Award-Winning Design In A Place You Wouldn’t Expect: A Public Toilet

When visitors to Lady Bird Lake in Austin need to use the restroom, they’ll discover pleasant surprise: new facilities that look like works of art.

Four years ago, the Trail Foundation–a nonprofit that manages the hiking and walking paths around Lady Bird Lake–surveyed park users about what improvements they’d like to see in the recreation area. The top priority was new bathrooms that are safe, well lit, well ventilated, and offered seating and shade.

[Photo: Whit Preston/courtesy AIA]
Local firm Mell Lawrence Architects delivered two buildings, which received a 2017 AIA Small Projects Award, that elegantly fulfill the park’s brief for functional designs that fit in with their surroundings. The result? Sculptural raw-steel structures that look more like Richard Serra monoliths than whatever heinous, grungy images come to mind when you think “public bathroom.”

The facilities are made from board-formed concrete and nestle into a tent-like steel shell. The unfinished materials are robust, require little maintenance, and will patina over time. Since there’s a gap between the walls and the roof, there’s ample airflow and natural light–and views of the sky.

The “Lady Bird Loo,” as the architects nicknamed the project, is as luxurious of an experience as you’re likely to have in a park bathroom and an investment in public infrastructure that’s sure to go a long way. New York City recently renovated its Bryant Park bathrooms to include fresh flowers and high-end commodes, and they’ve earned rave reviews. Is a public restroom Renaissance soon to come? Praying to the porcelain gods that that’s the case.