Pennzoil Place: Reflections and Parallels

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    Pennzoil Place: Reflections and Parallels

    By Kaylan
    May 8, '15 7:58 PM EST

    Pennzoil Place is the home of Pennzoil’s office spaces of Houston, Texas. The architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee partner with a local Houston architecture firm, S.I. Morris Associates, in order to create Pennzoil Place and complete it in 1975. Philip Johnson is well-known for his modernist designs, and he introduced a post-modernism era. Pennzoil Place became Johnson’s first ever post-modernist building. This revolutionary piece of architecture became one of Houston’s most award-winning skyscrapers, and it continues to bring a dramatic silhouette to the Houston skyline. For the first time, architects think outside the “modernist glass box” design and give Pennzoil Place a unique identity. Pennzoil is thirty-six stories high with a dazzling trapezoidal shape, forty-five-degree geometry, and reflective symmetry. Pennzoil Place is composed of brown glass and aluminum, which are meant to help lower costs of construction and function. The brown glass is reflective and this helps workers tolerate the Texas heat during the summer, which dramatically lowers energy costs and consumption. Aluminum is a strong metal yet light and relatively inexpensive, which makes Pennzoil’s metal frame quite extraordinary. Pennzoil Place also has a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot high atrium in the shape of a pyramid, which gives guests a “larger than life” experience, despite the fact that Pennzoil Place is certainly not Houston’s tallest building. Pennzoil Place went through a long process in order to become the skyscraper it is today, and many events in the world of architecture, art, and even politics, led to the world’s first glance of post-modernism (Pennzoil Place, 2015).

    Charles Jenks declared the modernist movement’s time of death: July 15, 1972, at 3:32 P.M. in St. Louis, Massachusetts. Soon after, postmodernism began to emerge from the rubble of monotheistic ideals of the international style. Modernism failed. It has fallen. Instead of trying to save the world through architecture, postmodern architects chose to celebrate it. Postmodernists revisit classical examples for inspiration, while introducing a new take on ornament and wit in architecture. (Saylor Academy, 2011, p. 1) Pennzoil Place, Johnson’s first postmodern skyscraper, deprives elements from ancient Egyptian architecture such as monumentality, symmetry, and unique elements of local Houston culture. Pennzoil Place has achieved monumentality, just as the great Pyramids have, through its numerous awards and becoming a recognizable symbol of Houston’s Central Business District. Pennzoil Place continues to look to the east with its reflective symmetry and symmetrical balance, with is prominent in ancient Egypt’s religious artwork and everlasting architecture. Lastly and most importantly, Pennzoil Place celebrates and reflects local culture, which was also deeply seated in ancient Egyptian architecture and art. The Egyptian way of life was widespread throughout the land, celebrated and cherished. For this same reason, the rise of hip pop culture of the ‘70’s sparked the idea of Postmodernism, which led to an iconic masterpiece (Bell, 1915). Tucker stated in her writing for The New Museum News In 1980: “The decade of the 1970s has been marked by a shift away from simple, primary forms in painting…” The era of 1960s mainstream art is over, and no particular style is especially appreciated more than another. In the middle of all the anti-war protests of the 1960s, women and those of the Queer community demanding civil rights used many mediums in order to convey their demand for equality, including paintings, video, conceptual art, and body art (Feminist Art Movement, 2014). In the 1970s, men and women alike took part in many artistic endeavors such as the long-living feminist art, pop art, contemporary art, and even music. Much of 1970s art are all about exposing and celebrating popular culture, which is clearly reflected in architecture.

    In 1973, the World Trade Center was built in New York City, nicknamed the “Twin Towers.” The Twin Towers were, for a time, the tallest buildings in the world. Naturally, the towers had a modernist look a plain rectangular-prism shape and flat roofs. This project marked the beginning of the skyscraper, and its impressive altitude became the secret weapon companies used to squash their competition. Economics is not the only reason why the skyscraper is one of the most important developments of the modern world. Today, they are seen everywhere around the globe. Skyscrapers began with the idea of verticality, and no architect understood this better than Louis Sullivan: “It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exultation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unity without single dissenting line” (Weiner, 2000, p. 14). Even though skyscrapers are powerful, they come with a massive electricity bill.

    Despite the efforts to keep costs to a minimum through the design itself, Pennzoil Place was not energy efficient, and the economy was facing a crisis. The U.S. became involved with the Vietnam War in 1964 without an official declaration of war, and the futile efforts took a blow at the US economy, and they did not withdraw troops until 1973. (Vietnam War Timeline, 2015). Despite the Nixon administration’s efforts, the economy was experiencing major inflation (Hetzel, 1998). The trade deficits, or debts, begin to rise higher and higher every year since 1971. The debts started small at about two million American dollars, and then practically tripled by 1972. At this point, the United States has entered a “dollar crisis” (Dezhao, 2006). With the ‘60’s population growth came energy consumption growth spurts. This was the beginning of an energy crisis. Many energy companies couldn’t keep up with the population’s consumption of electricity, and even the oil industry couldn’t catch up with how much oil and fuel the factories required in order to keep daily operations running smoothly. In 1974, only a short time before Pennzoil Place was built, the prices of foreign oil became six times higher. As a result, the costs of various goods increased along with inflation in the economy, and an increase in the cost of construction (Energy Crisis, 2015). Soon, companies begin to take action against the high energy and oil consumption, including Pennzoil. Pennzoil partnered with Energy Star, U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and took part in the U.S. Department of Energy: White House for Better Buildings Challenge. (Pennzoil Place, 2015) Because of these efforts, sustainability became an important aspect of building.

    After many events and movements in art, politics, and architecture, the world’s first glance of post-modernism came to life in Pennzoil Place. The award-winning skyscraper marks the beginning of looking for new ideas in architecture while also having the means of building these ideas from the ground-up into the heavens in an ethical way. Today, Pennzoil still stands unique and fresh among the vast Houston cityscape. This building is not only a structure, a frame, or a merely materialistic thing. It provides for the most basic, and also the most complex, needs and comforts of visitors and workers. A building such as Pennzoil Place embraces an architecture of balance, identity, and unity. Because of this, Pennzoil Place is a great building; a great sculpture.


    Bell, E. (1915). The Architecture of ancient Egypt: A historical outline. London: G. Bell.

    Dezhao, Chen. (2006) China Institute of International Studies.

    Energy Crisis of the 1970s. (18, Feb. 2015)              powering/past/history3.htm

    Feminist Art Movement, The. (2014).

    Pennzoil Place (18, Feb.2015).            geofire/BDPW?conid=231347395&id_site=19962413&id_client_site_rel=0

    Saylor Academy. (2011). Postmodern Architecture. Postmodern Architecture, 1-9. Retrieved March 28, 2015, from architecture.pdf

    Tucker, Marcia (1980) The New Museum News.                index.php/Detail/Occurrence/Show/occurrenceid/1510

    Vietnam War Timeline, A. (18, Feb. 2015).            /maps/vietnam/timeline.htm

    Weiner, F., & O'Brien, M. (2000). Sweet Tectonic: Observations on an American Tectonic.Sweet Tectonic: Observations on an American Tectonic, 1-33. Retrieved March 28, 2015, from

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About this Blog

I will be writing about Pennzoil Place, located in Houston Texas. This includes the history surrounding the building, design concepts, and the economics of building. Enjoy!

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  • Pennzoil Place: Reflections and Parallels
    May 8 '15