Everyone should like tall buildings, at least to some degree. We sometimes fight over where those tall buildings should go, but pretty much ever since someone learned to stack a brick on top of another brick, we’ve done our best to point our towers to the sky and shake our fists at god. It’s very human!
But there are some folks out there who like tall buildings a little more than average. There’s no designated label for this subculture, but I’ll just call them skyscraper enthusiasts, and even though I write about tall buildings almost every single week, they really put me to shame with the intensity of their passion for vertical development — not to mention their takes on what’s going on right here in Austin.
Something I hear fairly frequently from these enthusiasts is the concern that while Austin’s skyline is rapidly expanding, the city lacks what’s generally known as “signature towers.” But what does that even mean? Don’t bother googling it, you’re not going to find anything except a couple of geniuses in Nashville or Dubai or Jakarta — but I promise you, this phrase exists, and despite its likely overuse in the marketing jargon of many unworthy buildings, it still signifies something.
You might think it’s got something to do with height, but that doesn’t really hold up. If pressed, I’d probably say Austin’s most recent signature tower is the Frost Bank Tower, which has a really iconic, recognizable design, and stands out in the city’s skyline. But it hasn’t been our tallest building for 10 years! The 360 Condominiums, which surpassed the Frost’s height in 2008, also doesn’t seem like a contender — it’s nice and all, but there’s a building just like it in Atlanta, which I think should disqualify you from signature tower-dom.
I love the Austonian, which was the city’s tallest tower for quite a while, but would you call that a signature tower more so than the Frost? Probably not. What about the Independent? It’s getting a little closer to what we’re talking about here, with a striking and instantly-recognizable design, and I wouldn’t blame you for designating it as Austin’s next signature tower — but I’m still not completely on board. It appears height helps somewhat, but the look and individuality of a particular building is what’s going to score it signature status at the end of the day.
I think out of every tall development on the table in town at the moment, Block 71 might be the best choice, but even that project looks kinda similar to other buildings! The more unique, the better, it seems — the problem is that there’s truly no accounting for taste, and people’s opinions on this stuff tend to vary wildly:
So, what’s the story on the Frost Bank Tower? We dreamed of a magnificent, gleaming tower soaring over the city. And all we got was this stunted blob. Everything seemed fine, until that mess on top appeared. It seems proportionately too small for the rest of the building. The hodge-podge of angles, lines and curves looks like a depiction of a nervous breakdown. Are those circles supposed to clocks? Could anyone read the time from them? And the color — where did the sea green come from, on top of a basically silver and glass structure with a faint, bluish cast? I had hope when it was a skeleton, but then the material that fills in the frame appeared. It just looks dirty on sunny days, disappears on cloudy days, and somehow, manages to dwarf the whole structure. This building looks more than unfinished. It looks ill-conceived.
— Letter to the Editor, Austin American-Statesman, October 18, 2003
It seems that a disproportionate amount of towers considered signature are designed by “starchitects.” That portmanteau should explain itself, but here’s a thoughtful take anyway. Towers by guys like I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, César Pelli — and yes, they’re unfortunately all guys — immediately became defining elements of the cities they rose in, and Austin doesn’t have too many of them yet.
To achieve the title of starchitect, you’ve presumably got to design a lot of buildings considered iconic by the general public, or perhaps more importantly by the people signing the checks. As an architect with that status conferred upon you, you start gaining the name recognition necessary to command larger and more extravagant projects, which in turn allows you to flex a greater creative muscle than smaller-time designers constrained by budget limitations — who are often forced, it seems, to design within a theory of architecture defined first by its cost-effectiveness rather than the ability to project pure iconography. This isn’t form following function, it’s form limiting function, creating buildings that serve their interior purposes with workmanlike efficiency while neglecting the greater symbolic potential of their exteriors in defining the image of a city.
Here’s an example — do an image search for some permutation of “Austin skyline silhouette.” Although the detail and buildings chosen to represent the skyline will vary based on the illustrator and age of the illustration, you’ll mostly see stuff like this:
By looking at a bunch of different artists’ versions of these silhouettes, which you’ll mostly find on stock photo sites and exist for nearly every major urban area, you can sort of average out which buildings in a given city are considered the most evocative of that city’s form by the general public. There’s no way all the people illustrating these things care deeply about architecture, they’re just trying to convey enough symbolic meaning with different shapes to create something recognizable as a particular city’s skyline, and the choices they’re making tell us something about the buildings they consider meaningful.
Here are two renderings of the Fairmont Austin hotel. The one on the left is the first design proposed for the tower, while the right rendering is what we ended up with:
As time goes on, do you think the Fairmont we got is going to show up in new versions of those Austin skyline silhouettes? I don’t. Do you think it would show up more if the Fairmont we got looked like the first rendering? I absolutely do.
I’m not trying to be glib or rag on anyone here. Gensler didn’t become the largest architecture firm in the world by designing mediocre buildings, and I think they designed the Fairmont we got to the exact specifications of its developer. It’s just that they didn’t need to build that first design, because the second one worked fine, and that’s kind of a bummer. It’s actually very hard to complain about this, because the architects aren’t doing anything wrong — I’ve heard varying arguments for whose fault it is, and the most compelling seems to be that despite Austin’s appearance of rapid growth, the investment capital just isn’t here yet for pricey show-stopper towers compared to a place like, say, Chicago.
But hey, that might change soon. I’ve heard endless gossip about the design of the tower bound for Block 185, the mysterious final piece of the Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment, but the latest interesting rumor is that the building’s design will be by a “starchitect.” Take that with a grain or ten of salt, but it’s certainly interesting — and though the details I’ve previously covered regarding plans for that building don’t push the envelope on height, we’ve already decided being tall isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for being “signature,” so there’s still hope! There’s almost always hope.
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