Lessons from a living legend: The architect's developer, Gerald Hines

Over a span of nearly 30 years, Gerald D. Hines and Philip Johnson teamed to create more than a dozen groundbreaking commercial developments.

October 14, 2016 |

For the cover of “Raising the Bar: The Life and Work of Gerald D. Hines,” the real estate pioneer posed with his signature development, Houston’s Pennzoil Place, as the backdrop. 

My life is rather good, but it’s negligible compared to what that man has done for the art of architecture.” It’s not every day that a Pritzker Laureate heaps praise on a commercial real estate developer. But that’s just want happened during a 1998 lecture by the late postmodern design pioneer Philip Johnson.

Reminiscing about his collaborations with Gerald D. Hines, Johnson gushed over the Houston developer, calling Hines his “mentor and Medici,” adding, “Everything I’ve done, and everything I’ve been, I owe to Gerry Hines.”

Over a span of nearly 30 years, Hines and Johnson teamed to create more than a dozen groundbreaking commercial developments. The unlikely duo—Hines a Gary, Ind.-born math whiz who carried a slide rule in his suit jacket pocket all of his professional life; Johnson, a Harvard-educated, East Coast design elite best known for his Glass House and work with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—threw the developer-architect rulebook out the window in creating some of Hines’ most daring—and successful—developments.

Most notable is Houston’s Pennzoil Place, with its twin, 36-story trapezoidal towers. Some credit the acclaimed project, completed in 1975, with sparking a reconnection between architecture and commercial real estate development in the U.S. “After Pennzoil, everyone wanted something other than a box, it seemed,” wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in 2012.

The Hines-Johnson alliance is one of countless stories chronicled by author Mark Seal in a new 464-page book about the developer’s career and life, “Raising the Bar: The Life and Work of Gerald D. Hines.”

The book offers a glimpse into the man who, fresh out of Purdue University in 1948 with a degree in mechanical engineering, road tripped to Houston with little money and no place to live. In less than a decade, Hines was developing warehouses and small office buildings throughout the city. By the late 1960s, he was working on what would become some of the city’s most iconic buildings: One Shell Plaza, The Galleria, and later Pennzoil Place and Williams Tower.

Through his stories and projects, Hines, who turns 91 this year, offers a wealth of lessons in real estate development. A few that stuck out:

Know how to spot an opportunity. Hines was one of the first developers to gamble on the idea of high-rise living in Houston when he planned the 16-story Willowick apartment complex in 1963. While others questioned his move, Hines had a trick up his sleeve. He spotted a niche market that wasn’t being served: housing for widows, who preferred the security and efficiency of high-rise living over single-family homes.

Take pride in ownership. While other developers profit from flipping their properties, Hines favors the build-and-hold strategy. “I didn’t think anybody built them better than I did,” he said. “I believed they’d be worth more in the future.”  

Harness the power of great architecture. From Bruce Graham to Gyo Obata to Johnson, Hines invested in quality design because he realized the market was willing to pay for something that is truly unique. Great architecture makes good business sense.

For anyone who is fascinated by the world of commercial real estate development, “Raising the Bar” is a must-read. Let’s just hope that Hines’ lifelong passion for creating great buildings inspires a new breed of holistic, design-minded developers.

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