With numerous taller towers now prominent on Austin’s skyline — and even more on the way — the 33-story Frost Bank Tower at 401 Congress Avenue isn’t quite the symbol of the “New Austin” it once was at the time of its opening in 2004, remaining the city’s tallest building only until the completion of the 360 Condominiums in 2008. But as the first really architecturally iconic tower to rise here since the 1980s, the building’s striking pyramidal glass crown and other aspects of its design from acclaimed architecture firm Duda/Paine subjected the structure to a level of scrutiny that new projects around here just don’t face these days, now that the appearance of something tall and new downtown is less of a shock and more of a Tuesday.
Comparisons to a nose hair trimmer and accusations of meritless artistry aside, it’s now been long enough since its construction that many locals now consider the Frost Tower a symbol of an older Austin, comparing it to newer buildings with a genuine sense of nostalgia — you’ll even see folks bitterly lament that bigger towers are reducing its visibility in the skyline. But two decades ago, the building symbolized something more meaningful even before it left the ground. The Frost Tower’s start of work on November 27, 2001, reportedly made the development by national real estate firm Cousins Properties the first tower plan in America to move forward after the 9/11 attacks, a tragedy marking its 20th anniversary this weekend that threw the future of tall buildings completely into question at the time.
Though our return to architectural normalcy didn’t take long, concerns over the new form of high-rise terrorism introduced in the attacks led some in the design community to wonder if the era of skyscrapers had actually reached a bitter end — alongside public reluctance to work in tall buildings after the attacks, architects were now forced to reckon with the chilling thought that tall, iconic buildings might simply represent larger targets rather than marvels of art and engineering.
These fears eventually formed a silver lining — “a renaissance of tall building design” — as the lessons learned from the collapse of the World Trade Center informed the rise of a new generation of towers designed with modern safety standards formed in direct response to the contingencies of 9/11 previously thought unthinkable. As the first in the nation to move forward after the attacks, the Frost Tower arguably marks the true start of that modern era, and remains a symbol of strength in downtown even as newer towers redefine what we consider iconic height on the Austin skyline.