The ranch house is a victim of its own success. Once an emblem of a pioneering style of distinctly West Coast living that embraced the natural landscape, it’s now the poster child of the generic suburban sprawl that gobbled up acre after acre in California. In a new site-specific installation, artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken comments on this typology by fabricating a mirrored tract home in the Coachella Valley desert.
Ranch houses are typically one story, have long footprints, gabled roofs, picture windows, and orientation that encourages cross-ventilation. Cliff May, a furniture designer and home builder, developed this form in the 1930s and described it as “everything a California house should be . . . sunshine and informal outdoor living.” In the post-war era, builders relied on ranch homes to fulfill demand for single-family homes, and the style became ubiquitous and nondescript.
“The inspiration for this as a sculpture is the architecture you don’t remember,” Aitken tells Architectural Digest. “I was interested in what you had driven by thousands of times and you don’t even register its presence because it’s just so much a part of the pattern.”
Aitken found a planned, but yet-unbuilt, subdivision in the Southern California desert to build his sculpture, entitled Mirage, which looks like a shell of a house. Every surface is reflective; he describes it as a “life-size kaleidoscope” that’s constantly mirroring its surroundings–the immediate rocky desert scrub landscape, the tidy grid of homes in the distance, and the San Jacinto mountain range on the horizon.
“Its familiar architectural form becomes a framing device, a visual echo-chamber endlessly reflecting both the dream of nature as a pure uninhabited state and the pursuit of its conquest.” Aitken writes in his artist statement.