Client The Trail Foundation
Architect Mell Lawrence Architects
Design Team Mell Lawrence, FAIA; Hector Martell, AIA; Elizabeth Baird; Megan Mowry; Emily Weigand
Photographer Whit Preston
A pair of structures pops into view around a bend on Austin’s Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail, standing in a small clearing, unexpected and mysterious. Sculptural and patinated, they appear to be a pair of hooded figures in conversation, one facing the lake, slightly askew; the other, turned toward its partner, attentive, but protective.
The pair is in fact a set of restrooms, their configuration oriented along the axis of the solstice and the inflow of Barton Creek on the other shore of the lake. To walkers and joggers along the trail to the south as well as drivers on busy Cesar Chavez Street to the north, their siting in a small clearing makes them unique transitional objects between city and lake — both urban and riparian, public and intimate.
Designed by Mell Lawrence, FAIA, the buildings are a crucible of his lifelong enchantment with natural shapes, crafted objects, the movement of the sun, and the sun’s ability to animate surfaces — specifically, the elemental ones his work elevates to center stage. Concrete and steel are shaped and molded into fluid forms, their structure exploded to create a feeling of suspension. Like the inverted hulls of an old tanker, the steel speaks of time and weather, solidity and security, but rather than hulking into the land, each steel canopy seems to both envelope and hover over the little topless concrete box within its embrace.
Material and light dance unconstrained on these planes, which become an extension of the land around them. Juror Andy Tinucci, AIA, commented on the inherent conflict of putting structures into pleasing landscapes: “We don’t want buildings in parks; we want nature in parks, and this project does a really nice job of sensitively placing a necessary facility inside of a parkland by becoming the landscape. The form anticipates itself as landscape potentially, the ground plane folding up and over the use.”
For Lawrence, the program’s simple needs — functionality, privacy, and security — combined with an essential durability, provided opportunities for exploration and even delight. The thick concrete walls and steel doors provide privacy, but the design’s gaps and apertures offer connections to the outside, as well as ventilation. Look up, and a tree limb is reaching inside the space though an opening; look down, and light streams under the intentional gap under the doors and between pulled-apart planes. Plumbing and fixtures are integrated into a concrete box that provides a long, functional plinth, a utilitarian surface fully integrated into the structure. The crunchy footfalls of runners, cooling breezes off the water, even sounds of passing traffic reverberate within the light-dappled interiors, an ethereal experience, a re-orienting, recuperative moment, even for a quick stop. The understanding of how the building would be used lends a special quality to the experience that jurors (and perhaps users) often liken to a chapel. “It’s ironic that the project — a simple loo in the park — could reference a chapel, but it most certainly does,” says Tinucci. ”The way that it frames views and frames natural light in this setting, again, is humorous but just delightful.”
Canan Yetman is a writer based in Austin.