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Little chapel near Bastrop wins top design awards

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The Lost Pines Chapel is at once sophisticated and sublimely simple.

Down the LCRA Lost Pines Scout Reservation to the shore of sleepy Lake Bastrop, the chapel surprises. Its mathematical angularity signals its high tech-based design, yet its rustic cedar beams seem fundamental to the Central Texas landscape. (The site was once a cedar mill.) Its spidery form faces west, primed to frame a view of the setting sun.

It has the aesthetic presence of sculpture, but its function is practical: It serves as an interfaith worship site for Cub Scouts at Camp Tom Wooten.

Designed by Austin architect Murray Legge of LZT Architects, the open-air wood-and-steel pavilion cost a modest $40,000 (Legge and LZT Architects provided the design pro bono) and has delicately weathered since it was built in 2008. And yet for all its humble material and low-profile location, it's the little design project that could.

In October, the Lost Pines Chapel fetched an American Architecture Award, one of the profession's most prestigious. And perhaps even more impressively, the chapel shares the award this year with big-budget "starchitect"-designed projects such as the $220 million Miami Art Museum by Herzog & De Meuron and Renzo Piano's $54 million Resnick Pavilion at the LA County Museum of Art.

Locally, the chapel netted Legge design awards from the Texas Society of Architects and the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Not bad for a project created as a classroom exercise while Legge was a guest instructor at the University of Texas' School of Architecture.

"For all its rustication and basic symbolism, its origin is entirely computer-based," says Legge, who serves on the City of Austin's Art in Public Places panel and garnered attention for his design of the ultra-modern green-minded Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on East Seventh Street.

Two hands joined in prayer, a child's simple drawing of a church, the historical chapel just down the road from the scout camp - all of it was poetic fodder for the beginning of Legge's creative process.

But while experimenting with Google SketchUp, a 3-D modeling program, Legge composed a set of conditions that resulted in mathematically exact frames each made of eight wood members connected with unique laser-cut steel plates. Then, with 22 identical frames lined up to create a canopy, Legge digitally programmed each frame to rotate incrementally, creating a gentle curvature that slopes downward from front to back. (The frames are held together horizontally by two tension cables.)

"The geometry (of the structure) starts as a basic box, and it's very restrained," Legge says. "Then it twists and shifts."

The digitally derived curvature gives the chapel a subtle yet precise visual motion while the simple wood planks keep the structure materially grounded. The cedar varies in rustication and size from bottom to top, with the shaggy bark lower on the wider, thicker planks gradually giving way to smaller clean-cut two-by-fours that crisscross to form the chapel's latticelike roof. And with no horizontal connector at the very top, the cedar slats waver as breezes blow in off the lake.

"Having a structure that moves in the wind - architects aren't supposed to let that happen to their buildings," says Legge.

And yet on a recent morning, the placid knocking of the cedar planks mimics the rustling of the nearby trees and accentuates the chapel's fundamental connection to its site.

Though the digital design reduced expenses, the project's real cost-effectiveness came from using local resources, Legge says. The cedar was milled down the road from the camp at Wampler Manufacturing, and the 184 planks and 138 steel plates were delivered to the site like puzzle pieces for Bastrop-based contractor David Moore to put together.

Visitors might remark that the chapel reminds them of an upside-down ship's hull, a grand version of a child's backyard fort or any number of sacred structures used by world religions.

Or perhaps it's a radically deconstructed log cabin and thus evokes a nostalgia for simple buildings of the past? Sure, why not.

"This structure is kind of like a Rorschach test," says Legge. "Everybody finds something different in it."

Ultimately, though, Legge hopes the chapel offers youngsters something to ignite their imaginations.

"You can literally see how (the chapel) is built, how the structure comes together," he says. "Maybe some young kid will be inspired about architecture."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

If the Lost Pines Chapel provides youngsters with an actual architectural example to ponder, then Murray Legge's latest pro bono design project will give kids 6 to 18 an imaginary underground landscape where they can unleash their creativity.