If you’ve driven east on Highway 62, toward the shops, galleries, restaurants, and beautiful vistas of the dusty little getaway town of Joshua Tree, you would have passed right by it, maybe not even knowing it was there. It’s barely visible from the road, but it’s the site of a true architectural gem: the world’s largest collection of buildings designed by Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. This remarkable midcentury architecture sits unobtrusively on the grounds of Joshua Tree Retreat Center and is being featured in this year’s Modernism Week Walking Tours program on February 19 and 20.
Cafeteria Elevations Blueprint / Daniel Paul
Modernism Week is dedicated to exploring midcentury and modern architecture and design, and draws design lovers from near and far to Palm Springs and the surrounding areas for its 11-day series of events February 16 to February 26. Lisa Vossler Smith, CEO of Modernism Week says, “We are thrilled to partner with the Joshua Tree Retreat Center during Modernism Week and to have the opportunity to visit and tour this special and sacred property.”
This “special and sacred property” all started when Edwin John Dingle, known as Ding Le Mei after traveling widely throughout China and Tibet, came to America with the age-old knowledge he’d gained from intensive study with monks and spiritual teachers. He used this knowledge to develop healing and meditative practices emphasizing breathing techniques, which he called the Science of Mentalphysics, and eventually established his Institute of Mentalphysics in Los Angeles. He wanted to create a retreat for his followers in the high desert and purchased land to build a place dedicated to meditation and study. He sought architecture that would suit the Joshua Tree desert beauty he so admired, and first looked to Frank Lloyd Wright, who declined the commission to design a City of Mentalphysics. That’s how his son, Lloyd Wright, became involved in one of the most important projects of his career, and set out to bring his own brand of Organic Architecture to Southern California, with eleven buildings, built between 1946 and 1957, at what is now Joshua Tree Retreat Center (JTRC). Nartonis “is thrilled to be a part of the important work this year at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center.
Caravansary / Christy Addis-Gutierrez
Frank Lloyd Wright, Junior, known as Lloyd Wright
In addition to the walking tour, there will be a concurrent exhibition, Edwin + Lloyd, that extends through March 5. It will display never-before-shown items from the JTRC archives about Ding Le Mei and Lloyd Wright, curated by 20th-century design specialist Katie Nartonis. To complete this immersion into Lloyd Wright’s work, architectural historian Daniel Paul will give a fun and fact-filled lecture on March 5 that expands on his extensive research supporting the architectural significance of this site. The Edwin + Lloyd exhibit will be open during Modernism Week and will be a great way for our high desert community to share the intriguing story of the founding of the Retreat Center space and its nationally important architectural treasures.
Joshua Tree Retreat Center is fortunate to now have leadership that understands the importance of this architectural history and that is dedicated to its preservation. JTRC Executive Director Terry Taylor-Castillo commissioned Daniel Paul to nominate the site for the National Register of Historic Places, as he did for nearby Pioneertown and the Integretron. JTRC Deputy Director Marie Bobin, says, “It is the hope of the Retreat Center that this renewed interest in the Modernist architectural treasures on this campus will help to attract long-term interest in its restoration and upkeep.”
Modernism Week’s Lloyd Wright Historical Walking Tour is part of this renewed interest, and Modernism CEO Smith says, “We support the mission of the center and the important historical role the Institute of Mentalphysics has played in the desert community since the early 1940s. The Lloyd Wright-designed buildings are significant for many reasons, and the center is committed to preserving and restoring the land and structures with the guiding principles of Organic Architecture.”
Cafeteria patio / Christy Addis-Gutierrez
According to Daniel Paul, these principles of Organic Architecture are identified by long, low buildings that emulate the horizon and integrate into the existing landscape, distinct “allover cohesion” of design, simple forms, and uncovered use of natural, often local, materials. Many walls and support pylons are made of stones quarried right on the property, in a style called “desert masonry.” Lloyd Wright also fully explores “a variety of oblique angles throughout [30, 60, or 120 degrees, instead of the standard 90-degree angles] including diagonal grids and hexagons”. The resulting triangular forms can be seen as an interpretation of Mentalphysics’ three areas of focus: the body, the mind, and the spirit. The natural desert surroundings were integral to both Ding Le Mei’s vision for optimal Mentalphysics study, and to Lloyd Wright’s vision for the site plan. Lloyd Wright was “moved by the sense of the tranquil nobility of the desert”, and said, “I have planned not a city of asphalt paving and congested living barracks, but a city of the Desert—spacious, free, [and] sweeping.”
Modernism Week is committed to developing its programming in the high desert. In addition to the Lloyd Wright Historical Walking Tour, Modernism Week is offering an exclusive and rare tour of the famed Kellogg Doolittle House in Joshua Tree on February 20, and a self-guided driving tour of 6 sustainable ecohomes on February 25.
Although Lloyd Wright never achieved the recognition that his famous father did, many found his work distinctly inspiring. Architectural historian and UCLA professor emeritus Thomas S. Hines said, “He never attained the commissions his formidable talent deserved, nor did he see sufficient realizations of his rich, imaginative designs…He was a tragic figure caught in the shadow of his seemingly superhuman father. Blessed and cursed by that paradoxical relationship, he nevertheless created, in his own long life, architectural miracles.” Writer Anais Nin, who knew Lloyd Wright personally, perhaps said it best: “He is a poet of architecture. For him a building, a home, a stone, a roof, every inch of architecture has meaning”.
MODERNISM WEEK in the HIGH DESERT:
For Modernism Week events, get tickets in advance at www.modernismweek.com.
Lloyd Wright Historical Walking Tour, Joshua Tree Retreat Center, Sunday and Monday, February 19 and
20, 1-hour timed tickets, $65.
Exclusive Tour of the Kellogg Doolittle House, Monday, February 20, 10am-3pm, VIP access includes box lunch and shuttle transport from Palm Springs to Joshua Tree. Tickets $1000; this is a fundraiser for Modernism Week educational programs.
Sustainable Homes Tour, Saturday, February 25, 6 hours/6 houses in the High Desert, self-driving tour starting at 9am, $70.
Cafeteria / Cait Greeley (Courtesy Daniel Paul)
Edwin + Lloyd Exhibit, Joshua Tree Retreat Center, open to the public Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 weekends: February 24-26 and March 3-5, 10am- 5pm (or by appointment). Curated by Katie Nartonis. Suggested donation $20, go to www.jtrcc.org/donate.
Architectural Historian Daniel Paul’s Lecture, Joshua Tree Retreat Center, open to the public, Sunday, March 5, 3pm. Suggested donation $20. Go to www.jtrcc.org/calendar.
For more information about these related events, contact Katie Nartonis via text at: 213 435 5955 or go to www.jtrcc.org
Cafeteria / Cait Greeley (Courtesy Daniel Paul)
NOTE: Edwin + Lloyd curator and design specialist Katie Nartonis is also contributing to Modernism Week with the documentary she directed, Jack Rogers Hopkins: Mid-Century Design Maverick, screening Tuesday, February 21, 3pm, followed by Nartonis and fellow experts sharing a panel discussion. Nartonis’ expertise on this midcentury designer-craftsman began with the definitive book she coedited, Jack Rogers Hopkins: California Design Maverick, published in 2020, and continues with a show of Hopkins’ works she is curating, due to open in 2024 at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts Jacobs Education Center.
Caption info from observation and from Daniel Paul’s research.
Christy Addis-Gutierrez is a designer, curator, color expert, film professional, and project consultant. Christy is Program Director of the Fine Arts Film Festival in Venice, CA, is Film Curator for the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art and for !Hay Festival!, and is Vice President of the International Association of Color Consultants/Designers. She designed, decorated, and sourced for film sets for over a decade, taught art, design, and design history to high school and college students, managed numerous public mural projects, designed a photography book, and curated and/or exhibited in a number of fine art shows. A full time resident of Joshua Tree, Christy enjoys contributing to the area’s vibrant creative community.