclaimed. The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable proclaimed it a "towering achievement" in her New York Times column of February 22, 1976. In 1977 it won a national Honor Award for its design from the American Institute of Architects, and in 1978 it received the R. S. Reynolds Memorial Award. It also won design awards from the Texas Society of Architects and the Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Pennzoil Place contributed to Philip Johnson's receiving the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects in 1978 and to his selection as the first winner of the Pritzker Prize in Architecture in 1979. Johnson's and Hines's achievement at Pennzoil Place was to produce an office building with the architectural quality of a corporate building while adhering to the disciplines of the speculative market. Johnson's imaginative and unconventional design provided what Hines defined as the "point of difference" that a building required in order to compete.