Joshua Tree/Palm Springs Home Spotlight: The Invisible House & Mirage House Hold a Mirror Up to Our Expectations

Our final home spotlight of the year is actually the tale of two structures, though not traditional homes by any stretch. It’s a story about chasing the end of a mirage only to run smack dab into the real thing without even seeing it. A tale in which one person may see reflection while the person beside them sees absolutely nothing. It’s the end of a Palm Springs home that was never in Palm Springs and never really a home. But it’s also the birth of Joshua Tree’s controversial Invisible House that you can visit and even rent to this day. And just like a new year, the mirror homes of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree present a myriad of possibilities depending on how you view them. 

The Palm Springs Mirage House: A Matter of Perspective

Photo credit: Doug Aitken

For a stretch of 2017, a mirrored home stood at the nexus of the Coachella Valley and the San Jacinto Mountains. Of course, this home, colloquially referred to as the “mirage house” despite being quite solid, didn’t just mysteriously appear. The extraterrestrials rumored to patrol the nocturnal desertscapes didn’t leave it as a gift. It wasn’t a government experiment or the secret meeting place of a cult of narcissists. 

Rather, it was a commissioned installation for the Desert X Festival straight from the mind of artist Doug Aitken. The organizers behind Desert X commissioned notable artists to create 16 pieces spread out across the Coachella Valley. But Aitken’s mirage house inspired a particularly fervent curiosity around the desert community. 

Though Aitken had created a static piece of art, it responded to its arid surroundings simply by existing. At certain points of the day, the sunlight was nearly blinding as it caressed the mirrored edifice. In other moments, it was almost as if the house weren’t there at all, blending in with rocky terrain and desert flora. And at night, its deceptive surfaces doubled an unobscured sea of stars. With its carousel of different angles reflecting and refracting the world we knew, each visitor could find whole new dimensions depending on when and where they viewed it. 

The Ultimate Conclusion to Ranch-Style Architecture

Photo credit: Doug Aitken

But was the mirage house actually a house? From the outside, it would have appeared so. Aitken found inspiration in Mid-Century classic Californian ranch-style architecture. Without the mirrors, it would look like a straight up piece of suburban Americana. But that’s where its similarities to any habitable domicile end. Upon entering the home, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place to kick up your feet. Or cook a meal. Or rinse off that Mojave dust. 

That’s because Aitken didn’t build his mirage house for actual habitation. He built it in the name of art. Its reflective surfaces may have looked flashy, but likely provided little comfort. Especially when the summer sun beat down on that scorching desert sand. Even approaching the home without sunglasses was risky during certain points of the day.

But Aitken put real thought into the architecture, even if the mirage house wasn’t exactly a home. He cited a ranch’s tendency to lay low, blending with the romance of a western frontier. What better way to blend in with the surrounding frontier than with a mirror? So, the mirage house became a reflection, mimicking its unblemished environment. And people traveled as far and wide as the horizon itself on a clear day to see the odd structure. But their limited window to catch it was closing.

The Palm Springs Mirage Home Shatters to Pieces

Photo credit: Doug Aitken

We’d say the mirage house opened its doors on February 25, 2017, but it would have needed to have doors to actually open. At that point, it was scheduled to be open to the public until April 30, 2017 as part of the Desert X Festival. However, it wasn’t contractually obligated to be removed until Halloween night 2017. 

When the land permit expired on August 16, 2017, the home was still standing as expected. But what wasn’t expected were the throngs of visitors still making the pilgrimage to see the mirage house for themselves. Recognizing a public hunger for art, Aitken petitioned the Palm Springs Planning Commission to extend the installation’s life until March 2018. And he came close to succeeding.

On September 27, 2017, the Palm Springs Planning Commission shocked Aitken by voting three-to-two in favor of demolishing the mirage house. The decision was reached after consideration of neighbor complaints regarding the traffic and noise the installation attracted to their typically quiet Chino Cone community. Aitken was particularly baffled by the rejection of art in Palm Springs of all places; a city revered as a beacon for artistic expression. 

So, like all mirages, the Palm Springs mirage house eventually disappeared without a trace. Aitken continued erecting mirror homes wherever he was allowed. And this is where our story of the legendary mirror house of the Mojave would have ended… had it not been for another mirage forming deeper in the vicinity of Joshua Tree. Because while the mirage house faded away, the Invisible House Joshua Tree still hosts today was just about to rise. 

The Invisible House Joshua Tree Hides in Its Arid Hills

If you venture just about 10 minutes outside of downtown Joshua Tree and keep your eyes peeled, you might catch a glimpse of the Invisible House. Situated at the foot of a hill divided by a plethora of scenic hiking trails, the Invisible House’s mirrored facade obscures it by reflecting its natural surroundings. And hiding it is no small feat. Its hulking frame shelters a 6,200-sqft floorplan and  resembles a fallen 22-story mirrored skyscraper. 

The Invisible House Joshua Tree hides is the product of a collaboration between two men who are no strangers to big projects. Hollywood producer Chris Hanley has been involved with a film buff’s treasure trove of notable movies including American Psycho, The Virgin Suicides, Buffalo ‘66 and Spring Breakers. Designer Tomas Osinski offers his own stunning portfolio including collaborations with architecture legend Frank Gehry. 

The Elusive Aesthetics of Invisibility

Photo credit: The Invisible House

This is no art installation. Rather, the Invisible House is a properly habitable four bedroom, five bathroom home with a host of contemporary comforts. You’ll find a comprehensive chef’s kitchen for serving up gourmet cuisine and plenty of fully furnished lounging areas. A generous amount of the windowed wall space consists of floor-to-ceiling sliding doors for unobscured panoramic desert views. 

The Invisible House situates its enormous frame around a central 100-foot swimming pool. This is the axis of entertainment, with the kitchen to one side and a large white wall to the other side ideal for projected movies. The rest of the Invisible House opts for chic partitions as opposed to doors. 

Hanley and Osinski outfitted the property with state-of-the-art Bose portable home speakers and colorfully kaleidoscopic LED lighting, ideal for events. But few attributes of the Invisible House are as impressive as the creative team’s commitment to the transparent aesthetic. Bathrooms are equipped with free-standing glass shower cubes, the primary bedroom offers a thick, two-ton glass bed frame designed by noted designer Santambrogio… there’s even a clear electric guitar and amplifier for visiting musicians. 

The Ecological Pros and Cons of an Invisible House

Photo credit: The Invisible House

A vision like the Invisible House obviously doesn’t come cheap. But Hanley and Osinski stress that every attempt was made to minimize its carbon footprint. This included working with the kind of tempered, low-emissive glass typically reserved for commercial buildings. They explain that this mirrored glass dramatically conserves energy, reflecting the beating sun to reduce reliance on air conditioning. Allegedly, the result is a nearly non-existent carbon footprint. 

Yet, most of the criticisms leveled at the Invisible House stem from those with strong ecological concerns. Specifically, people expressed concern that native birds would become disoriented by the mirrors and unwittingly fly into the glass. It’s a common problem when mirrored glass is placed in rural areas. 

In response, Hanley and Osinski noted that they ordered a biological survey prior to beginning construction. They claim there have been no issues with the Joshua Tree wildlife, avian or otherwise, thus far. They also remind critics that all federal, state, and local requirements were followed to the letter when bringing the ambitious project to fruition. Additionally, they installed photovoltaics and a rooftop thermal water heater to maintain the eco-friendliness of the property. Is this enough to warrant the placement of a titanic mirrored cube in a natural desert landscape? We’ll leave that conclusion to the reader.  

Renting the Invisible House

Photo credit: The Invisible House

While the Invisible House in Joshua Tree is privately owned, it’s uncertain as to whether anyone has resided in it long-term. Rather, it seems that it was always intended as a short term rental. The property is currently advertised as available for “filming, photography, and events.” But you better start saving your hundred dollar bills now, because a home like this certainly doesn’t come with a cheap price tag. UPDATE: As of at least August 2023, Airbnb has the Invisible House Joshua Tree boasts available for rental. It will just set you back a cool $2,701 a night.

Seeing in the New Year Through a Mirror

We can safely say that the two mirror houses of the Mojave are more of an anomaly than any herald of coming trends. However, there is something that seems deceptively futuristic and forward facing about mirrored facades. Especially considering that mirrors excel so strongly at showing us what’s behind us. And perhaps that’s why the mirage house and Invisible House are such fitting home spotlights to end a year and begin a new one. On each surface, we can see a glimpse of the future we want and the past we’re leaving behind… just over our shoulders.

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