This weekend, a music and art festival called Desert Daze will take place in Joshua Tree. KCRW is presenting it and the headliners are Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, Iggy Pop, and Spiritualized.
Desert Daze’s trippy title vibes nicely with the festival’s setting, a place that has long attracted spiritual seekers, from yogis to UFO believers — and architecture fans.
It’s called the Institute of Mentalphysics, and was designed by Lloyd Wright with the possible help of his father Frank Lloyd Wright; it was dreamed up by British journalist Edwin J. Dingle, whose travels through China and Tibet led him to change his name to Ding Le Mei and found the Institute of Mentalphysics.
DnA’s Avishay Artsy visits the site for the UFO conference “Contact in the Desert” and reports back on energy vortexes, sacred chakras and Wright, Le Mei and their love of triangles.
Mentalphysics is a method of tapping your subconscious through yoga and breath meditation. It was a popular ideology that arose at the same time as the self-help movement and positive psychology, and was developed by a British-born journalist named Edwin John Dingle. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain, and walked across China on a mapping expedition in the early 1900s. He published map books of China based on his travels, which earned him a lot of money, and he was one of the first Westerners to enter Tibet and study in a Tibetan monastery. There he was given the Chinese name Ding Le Mei.
Upon his return to the West, he began sharing the teachings and practices he had learned in Tibet, first in New York and later in Los Angeles, where he founded the Institute of Mentalphysics in 1927.
Dingle wanted to establish his own institute and put it in Joshua Tree because people attribute spiritual aspects to the desert: it’s vast, open, mountainous, silent. And it’s a place Angelenos have long flocked to for spiritual renewal.
There are also some who believe there are magnetic forces at work at where the town of Joshua Tree borders its neighboring town, Yucca Valley. It’s atop an aquifer, an underground running river, and the Institute’s promotional material says the land has “been called a ‘magnetic anomaly’ and has been tested with sensitive electromagnetic equipment that confirms that it is a unique energetic ‘vortex.’”
“A lot of people came to Joshua Tree because of the center and bought homes,” said Terry Taylor Castillo, interim director of the Institute. “In fact, I know one girl who read the teachings of Mentalphysics, bought a house sight unseen, and moved out here so she could so she could learn.”
This is a story of two men trying to create a unique vision, a retreat center in which the architecture contributes to the overall spiritual vision.
In 1945 Ding Le Mei approached Lloyd Wright (and his more-famous father Frank Lloyd Wright) to design a City of Mentalphysics to rival the monasteries of Tibet. Ding Le Mei actually called it a “model city of the world and a true city of brotherly love.”
The senior Wright has been credited with designing Dingle’s home, the Ridge Cottages, Water Terrace Dining Hall, and the Caravansary, a 700-foot-long structure with motel-style rooms and a meeting hall. His son, Lloyd Wright, completed the buildings and they say they have the largest collection of Lloyd Wright buildings in the country.
Lloyd Wright always struggled to get out of his father’s shadow. He actually changed his name from Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. to differentiate them. So this was an opportunity to build a utopia, like his father’s unrealized dream of usonia, the perfectly-planned suburban city where every family gets a house and an acre of land.
Lloyd Wright is known for building the Oasis Hotel in Palm Springs and Wayfarers Chapel, aka The Glass Church, in Rancho Palos Verdes. But the 420-acre Institute, with nearly 30 structures, is the largest collection of his buildings anywhere.
Here’s how Lloyd Wright described the commission: “Moved by a sense of the tranquil nobility and eternal beauty of the desert, I have planned, not a city of asphalt paving and steel or of tight mechanical grid and congested living barracks, but a city of the Desert – spacious, free-sweeping… its centuries-old Joshua Trees standing like sentinels about its homes.”
Like his father, Lloyd Wright was known for drawing inspiration from the landscape, and so his complex of structures uniquely reflects the desert in energy, in spirit, and the building materials themselves. The rocks that are inlaid in several of the buildings were sourced from a local quarry.
The buildings are often compared to his father’s Taliesin West, but architectural historian Alan Hess thinks Lloyd Wright is a true original:
It’s very unfair, I think, the way Lloyd was treated in the shadow of his father. Because he even though there are resemblances to Taliesin West in this, if you look at it it’s a very different set of buildings, construction materials, and purpose as well. So I think you have to give Lloyd a lot of credit for taking those elements and doing something original. He almost never imitated his father,” Hess said.
According to the center’s web site, it is used today not only by students of Mentalphysics, but by retreat groups “seeking a quiet, peaceful place for spiritual contemplation and training.” So where does Iggy Pop and other rock bands fit in?
Not everyone is happy about music festivals being held at the institute. Last year, local residents and biologists complained to the Los Angeles Times about what they saw as an “abrupt transformation of the quiet retreat into a rock music venue as an assault on their traditions and culture, and on a wildlife corridor that is home to rare plants and traversed by imperiled creatures, including desert tortoises and bighorn sheep.”
The Center says that revenues help repair their aging electrical and plumbing infrastructure, and add a few new coats of paint inside and out.
And the founder of Desert Daze, Phil Pirrone, says attendees are looking for a memorable and even transcendent experience.
“Desert Daze is a very intentional festival in a lot of ways. It comes from a really pure place… and it was homegrown and artist driven. And the intention today is to facilitate the growth of the human spirit. We really want to be a place where people can come to grow and not just party. It’s more than that,” Pirrone said. “It just feels like this magical land, and it needs to be a magical land for it to be more than just a music concert that you sleep at.”
The festival will include art installations,film projections, sound baths, a plant walk, restorative yoga, meditation sessions and more.
There was a time when California used to be called “kooky” because of its high numbers of spiritual seekers. Now it’s grown up and become an economic powerhouse. But the Institute of Mentalphysics, with its 70-year old buildings and New Age visitors, provides a retreat back into those earlier utopian times.