Frost Bank Tower

401 Congress Avenue, 78701
Built:
2003
Architect:
Duda|Paine Architects / HKS
Builder:
Structure Tone
Style:
Contemporary

Description

Built in 2003, the Frost Bank Tower was the first high-rise building constructed in the United States after 9/11. With 33 stories at a height of 515 feet, the skyscraper was the tallest building in Austin upon its construction, kicking off the tall building boom that continues today. The tower is identified by its blue glass curtain wall, limestone base, and distinctive crown of folded glass planes.

Placemaking

The Frost Bank Tower illustrates how new buildings can become part of the character of a place with the passage of time. When it debuted, the tower’s design received a mixed reception; some welcomed the addition of another unique landmark to Austin’s skyline, while others criticized the appearance of the crown, likening it to a pair of nose hair clippers. But today, both the building and its attendant urban legend (more about that later) have been embraced as another symbol of Austin’s “weirdness”.

Like most modern tall buildings, the Frost Bank Tower’s superstructure is made of cast-in-place concrete columns and floor slabs that are hidden behind a non-structural skin, known as a curtain wall, that keeps out the elements. The curtain wall is composed of aluminum profiles and low-emissivity (“low-e”) glass that allows in light while reflecting heat. During the day, the blue-toned glass reflects the color of the sky, while at sunrise and sunset it turns a rosy pink. The base of the tower is clad in limestone panels broken by metal screens that enclose an 11-story parking garage. As limestone gives way to glass, the vertical lines become clearer until they begin to fold in on themselves, giving shape to a jagged crown of translucent glass and steel.

Now about that urban legend: Not long after its completion, The Austin Chronicle gave the building its “Best Architecture” award, noting that the Frost Bank Tower, “keeps Austin characteristically weird with its owl face looking down over the city.” View the crown from a distance at a 45-degree angle and try to spot the owl’s face: its ears are the jagged peaks of the crown, its eyes are the two round Frost Bank logos, and its beak is the sharp 90-degree corner of the uppermost office level. Legend has it that the owl-like appearance of the crown is no accident; supposedly one of the architects was a graduate of Rice University who, stung by his rejection to UT and harboring a desire for revenge years later, conspired to hide the face of Rice’s mascot in plain sight of the UT campus. In truth, none of the building’s architects went to Rice, and the story is a rehashed version of a similar urban legend about the Clock Tower at UT. Even darker rumors have swirled that the owl in the tower represents ties to a secret cabal, but we’ll leave it at that. – Bud Franck, RA

Photo Credits:

Bud Franck, Patrick Wong