Pennzoil Place, 2000; photo by Richard Payne

Johnson and Oil!

Eva Hagberg

Oil. Noun. Any of a large class of substances typically unctuous, viscous, combustible, liquid at ordinary temperatures. Soluble in ether or alcohol but not in water.

Pennzoil Place. Philip Johnson. 1975. A pair of towers, full of prismatic slippage, edged up against each other on a 250-square-foot downtown Houston block. Built by developer Gerald Hines with financial and conceptual assistance from Pennzoil Board of Directors Chairman J. Hugh Liedtke. Why Johnson? One word. Menil. Another word. Dominique. Johnson is in Houston because of Dominique de Menil, scion of Schlumberger (oil-field services) money and mother of five who was, in the 1940s, in need of a house. A house Johnson would design and build in the neighborhood of River Oaks. A house almost entirely closed to the street, open only and visually through a short row of kitchen windows. So they can see out but you can’t see in.1 Why Johnson? Why modern architecture? To change Houston. To make it better than it was before. To bring the architectural avant-garde down to Texas. An importation of the New York-based architect, the social butterfly. The year of Dominique’s house: 1951. The year of Johnson’s New Canaan Glass House: 1949. The Glass House: more than just what it sounded like. A pair of houses, actually (or in fact): glass and brick, open and closed. A circular pool between them, anchoring a triangle, and a sculpture that could and maybe should have been by Mary Callery in the middle of all that. A center point. A centrifuge.

Pennzoil Place. Philip Johnson. An architect starting out. Newly trained. Politically savvy. Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, founding director of the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design. Funder of the Department of Architecture and Design. (He had millions.) Son of a businessman father and an elusive and reserved mother. A mother who showed him art, she an independent scholar whose interests ranged through stereopticons, lantern slides, sepias. Philip Johnson. A gay man in the 1950s. A gay man who hasn’t yet met David Whitney, the curator and collector who will become his partner. A gay man who builds a closed-up brick house as a counterpoint to his wide-open glass house. (But that would be too easy a read, wouldn’t it?)

Pennzoil Place. Big and black, the two towers nearly slipped together, just ten feet of distance where the towers almost meet. Between Milam and Louisiana streets, between Rusk and Capitol. Two trapezoids, one forty-five building angle, four bronze-tinted glass triangles shifting from the internal footprint out into the open space. On the basement level, a connection to other towers and the rest of downtown Houston too, as Reinhold Martin describes it, “a series of air-conditioned subterranean tunnels that crisscrosses the city.” 2 It isn’t just those towers. They go up, they go down. To the side, to the other side. A shimmy, no shake. Here they are. Insoluble.

Oil. Verb. To smear or lubricate.

Philip Johnson, young buck architect working in the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and designing his own New Canaan, Connecticut, paean to modernism (with so many historical riffs), meets oil heiress Dominique de Menil (daughter and niece of the founders of the Schlumberger oil drilling and pumping company) in New York thanks to a connection to Mary Callery, with whom he (chastely) spent the first night he ever spent in the Glass House (the Brick House, actually, if we want to get technical about it, which of course we do). Callery’s an artist of much repute, you see, and connected to the architects of the modern movement, like Mies, whom she knows (in the biblical sense.) John de Menil, husband of Dominique and a man with a plan to become a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art asks Mary on one of those mid-century New York days who should design his house now that he’s moving to Houston to take over American operations of his wife’s family’s company. Mary’s funny, so she says this: “If you want to spend $100,000 get Mies, but if you only want to spend $75,000 get Philip Johnson.” 3 Funny because Johnson needs money like a fish needs a bicycle or the Deepwater Horizon needs a match. Anyway, Mary Callery greases the wheels for Johnson to meet John, and John greases the wheels for Johnson to meet Dominique.

Philip Johnson, 1964; photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

“They were very young and very poor,” Johnson will tell Robert A.M. Stern so many years later, looking back on, let’s remember this, one of the very first houses he did for someone else. “They lived in a tract house. There was no money.” 4 That blank-front façade, so modernist, so Miesian? About that, not so modernist, not so Miesian. Just practical, really, for the (relatively to their future) “poor” de Menils before they became the beyond-rich de Menils. The poor de Menils who wanted the option to sell the land in front of their house, which is why they asked Johnson to make it a front that could work just as well as a back. Slippery, you see. Pretty slick, you know. They didn’t have to sell it, of course, as the poor de Menils became the rich de Menils through the success of the Texas oil industry, so much of it in Houston, while Dallas just kept on being the fancier, soapier blown-out brother and Houston just kept on attracting those who ran and run the wells.

It is not, as Reinhold Martin points out, that Houston was necessarily built because of oil or that the connection was so literal. It’s not as if we can draw a thought picture of an oil well pumping liquid that turns into money that turns into lubricant for Philip Johnson’s Houston projects—the Rothko Chapel, the University of St. Thomas, Williams (formerly Transco) Tower—except that actually, maybe, we pretty much can.

Strike Oil. Idiom. To have good luck, especially financially; to make an important and valuable discovery.

It was Gerald Hines, the developer, who was behind the construction of Pennzoil Place, named after the headquartering though not exclusive tenant. Hines had been, as Johnson’s biographer Frank D. Welch (one of so many) points out, “skeptical of the market value of the sloping-glass offices at the top of the buildings,” but those spaces “rented faster than the floors below.” 5 So he and Johnson and Johnson’s design partner John Burgee added two more floors to each tower, ramping up the architecture, upping the floor space. Johnson thought it hilarious: “Gerry now thinks architecture can make the difference between renting and not-renting!” 6 Architecture making a difference? Isn’t that what it’s always supposed to do?

de Menil house, Houston, 1964; Philip Johnson, architect, completed 1951; photo by Balthasar Korab

Oil changed the way Houston looks, architecturally. I ask my friend Ned, a graduate of Rice University who now works as an architect, to tell me about the relationship between Johnson and Houston and architecture. “How does Houston look because of architecture?” He gives me an answer I didn’t expect. “It’s a big, strange, and small and depressing question.”

The big guys are here, he explains, because of the de Menil family, because of the taste for the modern they brought to town. Mies van der Rohe (Cullinan Hall, 1958, and the Brown Pavilion, 1974, of the Museum of Fine Arts), Rafael Moneo (Audrey Jones Beck Building of the Museum of Fine Arts, 2000), César Pelli (halls at Rice University and the University of Houston, and the former Enron Headquarters at 1500 Louisiana Street—now occupied by Chevron). He doesn’t think Johnson would have come to Houston without the involvement of the de Menils. What luck, then, what a stroke of fortune that Johnson knew Callery and Callery knew John and John was married to Dominique.

We have to jump from Dominique to developers, though, and my friend Ned says that developers run the city, the built city at least, that they build fast and don’t ask any questions and just get paid for it. My friend tells me that strange mistakes and false starts have come about, that a lot of people get the chance to do things out here that they wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to do.

Out here. Like it’s the “Wild West,” isolated, on its own. Out here, funded by oil, the lifeline, the lifeblood of Houston. Does the touch of oil money show up in the built world? My friend describes the Exxon towers, the ConocoPhillips campus, the Shell towers, the SOM (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) projects, and then we come back to Pennzoil Place. Pennzoil seems to be the bedrock of the architectural city, the project the critics, the architects, the citizens just keep coming back to. Not all of the companies are so localized. Exxon doesn’t seem to give a shit, my friend tells me, they just drip their buildings all over the city, spurts of oil money and oil architecture landing here and there, like the deep-down well just sort of exploded, up and out and over. ConocoPhillips, for them the brand is important. To have a campus, their own campus, their own home for the 10,000 employees that work there. But that’s the contemporary way of looking at what otherwise anonymous architecture can be: a corporate campus, with football fields and flag-football games. Not what Johnson built at Pennzoil. Not the difference he produced.

My friend tells me that you know in Houston that oil is an industry. He tells me also that architecturally there’s no difference between any of the buildings or towers. It’s one marble plaza for another, he says, it’s all the same.

It wasn’t the same for Johnson, though. Pennzoil Place isn’t the same as all the others. It doesn’t just fall into the seeping black morass of a mire of oil-born architecture. Why is it different? What did it do for him?

Oil. Slang. A very good-looking man. Often has a very good sense of fashion.

1. The house also features immense glass doors, though they don’t allow any sort of substantial view into the lived areas of the house.

2. Reinhold Martin, “Liquidity and Oil” in Emmanuel Petit, ed., Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 117.

3. Frank D. Welch, Philip Johnson & Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 41.

4. Robert A.M. Stern, The Philip Johnson Tapes (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2008), 118.

5. Welch, Philip Johnson & Texas, 175.

6. Ibid.

« return to table of contents