Burning Man a Spiritual Journey
San Francisco architect John Marx recounts in words and pictures the Burning Man festival which is held in Nevada. It is tale of how hippie counter-culture experiments with a new dimension that connects to the many varieties of human life and the importan
The sun rises over a cold and dusty Playa… we are riding hard against the wind, which kicks up the ever present dust, and we have to put our goggles and bandanas on. It is an extremely harsh environment of epic proportions. The dust is like a poetic myst, wherein surrealistic objects appear out of nowhere then disappear just as quickly. We are making our way to the Temple, it is a long ride on our cheap playa bikes, The Temple, a truly magical place, which has no parallel on this earth, is a place for public grieving, for release, for sharing a stranger’s pain, and while that last bit sounds counter to all that civilization has taught you to avoid, in that moment, there on the playa, you embrace it with all that is human inside you. Three years ago I went with my daughter to Burning Man, it was a Father-Daughter bonding experience just the two of us facing a well researched but as it turns out, unknowable experience until it is experienced... Because fundamentally it involves sharing your humanity with others in a deeply personal way. At the end of our week in the desert, I felt closer to my Daughter than I ever have. Imagine walking into a Dalí painting, and discovering that this absurd world welcomes you home ... welcomes you to embrace the paradoxical qualities of human existence, of the self and the other, where art becomes ingrained into life, rather than existing as separate and precious. It can be transformative. My first impression remains of my initial night out on the Playa, the lights, the music the time-perspective shift created by 70,000 people being self expressive, of the overwhelming collective energy that fills this vast empty plain. It is a valid question to wonder what all this might have to do with architecture, as this is a temporal city, that offers no permanent structures, just a deceptively simple urban and social framework and very little that would be considered “publishable” in the “default” world of high culture. An understanding of this
might start with what goals we have as architects to create value in the world. As architects we strive to create buildings and cities that have a high degree of vibrancy, authenticity, and a strong sense of community. We desire an engaged population that not only loves their environment, but also participates in its creation, and in its ongoing evolution. The extension of which means they feel responsible for its maintenance and improvement, and are inspired and empowered to infuse it with their cultural and artistic energy. They create traditions and rituals which carry this collective effort forward to successive generations. Ideally this vibrancy extents across the full range of socio-economic strata, so that everyone participates and enjoys these benefits. If they are successful, they will extend this caring sense of community beyond the physical environment, towards caring for each other’s well being, because they sense how each
of us contributes to the success of our communities. As architects we contribute the physical structures that contain the workings of humanity, but more importantly we contribute our own creativity and imagination to imbue emotional meaning, which in turn adds to the energy and excitement of the community. For one week, a city of 70,000 people organically forms in the desert. For one week, 70,000 people create a community that creates vibrancy, authenticity, participation, and a deep caring, at a level of intensity that is “off the charts”. There are many misconceptions about Burning Man, as to why people go and what they do there. From my personal experience, Burning Man serves to teach us about “Community and Kindness, though Participatory Art”. On one extreme, some people come to party, to play, to be self indulgent. Even these people come away changed from the experience of a strong caring community based on kindness. They come away inspired
by the vast range of self-expression, be it Playa Art, Art Cars, Theme Camps, Dance Camps or people’s creative outfits. Burning Man is not a laboratory to simply “understand placemaking”, it is not an “architecturally” rich environment in the normative formal sense we use in our profession, but in spite of this, and in some ways because of this, a city of 70,000 people build their own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, with the work of their own hands ... if we ignore this, if we don’t take an opportunity to study what makes this work and thrive, we may find ourselves to be irrelevant to the people we pledged to serve. Why does Burning Man work? We might consider the richness of cultural vibrancy as the relationship between three values: Depth + Range + Engagement. Depth relates to the quality of an experience, how moving it is. From the first moment you cross that line drawn in the dust, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the quality and intensity of your experience on the Playa. The shear range of self expression. From an architectural object or project standpoint, Range includes the way we judge the value of the work that is created. This aspect of Range is well illustrated at Burning Man. Among the many events at Burning Man, more than 300 artworks are set out on the Playa. These range from Museum Grade sculpture, to The Jedi Dog Temple, designed by a 5 year old boy. The participants recognize that everything on this range has a deep value to them, because, in the case of Burning Man, each art piece is given as a gift, and each was created from the heart. However they also embrace the idea that the nature of each piece is different and adds value each in it’s own special way. We, as architects, and as a culture in general, might benefit from embracing the concept of design value across a much broader spectrum than we currently permit. Engagement is the direct
personal interactions you might have with others and the community at large. Most of us have a passive relationship with our environments, we go to the park, we go to our favorite cafe. Active forms include making things like art or music, participating in governance of the maintenance of your neighborhood, or buying a new bench for the community to enjoy. At it’s most active level you share the experience of creation and care. If you don’t feel personally engaged with your community, whether it is your street, your neighborhood, or the vast community of humankind, you will become isolated. Burning Man illustrates the power of engagement in many ways. In any other part of the world, imagine a city of 70,000 people, as you walk this city, you see no litter, if you continue to walk from the city core, where there might have been a professional group cleaning, you still find no litter on the outskirts. You also notice there are no trash cans. On the playa, participants not only care for their own litter, but will pick up the litter of others,
and due to the absence of trash cans they will take this litter back to their Camp, and ultimately back to their hometown. So engrained is the idea that this is your community, shared with others, that people care deeply for the cleanliness of the whole environment. On a more personal level, the very first night out on the Playa I met a poet, standing in line to visit Michael Garlington’s Chapel, in the dust, under a generous midnight moon. We talked about life, and art, and poetry, and the struggle of artists, and our struggles to find our poet’s voice, and the pain and ecstasy which is that journey, the intensity of this discussion reached a crescendo, which in the default world would have been a natural breaking point. But, in that moment, she inspired, read me a long powerful poem from the heart. A poem about dreams – humanity – deeply personal – immediate a glimpse into the beauty of a persons soul, she reads this with such a passion that I am still unable to explain the significance of this gift… and then, she vanished… Playa Magic
Sopra / Above, 747 Theme Camp sulla Playa, on the Esplanade, 2016 (a sinistra / left); a destra / right, un guerriero mascherato all’esterno del Center Camp / Masked Warrior outside Center Camp, 2016. Nella pagina accanto / Facing page, Stepping...
Da sinistra / From left to right, Inside the mind of da Vinci di / by Mischell Riley, 2016; Medusa Madness, di / by Kevin Clark, 2016; Tree of Ténéré sulla / in Deep Playa, 2017.
Sopra / Above, Wordless sulla / in Deep Playa, di / by Lorenz Christian Sell, 2017 (a sinistra / left); Mechan 9 di / by Tyler Fuqua, 2016. Nella pagina accanto / Facing page, Oid di / by Michael Christian, 2016.
Da sinistra / From left to right, Totem of Confessions di / by Michael Garlington, 2015; La Victrola allo spuntar del sole / at sunrise, 2017; il falò finale / the Man burning, 2016.