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Magical tree fort exhibition climbs into Austin as a must-see attraction

Magical tree fort exhibition climbs into Austin as must-see attraction

Fortlandia Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
"Fairy Pavilion" by James Edward Talbot. Photo by Brian Birzer/Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Now through January 26, the buzzy new Fortlandia at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a special exhibition featuring 10 custom-built forts created by Texas architects, designers, and artists, will be on display in Austin. The pop-up encourages adults and children of all ages to play, explore, and wander while enjoying the natural beauty of the center.

Among those crafting the impressive forts are James Edward Talbot, the mastermind behind the whimsical three-story Casa Neverlandia, a 1906 Bouldin Creek property that’s undoubtedly one of Austin’s wackiest homes, and Sky Lutz-Carrillo of design-and-fabrication studio Hatch Workshop. 

Both fans of the Wildflower Center, Talbot, and Lutz-Carrillo eagerly became involved with this year’s Fortlandia, producing wildly different forts. The result is a must-hit destination for winter travelers to Austin.

The creatives spoke to CultureMap and revealed their inspiration for the structures and why designing for children tests their boundaries. 

Land of the fairies
“A classmate of mine from Rice went to Fortlandia last year ... and was sure I would be a fit," Talbot says. "[She] told me I should try for it." For inspiration for "Fairy Pavilion," Talbot turned to his time spent living in a treehouse during college in Honduras, and, of course, fairy culture. The result, part pavilion, part fairy circle, is something out of a children’s book. 

In addition to its magical properties, the green design features a recycled aluminum-can roof and a branched cedar base. “I always wanted to make a roof with flattened aluminum cans as shingles,” he remarks. “I had done a piece for Bouldin Creek Cafe on the side of their building, but wanted to make something more three-dimensional.” 

The design also includes a main floor, maze, underneath crawl space, and a lookout that lifts guests about nine feet above the ground. He then added six plexiglass pieces in the roof to act as colored skylights and hung recycled CDs for a bit of glittering, magical ambiance. 

“The wood for the platforms was recycled from a fence I had torn down. Most of [the materials are] recycled. The fairy circle is made from a wagon wheel rim I collected,” he says.

More than just a creative exercise, Talbot's Fortlandia entry is an extension of his lifelong work. Talbot’s father was in the military, and due to his uncommon upbringing — he’s lived on five different continents — he has always been drawn to creating spaces for children to learn, grow, and work through experiences as they age. 

“I thought change could occur more quickly by influencing young people rather than trying to work with adults,” Talbot explains. 

A tree’s story
Like Talbot’s fairy pavilion and fairy circle, Hatch Workshop’s "Flitch Fort" was also sustainably built, utilizing pieces of a single fallen oak tree from Oakwood Cemetery that was made available through the city’s urban forestry program. 

Inspired by work with Hatch’s sister company, Harvest Lumber Company, which repurposes fallen trees in the Austin area, the fort “tells the story of the tree in a way you don’t normally get to see,” says Lutz-Carrillo. The circular structure “displays the tree vertically in these slices so you can follow swirls and hollows, all while creating a kind of jungle gym at different heights around the circumference,” he adds. 

While Lutz-Carrillo typically designs items for adults, like the live-edge pecan bar for Dai Due and oak-and-steel dining tables for the former Unit-D Pizzeria, Hatch did build a custom cedar playground back in 2016.

Like Talbot, as well as the other makers involved with this year’s Fortlandia, Lutz-Carrillo loved getting to think outside the box and provide opportunities for children to experiment, test boundaries, and have fun in a safe environment.

“There is an openness and lack of expectations to how things are supposed to work and look and feel that children bring,” he says. “Children are willing to experiment in spaces in a way that adults don't think to. Designing for children asks you to put yourself in that more expansive mental space.”

To see these forts, as well as entries from firms such as The Beck Group, dwg., Nelson Partners, and The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, head to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center now through January 26.

Entry to the Wildflower Center is $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and non-UT students; $6 for children ages 5-17; and free for children under 5 and all UT students, faculty, and staff. Access to Fortlandia is included with the price of admission.