View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA's Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.
View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA's Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.

What kind of office tower should Weston Urban commission and build for Frost Bank in downtown San Antonio? The only additions to the city’s skyline in the last 25 years have been the Alamodome, Central Library, and a few chain hotels. A new tower can and should redefine that skyline, but getting it just right will not be an easy task.

“San Antonio is a 21st century city,” Mayor Julián Castro said in his farewell speech this week, as he prepares to be sworn in as the next Secretary of Housing & Urban Development in the Obama administration. What kind of office tower will give us that 21st century look in the Decade of Downtown?

Those of us who like to play architect are mostly good at recognizing what we like or dislike, but designing the kind of tower that will reshape San Antonio’s skyline without seeming foreign is a tricky proposition. The Internet makes it easy to take a virtual tour of office towers built in this country and around the world. Many embody an artistic blend of form and function, while others makes us wonder what the architects and those paying them were thinking.

Most contemporary towers are glass sculptures. Windows are now walls, with floor to ceiling glass offering tenants expansive views and a sense of silently floating in the sky above the clamor of urban life below. That trend, however, has ignited a debate over energy usage. See Saturday’s Wall Street Journal story, Seeing More Green in Glass Towers.

I’ve linked here to some towers I like that scale nicely with the San Antonio skyline, and to a few images of towers that strike me as mediocre or “starchitect” self-indulgence (see some in the photo gallery above). For readers unfamiliar with the marriage of architecture and celebrity, check out the Spanish architect Angel Borrego Cubero’s recent documentary, The Competition.

I like Renzo Piano’s 52-story New York Times building and Norman Foster’s 46-story Hearst Tower in New York, and the 71-story Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, deigned by Skidmore, Owens, and Merrill.

The Dallas skyline is defined, in no small part, by two signature towers built in the 1980s. Skidmore’s and Richard Keating’s Chase Tower, the so-called “keyhole building,” is too traditional for me, although many love its curved roof and skyway. I.M. Pei’s  and Henry Cobb‘s Fountain Place has proven to be more than just a building, and thus worthy of its name.

Many love it, some do not, but the 33-story Frost Bank Tower in Austin, completed in 2003, communicates a very different image with its high-tech blue glass and distinctive crown. Some say the pyramid shape of the upper tower resembles the visage of an owl, while others have likened the tower’s top to a giant pair of nose hair clippers.

Frost Bank Tower in Austin. Photo via www.leavethecult.com.
An owl and the visually similar Frost Bank Tower in Austin. Photos via www.leavethecult.com.

Architect Turan Duda of Duda/Paine Architects in Durham, N.C. has said in interviews that he had in mind iconic buildings like New York’s Chrysler Building as his inspiration. Most agree the award-winning tower redefined the Austin skyline and informed new, even taller residential towers that have since followed. Bottom line: Every Texas driver’s license includes a visual backdrop with the Frost Bank Tower standing right in the middle. The building is now synonymous with the new Austin.

Chinese architect Zhou Qi’s People’s Daily newspaper building in Beijing is my prime example of self-indulgence. Most people have the same reaction the first time they see it: It’s not a tower, it’s a shaft, thus its nickname, the “penis building.”

Beijing headquarters of The People's Daily newspaper, a daily and online publication known as a 'mouthpiece' for the CCP. Photo via Facebook group Trust Me, I'm an Architect.
Beijing headquarters of The People’s Daily newspaper under construction. Photo via Facebook group Trust Me, I’m an Architect.

It’s compared unfavorably with the “underwear building,” as some call the China Central Television building in the same city, a Rem Koolhaas building I admire for its originality and sense of kinetic energy. One Chinese design wag used Photoshop to turn the two buildings into one, which you can view here.

How does San Antonio get a building we come to love? There are several guiding assumptions that I believe Weston Urban and the architects it selects should adopt:

1. The new tower should be the tallest building in San Antonio, yet stay in scale to respect the city’s identity as a regional city with a multicultural profile. The Tower of the Americas, the tallest structure in San Antonio, is 750 feet tall. It equates to a 60-70 story building, but it’s set down in Hemisfair Park, and thus looks shorter in the context of the nearby 34-story Grand Hyatt Hotel. The 30-story Weston Centre, which opened in 1989, is the tallest office tower in the city. The new Frost Tower, depending on its orientation and the new buildings that might surround it, probably can rise 40-50 stories.
2. Weston Urban has said it will consult with world-class architects. San Antonio’s top architecture firms aren’t known for office tower construction, but they do know our city’s history, culture and landscape, so a marriage of a world-class tower designer and a strong local firm would seem wise to make sure what is designed and built is bold, yet also communicates San Antonio and Frost Bank.
3. San Antonio guards its history well, but the only way for a new tower to reflect a 21st century urban perspective is to embrace the future. San Antonio does not need a contemporary version of its circa 1975, 22-story Frost Tower, an uninspiring building designed by Charles Luckman Associates. The new Frost Bank Tower should be a statement building that compels people’s attention and provokes an emotional response.

Front Bank Tower in downtown San Antonio at 100 W Houston St. Public domain image.
Front Bank Tower in downtown San Antonio at 100 W. Houston St. Public domain image.

4. The building should be second to none for energy efficiency and sustainability, including water use.

5. Ground level attractions should include the kind of amenities that will bring a steady flow of people who don’t necessarily work in the tower. Inside, locally owned attractions should include a destination restaurant, healthy, affordable morning and lunchtime dining options, and a coffee shop with ample seating. A fitness club would be nice.

Outside, there should be room for food trucks, one or more well-designed water fountains, and open green space with shade structures, tables and free wireless. There also should be space for street performers, now banned in San Antonio, a ridiculous and antiquated prohibition. An adjacent residential structure would bring more life to western downtown after-hours, especially with other buildings in the deal slated for residential use.

Randy Smith, CEO of Weston Urban, is probably thinking about the future Frost Bank Tower more than anyone else in San Antonio. I asked him what he envisions.

“You heard Mayor Castro and Graham Weston promise that everyone is going to be proud of the new office tower, that it will be iconic,” Smith said. “That’s a tall order to fill. We all want an iconic building. It is possible that not everyone will necessarily like it, but everyone will be proud of it.”

Smith said he wants the building to command attention and admiration from people who live along Broadway, in Alta Vista, Dignowity Hill, or Southtown.

“It will look iconic on the 10 o’clock news, which is the top 30 feet of the tower,” Smith said, “But equally important to me is that first 30 feet, what we live with on the street, and how it fits with the block, the neighborhood, and life and work downtown. It has to make for a compelling walk down Houston Street and it absolutely has to embody the things that Frost Bank stands for: quintessentially Texan, authenticity, integrity, a proud hometown name and brand.”

The Weston Urban/Frost Bank project timeline goes something like this:

June 26, 2014: Mayor Julián Castro calls a press conference to announce Weston Urban/Frost Bank proposal. City staff request detailed financial proposal within 45 days. (Read more: Mayor Castro Unveils Downtown Megadeal.)

Aug. 8, 2014: Deadline for Weston Urban to submit detailed financial proposal to city staff.

Aug. 18, 2014: 10-day evaluation period by city staff ends. City staff invites competing proposals within 60 days.

Oct. 18, 2014: Deadline for any competing proposals to be submitted to city staff.

First quarter, 2016: Break ground.

First quarter, 2018: Complete building.

“I do hope somebody else submits something, because I think it will tell us two things: One, it will tell us the city’s process is working, and two, it will mean people are genuinely enthused about downtown San Antonio, especially if someone from outside the city or state submits,” Smith said. “If the city accepts our proposal, we would then negotiate a development agreement – the definitive document that outlines the scope – and that document would then require City Council approval. If all the stars align, this could happen by the end of the year, and then Weston Urban is off to the races: developing, designing, and constructing.”

Readers are invited to post comments below or on the Rivard Report Facebook page and link to images of towers of their own selection. If we get enough submissions, editors will assemble a slide show and post an article with the most interesting comments and images in the coming weeks.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.