Nature’s Graces

Originally published in 

With the lightness and imagination of origami and the mathematical exactitude of digital design, this open-air chapel invites all creatures into its folds.

When asked about religion, Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “I believe in God, but I spell it N-A-T-U-R-E.” Of course, he was in good company among generations of believers in the divinity of wilderness, whatever their faiths. That common connection was top of mind when architect Murray Legge set out to design a nondenominational interfaith chapel on a Cub Scout campground outside Austin, Texas. Working with his students at the University of Texas at Austin, Legge created a structure that speaks directly to Wright’s spiritual point of view.

Tucked into a forest clearing on the edge of a wide, lazy river, the chapel is really no more than a geometric latticework gently enclosing a portion of the open space. According to Legge, a design and project architect with the firm LZT Architects, the structure took inspiration from one of Wright’s brightest pupils, Fay Jones, whose Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas—–a graceful inversion of European Gothic cathedrals—–turned the traditional house of worship inside out.

When you stand in the chapel, the rough-hewn cedar structure feels natural enough to have grown there among the trees, but Legge emphasizes that despite its organic appearance, the building owes its existence to the technological precision of computer-aided drafting. “I like to think of it as Calatrava meets Daniel Boone,” he says. During a classroom exercise in Google SketchUp, Legge formulated a set of rules that yielded a mathematically exact structure, then programmed the identically measured components to rotate incrementally, creating the curvature of the chapel’s eight sides. The digital file was like “a set of instructions for putting puzzle pieces together,” says Legge. All they needed to do was cut the pieces and find a puzzlemaster.

Choosing cedar for the building material made sense purely on aesthetic grounds, given the added bonus of its rich color and intense fragrance, but the decision was largely based on convenience and the responsible use of local resources. “Cedar is a weed here,” Legge explains, adding that the regional terrain was mostly grasslands before the invasive species took over. A sawmill just down the road from the Cub Scout camp, which was originally a cedar-chip mill, turned out to be a perfect source for dimensional lumber. Legge opted to use standard cut pieces, most of them thick and rusticated, with finer-sawn pieces for the upper reaches.

To hold the 184 wooden planks together, 138 steel plates were CNC-cut by a local fabricator using Legge’s CAD file to meet exact specifications. A contractor was hired to assemble the structure, assuming that in spite of the many pieces, their limited variation would make the process fairly simple. But slight irregularities in the wood and the subtle changes in the angle of each joint made the task more challenging than it originally seemed.

The building process took two  months. Legge made the one-hour drive from Austin every weekend to check on its progress, sometimes finding that segments had been bolted inaccurately then mended as well as possible without sacrificing the custom joints. “I would come out here and see some pieces put together wrongly and the contractor would joke with me, saying, ‘Oh, it just needs a little tweak,’” Legge recounts, nodding in the direction of a pile of tools under a tree. “You see that sledgehammer over there? We call that the ‘The Tweaker.’”

The finished product, however, reveals little in the way of production hiccups. The 23 jointed frames are held together on each side by nothing but a horizontal cable. Though the structure is stable, it appears almost skeletally delicate, the upper slats shifting like the tops of the trees when a breeze sweeps through. “That freedom of movement goes against everything in architecture,” Legge says with a hint of excitement.

In the context of a Cub Scout camp, Legge views the bare-bones design as an educational opportunity. “You can really see how it’s built. Kids here can get inspired about architecture.” The orientation of the structure also provides an education on seasonal rhythms and light, framing the sunset directly on the summer solstice, and filtering its light at increasingly long angles through the year.
Unoccupied or in service, the chapel possesses an uncommon peacefulness. The west-facing pews invite quiet contemplation and provide a listening post for erratic symphonies of birds. No matter what events take place here in the years to come, the small cedar chapel will create a frame, not so much to contain what’s inside it, but to magnify what surrounds it.

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