• Credit: Peter Arkle

“Is there such a thing as a surrealist building?” Jonathan Glancey once asked in the Guardian. The architecture critic’s answer: “Of course—although it may not keep the rain out.” Glancey saw dream imagery in the swirling exteriors of Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà, in Barcelona, and Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project, in Seattle. The same could be said of Paris’ Musée du Quai Branly, by Jean Nouvel, whose unruly façade of exotic plants is the architectural equivalent of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s vegetable portraits. But while these buildings may bear a resemblance to the work of artists such as Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí, a more insidious brand of surrealism can be found in the way commercial development treats the environment.

In one respect, the surrealist movement, fed by flights of fantasy, had a strange kind of innocence. “The mind which plunges into Surrealism,” wrote the poet André Breton, “relives with burning excitement the best part of childhood.” The same can be said of the built environment, particularly developed landscapes. The Savanna Theory suggests that because the human brain evolved in a particular environment—namely, the African savanna—people unconsciously have sought, and built, the same spatial cues everywhere since leaving that place long ago. Rolling terrains dotted with trees and modest bodies of water characterize parks, gardens, and golf courses—savannas with sand traps and putting greens. The manmade landscape is a kind of archaeology of the unconscious that mines the distant, collective memory of the cradle of our species.

But surrealism also had a profoundly dark undertone, motivated partly by the absurd horror of World War I. Artists’ canvases and poems often were spaces of desolation, places populated by jarring contrasts and things out of place. Today, development echoes these hallucinatory landscapes wherever artificial savannas are constructed in extreme conditions, especially desert resorts.

Nevada’s Furnace Creek Resort—advertised as a “lush oasis” of manicured lawns, palm trees, and 18 holes of golf—sits in “complete contrast to the desolate desert landscape” of Death Valley, 214 feet below sea level and often hotter than 120 degrees in the summer shade. This surrealist playground should be called “Dalí-wood.” With only less than 2 inches of rain a year and the local springs and aquifers all but depleted, Furnace Creek maintains the mirage with untold gallons of water pumped in artificially. The surrealist’s dream is the environmentalist’s nightmare.