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The Institute of Mentalphysics : A seeker and a famous son build a city in the High Desert

by R.H. Greene and Maya Sugarman | Off-Ramp®

The Water Terrace serves as the dining hall at the Institute of Mental Physics in Joshua Tree, Calif. The 420-acre site is the largest collection of Lloyd Wright buildings in the country. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

"With their oblique angles, rubble stone masonry and long low lines, these structures settle into the desert like shards of heavy quartz exposed by recent floods." -- Architectural historian Eric Davis

On 420 acres on the outskirts of the unincorporated town of Joshua Tree, a vast complex of odd, angular buildings bleaches in the High Desert sun. It’s the Institute of Mentalphysics, also known as the Joshua Tree Retreat Center.

The Institute broke ground August 23, 1946, and is equal parts a mystery and a dream.

The dream began with Edwin J. Dingle, a British expat, naturalized American, wayfaring adventurer, and spiritual seeker. Dingle was an eyewitness to China's Boxer Rebellion and to the revolution that overthrew China's emperor a decade later. He wrote the first book on the founding of the Chinese Republic, and in 1910, travelled to Tibet and stayed for nine months. Expensive maps and almanacs based on his travels became the standard reference books on China for decades.

Edwin John Dingle (1881-1972) aka "Ding Le Mei," founder of the Institute of Mentalphysics
Edwin John Dingle (1881-1972) aka "Ding Le Mei," founder of the Institute of Mentalphysics Institute of Mentalphysics

Dingle relocated to California. He withdrew from public life for six years, and then re-emerged as "Ding Le Mei," architect of a new philosophical movement: a non-denominational hybrid of Christian and Tibetan mysticism called "The Science of Mentalphysics."

Dingle wasn't the only one who saw California as a place for new beginnings. In Los Angeles, another man for whom the Institute of Mentalphysics was also searching. He was Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. and struggled for years to make a name for himself in architecture, to step out of his father’s shadow. He eventually dropped the “Frank” to try to differentiate himself from his overbearing, visionary father.

Architect Lloyd Wright, the overshadowed son of Frank Lloyd Wright
Architect Lloyd Wright, the overshadowed son of Frank Lloyd Wright Lloyd Wright

His father was a globetrotter with signature works in LA, Tokyo, Manhattan, Chicago, Scottsdale. But California wasn't just Lloyd's home, it was his canvas: his major creations were all built within a 75 mile radius, with Riverside California at its center.

The largest concentration of Lloyd Wright’s work is at the Institute of Mental Physics, and the story of how they came to be - and whether Frank Lloyd Wright Sr. had a hand in designing the buildings there - is the subject of this new audio work from Off-Ramp contributor R.H. Greene, “Elevations: Frank Lloyd Wright Sr. and Jr. in California’s New Age.”

Even in unfinished form, the Institute of Mentalphysics remains one of Lloyd Wright's signature achievements. They suit the Mojave plateau they were built to inhabit as though they were born there.

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