The Fairytale World of Fortlandia

Hanif Amanullah, Entertainment Editor

If you were to get into your car and drive south on Mopac–way south–you would find yourself at the renowned Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a 284-acre botanical garden far away from the hustle and bustle of Austin. And if you were to make this drive on a brisk winter afternoon, say, between the months of October and January, you’d be presented with a colorful pamphlet and a paper map detailing the several unique structures that make up the Center’s annual “Fortlandia”–an exhibit comprised of interactive and thought-provoking “forts” designed by local architects and engineers.
Each fort is meant to evoke a different feeling or memory, and those emotions often cover quite a spectrum. While one structure might send you into the future with plastic, metal and vibrant, otherworldly colors, another might pull you back into the past with rustic materials, soft designs and a name that relights the glowing nostalgia of days long since having taken place. Whatever feelings a specific fort makes you feel, they’re sure to be a delightful surprise: though each fort is a completely original structure, there’s always something vaguely familiar (if not comfortable) about them.
I only realized this information after reflection. On my first visit to Fortlandia this past January, I had no idea what to expect. After walking past a cheerful Wildflower Center entrance sign, I was presented with my own colorful pamphlet and paper map with which to navigate the arboretum. I paid the small ($10) center fee–Fortlandia itself is free with admission–and made my way into the exhibit, the warm afternoon sun at my back.
Let me preface the following description by saying that the actual wildflower center is gorgeous, even in the dead of winter. Founded by Lady Bird Johnson herself in 1982, the arboretum is home to over 900 species of plants native to Texas. Before I even got to the forts, I was able to spot Live Oaks, Eastern Cottonwoods, Texas Mountain Laurels, Mexican Plum trees and countless other species.
When, after a short walk on the Arboretum Trail, I reached the beginning of the exhibit, I was immediately surprised by how integrated each fort was into the flora of its surroundings. For example, one of the first forts I came across was a cubic structure made of haystacks. Artfully placed at the center of a wide, circular field, the fort seemed to rise out of the very grasses surrounding it. Another fort, made of evergreen logs laying on each other to form a sort of natural lean-to, was built around a large trunk, almost a part of the tree itself. One of the most mind-bending forts was a normal-looking house covered in mirrors that reflected the greenery around it to the point of invisibility.
But what struck me most about the various structures were the ones that seemed to have been transported from another place entirely: two tall sailboat-like forts draped in white cloth, riding a static wave of long-grasses; a fairytale-esque house twirling up from the ground under a large tree, adorned with bits of colorful plastic and metal; tall swings hanging from the boughs of a Live Oak, swaying slightly in the breeze. Some of these forts seemed to transcend the idea of a temporary exhibit, becoming one with the arboretum grounds.
But in a certain way, the very transience of these gorgeously-crafted structures is what makes them so special. They forced me to confront beauty in the most present sense of the concept. These forts just miraculously happened to find their way from fleeting impressions in architects’ minds into existence, and the very luck that led to them being constructed is worthy of recognition in and of itself. For these structures to be so perfectly integrated within the Wildflower Center is a testament to both the forts and the center itself.
Upon leaving the exhibit, my mind was in a comforting state of peace–both at having come to the aforementioned realizations and that my time at Fortlandia was so refreshing. There is something magical about the center, tucked away from the commotion of daily life, and having little forts dot the grounds only increases that feeling. And, for those who’d like to experience this phenomenon as well, I’d highly encourage a visit to the Wildflower Center during Fortlandia next year.