© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Architect Philip Johnson's Texas legacy

Detail of Pennzoil Place in Houston, Texas.
Anders Lagerås
Detail of Pennzoil Place in Houston, Texas.

Architect Philip Johnson died on January 25, 2005. Some of his best work was done in Texas. TPR's Nathan Cone spoke to the author of a book about Johnson's work in the Lone Star State.

Nathan Cone: Philip Johnson designed over 20 buildings and public spaces in Texas, more than any other place, even New York. Patrons John and Dominique de Menil jump-started the great architect's career in the Lone Star State with their commissions to design not only their Houston home, but the University of Saint Thomas. Johnson's major works in Texas include the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Dallas, the Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Water Gardens, Corpus Christi's Art Museum of South Texas, and several large projects in Houston. Frank Welch is the author of "Philip Johnson & Texas" and says Johnson was attracted to Texas because Texans liked him so much.

Frank Welch: He was very charismatic. He was cosmopolitan, but he was also very self-effacing and he didn't take himself seriously at all. He took architecture very seriously and the art of architecture very seriously. No one spoke about it as eloquently as he did, and he was an advocate of practicing architecture as an art to his last days.

Nathan Cone: Houston embraced Johnson more than any other city in Texas. Johnson once claimed that he did his best work in the city. Projects there include the Williams (Transco) Tower and its accompanying water wall. Bank of America Center-- now Republic Bank Center -- a modern day cathedral to commerce with its gothic influence, and Johnson's breakthrough work in Houston, Pennzoil Place, built in 1976. You may have seen it. That's the building with "the crack down the middle," as Johnson once joked. Welch says Pennzoil Place exemplifies Johnson's elegance and playfulness.

Frank Welch: It presented to the public both a very sober building, and it is very sober. It's rigorous and in the detailing of its glass and bronze skin. But it's also playful. And, you know, it's like a monstrous child's toy. The story I got was from the man who built it, a man named Liedtke, who was chairman of Pennzoil. Liedtke said he didn't want any flattop buildings. They already had the sort of greenhouse roof lobby at the base of a model that he was showing Liedtke. Liedtke said "I don't want a flattop building," And Johnson just picked this picked this greenhouse part of the model off of the model, picked it up, and put it on top of the building. And he says, "You mean you want something like this?" That is how the two buildings got the anglular tops. I love the story, because that's the way he was. You know, he was puckish. He didn't take himself very seriously.

Nathan Cone: Some of Johnson's commissions in Texas were a bit of a burr under the saddle of folks, though. Take the stark, white Kennedy Memorial in Dallas' Dealey Plaza.

Frank Welch: Well, the Kennedy Memorial in Dallas has always been kind of controversial because it was so... Well, it was minimalist to begin with. And, you know, Texans weren't know noted for being minimalist. But you know, it gets better all the time. I never I've always liked it. But as time has passed and they've cleaned it up and it has an enduring kind of moving quality as a memorial to John F Kennedy. There's a quietness about it. I think Johnson was right on the mark with it. I mean, how do you design a memorial for a slain president, for goodness sakes, and without a statue or something? And I asked him once about a statue. He said, "oh, we would never put a statue in there." You know, so funny.

Nathan Cone: Johnson's work changed with the times. Welch says Johnson hated boredom, and that's what caused him to keep modifying his style. But there are a few things that signify Johnson's work.

John F. Kennedy Memorial in Dallas.
Photographer: Carol M. Highsmith
Library of Congress
John F. Kennedy Memorial in Dallas.