David Vaculin is not an architect. Thankfully, he’s not letting that slow him down.
After our article last month about the common, yet difficult-to-define notion of the “signature tower,” Vaculin, who lives in Round Rock, contacted me with his own thoughts on the subject. He may not be an architect himself — by day, he designs electrical systems for industrial facilities — but he worked for an architect back in the 1980s after studying drafting and design at Central Texas College in Killeen. He says he’s always held a fascination with the design of buildings and towers in particular, so as you might imagine, he’s followed downtown Austin’s growth closely.
Still, Vaculin’s gone one step further than even the most committed skyscraper enthusiast — for more than 10 years, he’s worked on his own design for a downtown Austin tower, one I think you’ll agree would qualify as a signature building for the city.
Say hello to the Star Tower — a downtown observation structure clocking in at 1,111 feet, which made it the city’s tallest building by a lot back when Vaculin first designed it in 2008, and it still slightly beats our tallest planned towers more than 10 years later. The building’s public observation deck, housed below a giant three-dimensional star that looks somewhat like the San Jacinto Monument if it were nearly twice as big, would provide views of downtown and the surrounding area for 40 to 50 miles in all directions.
Here’s the official description from Vaculin’s original proposal for the tower, which he says he designed with drafting software AutoCAD and shopped around to “several developers” starting back in 2008:
STAR TOWER is an observation tower to view Austin and the surrounding 40-50 miles in all directions. The tower is topped with a three-dimensional five-pointed star, illuminated from within. The star is roughly 141 feet tall. From street-level to the apex point of the star is 1,111 feet, making it by far the tallest structure in Austin. With several 700 to 800-foot buildings planned for downtown, the height of STAR TOWER is not out of place.
The upper levels of the tower, from 835 to 961 feet, would contain an enclosed observation level, a lounge, a revolving restaurant, and an open-air observation level. For the daredevil among us, the open-air observation level would offer to a safety-harnessed individual a 360-degree, no-railing Skywalk at 930 feet above the street. The highest levels in the tower, up to 1,057 feet, would be inside the star itself, possibly used as private restaurant dining rooms or rentable conference rooms.
— David Vaculin, Star Tower Design Document, 2008
So, how do y’all feel about letting this guy design every new building downtown? The safety-harnessed Skywalk feature he describes is less bonkers than you think — they do the exact same thing at Toronto’s CN Tower, and I’m sure the fine folks at Over the Edge would enjoy taking a stab at it.
Vaculin’s had some trouble coming up with the right site for the Star Tower. He says he first pitched the design as a possible component of the Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment, where projects like the new Central Library and the upcoming Block 185 tower are now located.
After developers opted to take the Green Water space in another direction, he decided the best spot for the tower would be the roughly one-acre plot at the southeast corner of Cesar Chavez and Trinity Streets, which is currently owned by investment firm World Class Capital Group and is the site of long-delayed vaporware tower project 99 Trinity.
The Star Tower project, clearly a labor of love for Vaculin, is also a captivating work of what I believe could be best described as outsider architecture. As an observation structure, the tower is designed with height, and the quality of the view that height affords to the public, as its primary concern.
That’s notable compared to most other tower projects, which by nature of their cost can only rise as long as additional height continues to return additional profit to their investors. Uncoupled from such constraints, the Star Tower becomes a pure expression of iconography, and the passion of its designer shines through in the meticulous attention to detail and sheer whimsy of the renderings seen here.
Vaculin notes the tower could be constructed as a joint venture between the City of Austin and private firms, similar to Reunion Tower in Dallas, built in 1978 as part of a Hyatt hotel complex. The city-owned Tower of the Americas observation structure in San Antonio might also be a good model, with a private operator overseeing the revolving restaurant and other facilities in the structure.
But for me, at the end of the day, it’s a matter of pride. Dallas and San Antonio have them, Houston wants them, and Austin’s better than all those places. Sure, I’d settle for an observation deck on a regular building — but if we’re dreaming big, why don’t we just go ahead and build the Star Tower?