Pennzoil Place is a high-rise office tower built in 1976 at 711 Louisiana Street in downtown Houston, Texas. Johnson/ Burgee Architects designed the building. It has a modernist approach that manipulates geometry. Here, a geometric concept inspired by the need to avoid creating straight, uninterrupted towers developed while giving the design exceptional visual clarity. The architects were able to” break away from the archetypal American sky-scraper — cold, inhuman, and static — through the selection of warm construction materials and a trapezoid design which helps to top up the towers in a very imaginative way, bending the side walls 45° to form a sort of a slanted roof” (Johnson, 1979). 

Pennzoil Place by Gensler - Sheet1
Pennzoil Place, Houston, Texas, Johnson/Burgee (architects), Gerald Hines (developer), 1976_© https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pennzoil-place

This was done so under the directives from J. Hugh Liedtke, Chairman of the Pennzoil Company, for “a building that was dignified in appearance but not box-shaped.” Gerald D. Hines Interests, the developer, wanted a sky-scraper that could provide a distinctive identity for more than one major tenant since it would serve as a commercial office tower and corporate headquarters for major corporations. The owners created an innovative marketing strategy focused on location and gaining visibility.

Structure and construction

It is made up of two 115-foot-tall glass atriums that connect two 36-story trapezoidal towers. These are made of dark bronze glass and aluminum divided by a ten-foot-wide spatial space. This forced them to conform to reflecting symmetry and a 45-degree geometry, shattering the then-dominant modernist glass box, which is why it is noteworthy in the architectural world.

The plaza on the ground floor has been enclosed by glass and supported by white steel trusswork. This enclosure protected pedestrians from external elements such as light, harsh winds, and street traffic. It is also used as a retail space sometimes. 

The central construction system used in the project includes steel frames, concrete cores, and a glass curtain wall. The two buildings are conjoined at the base by an enclosed bridge with a triangular cross-section that visually links the two towers into one building. It has been designed to look like it is floating in the air. According to Eli Atta, an architect who worked on the project, “Growing from the ground in obedience to strict morphological discipline, the two buildings form a single composition of distinct profile.” The tops of the building are neither walls nor roofs. Instead, the two opposite-facing exterior glass walls at the 30th level tilt inward to provide enclosures for executive offices that resemble skylights. Morphologically, the combined form of the buildings is a modified form of an octahedron (Eli Attia Architect).

Pennzoil Place by Gensler - Sheet2
Geometry_©Eli Attia Architect

The aluminum mullions of the curtain wall project out from the glass surface and are spaced 2.5 feet apart for a more solid appearance and greater flexibility while planning the interior of the offices. Interestingly, the famous architecture firm Gensler took to themselves to design the interior of their offices inside Pennzoil Place.

Pennzoil Place by Gensler - Sheet3
Plans and sections of Pennzoil Place_©Published in William Marlin, “Pennzoil Place,” Architectural Record, vol. 160, no. 7 (November 1976): 102.

Taking advantage of the climate

Houston’s climate and the air-conditioned lifestyle it engendered were part of Johnson’s design philosophy. “It is the best climate in the world,” he said, “and we ought to use it.” He employed reflective glass, which allows for views of both the interior and outdoor scenery while reflecting light and heat away from people. It also permits additional pedestrian traffic flow around the buildings. 

Interior ground floor of Pennzoil Place, where two main tenants share an elevator lobby, Houston, Texas_©Johnson/Burgee (architects), Gerald Hines (developer), 1976.

Innovation and Additional Information

Famous New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable honored Pennzoil Place with the title “Building of the Year” in 1975 for its bold geometric and artistic silhouette to the Houston skyline. Furthermore, since the ownership was foresighted and made significant investments in the future, the structure continues to win accolades. Pennzoil Place was nominated in Houston’s Urban Land Institute’s 8th Annual Development of Distinction Awards after winning the 2014 Digie Award for the “Most Intelligent Office Building” in 2015 (Pennzoil Place Website).

With the help of Cisco’s “Smart+Connected” buildings framework, which improves data/communications, physical security, and building automation capabilities, Pennzoil Place is pleased to be the first commercial building in Houston to use a fiber optic network for IT communication. This makes it possible to provide more tenant comfort, respond more quickly, and use energy as efficiently as possible (Pennzoil Place Website).

In May 1976, Deutsche Bank and other partners in a West German investment group bought a 90 percent interest in the Pennzoil Place building for $100 million (Barbara, 2020). 

References:

Attia, E. (no date) More about – selected projects, EliAttiaArchitect. Available at: https://eliattiaarchitect.com/more-about-%E2%80%94-selected-projects.html (Accessed: October 29, 2022). 

Henshaw, Barbara. “Design powerhouse has put its stamp on Houston’s skyline”. DowntownHouston.org. Houston Downtown Management District.

Johnson, P., & Burgee, J. (1979). “Pennzoil” Place – Houston – (EE.UU.). Informes De La Construcción, 31(307), 11–18.

 Marlin W., “Pennzoil Place,” Architectural Record, vol. 160, no. 7 (November 1976)

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Currently an architecture student who is working on broadening her skill set. Madiha is enthusiastic about helping and making a positive impact amongst the youth. She is a collaborative team- player as well as individualist, always looking forward to achieving goals and delivering guidance while continuing to master interpersonal skills.

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