• The mysterious weathering steel forms add a certain air to the business of using a public restroom. Photo by Whit Preston.

Project Heron Creek Restroom, a.k.a. Lady Bird Loo, Austin
Client The Trail Foundation
Architect Mell Lawrence Architects
Design Team Mell Lawrence, FAIA; Hector Martell, AIA; Elizabeth Baird, AIA; Megan Mowry; Emily Weigand
Photographer Whit Preston

On a recent Thursday morning, Mell Lawrence, FAIA, stands in the shade along Lady Bird Lake in Austin and talks about learning from nature. “What is it about this ordered chaos that makes it feel comfortable?” he asks of the dappled light falling on waxy green leaves. We converse as the tide of runners ebbs and flows. Some stop at his nearby Heron Creek Restrooms. The early light of late summer is sharp and highlights the structure’s thin steel edge while the interior disappears into shadow. We walk around to observe from different angles, smartphones out, talking about the importance of light.

The Heron Creek Restrooms are the second park project by Mell Lawrence Architects (MLA). Their Cotillion Park Pavilion in Dallas was finished in 2013, and its steel canopy and mysterious red disc earned the firm an AIA Small Project Award that same year. The Austin restrooms, which won a Design Award this year from AIA Austin, are put to good use by the crowds on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail. From mid-February to mid-September 2016, a counter under the MoPac bridge recorded 942,000 users on foot and bicycle.

The Trail Foundation (TTF), a nonprofit that acts as the steward of Austin’s lakefront trails, funded the restroom’s construction before gifting it to the City of Austin. Susan Rankin, TTF’s executive director, said they began by researching park user needs by setting up a trail memory board on site. From that study it was clear that people wanted a space that was “light, airy, safe, and that’s what [Mell] did.” Previously, TTF commissioned restrooms by Miró Rivera Architects and Studio8. TTF also provided $3 million in funds for the construction of Austin’s Boardwalk, designed by Limbacher & Godfrey Architects. MLA titled this project Lady Bird Loo, but the public nomenclature comes from TTF: The small depression near the project had no official name, but Heron Creek caught on after Rankin repeatedly saw yellow-crowned night herons there on her early morning runs.

The dyadic restrooms stand in a clearing between the trail and the traffic of Cesar Chavez Street. The forms are nicely spaced off the path, separate enough to suggest privacy but visible enough to be secure (miraculously, the location also worked for the required descent of the wastewater pipe to its sewer connection). From Cesar Chavez, the plate steel forms shrink within the parade of trees, but on foot they perceptually transform into tall, patinated sails that reach up into the tree canopy.

Security and ventilation were the prime design concerns, as was durability: The site is in the flood plain, and the structure requires little maintenance other than the restocking of toilet paper or emptying of trash cans. Lawrence said early schemes explored a single canopy, but over time the design developed into two separate roofs in dialogue. On both forms, the southern inner edge is creased. The taller western structure maintains its flat top, but the shorter eastern one is sliced so that its tip resolves to a sharp point — perhaps a beak. These simple geometric tweaks give a polyhedral personality to the canopies. The taller one, in the imagination of the architect, is more “motherly,” while the shorter one is “shyer.”

A shared porch between the restrooms opens south towards the trail. The two footprints are identical, with their mirror line oriented toward the entrance to Barton Creek across Lady Bird Lake, seen through an opening in the lakeshore thicket. This alignment, scored in the concrete slab, also approximates the sun’s departure and arrival on the horizon on the solstices. The north and south planar elevations are closed, rudely solid but weightless; the plates hover 5 in. off the ground — a security feature, so that users can see if any feet are idling nearby. The long plates that form the canopy are unfinished steel sheets; their mill scale is flaking off, but the shipping stamp is intact, though during construction, someone, in a spasm of politcal inspiration, scrubbed off the “Product of Russia” portion of the label.

Viewed from behind, the tall trapezoidal forms lighten to read as thin steel sheets on a frame. Concrete walls, 10 ft tall and loosely board-formed to result in a thick, shadow-casting horizontal joint, are held in from the ends of the steel tent. Air and light pass between. Steel T-sections attach to embed plates in the slab. The steel angle corners are welded to the T-section hoops, leaving the angle’s two legs to support the plate steel. Local outfit Sarabi Studio aced the steel fabrication and small details. This exploded assembly makes its construction legible. “When you pull things apart,” Lawrence says, “you let them each read as individual, and then, the gaps become part of the composition. It allows the light to get in there and change things over time.”

One enters a restroom through the thick concrete wall and over a marble threshold, the “one small touch of refinement.” To shut the mill finish stainless steel door, you use its custom fabricated, cross-shaped door latch. The act is similar to operating a train brake or a piece of factory machinery. “You throw it and you feel secure,” says Lawrence. Inside, the toilet is integrated into the steel storage cabinet, and the plumbing vent extends upward above the concrete wall. There is a concrete plinth, “originally long enough to lie on,” but now shortened to a smaller, squarish area on which to put items, dogs, or kids while conducting one’s business.

Inside the space, users are treated to the mutable experience of light and shadow created by the roof geometry. The shell covers the plumbing fixtures but is otherwise open, revealing views up to the sky and diagonally out to the other form. A hackberry limb poetically invades the interior of the western restroom. In fact, the whole shell was designed to catch light in different ways. Looking across, one sees a mix of full and partial shadows, and in the morning, a pleasing shock of direct sunlight spikes through the space.

The drama of the tall walls, the mix of ethereal and earthy materials, and the celestial views out the roofs conspire to call cathedrals to mind, and additional touches reinforce this thought: the cross-shaped latch, the thick walls reminiscent of a tomb, and the reverence for light. Lawrence recalls that an early version of the design called for the ceiling to be a “syrupy ecclesiastical blue, like the Virgin Mary should be in there.” As cathedrals do, these restrooms inspire calm through their majesty and their materiality.

Standing back, Lawrence is satisfied with the project’s visual results. When asked about what knowledge informed the design, he expounds thoughtfully: “Just how much the sun affects how you perceive every material — how it renders it, how it perceives texture and form, how it changes your perception of that, and how those things work together compositionally as the sun moves around — that’s the biggest thing: that the sun is always moving around.”

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin.

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