Burning Bright: the Black Rock City Experiment

By Adam Brock

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What if ecological city planners were given a chance to design a city from the ground up, in a completely empty landscape? What if the city was decreed to have zero environmental impact – and torn down and rebuilt on a yearly basis? While it sounds like something pulled from the journals of Paolo Soleri, this ultimate planners’ workshop actually occurs every summer at Black Rock City, the ephemeral site of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Known for its out-of-control costumes and massive art installations, Burning Man is also an annual experiment in low impact/high density human habitation: with a population of 40,000 packed in at twice the density of London, this is no mere camping trip.

I got a taste of Burning Man’s refreshingly offbeat design process at “Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City”, a panel at the AIA’s Center for Architecture last weekend. On the stage were Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, Black Rock City planner Rod Garrett, The Eye, architect for one of the festival’s ‘theme camps’, and Hayley Fitchet, a city planner for London-based Gensler.

While it’s often described as “the world’s greatest party,” Burning Man is much more than a weekend of hedonism. At the core of the burner philosophy is the idea of sacredness: nothing is sold at the festival other than water and coffee, and for many, the experience is imbued with a sense of the divine. Harvey explained how the unique architecture of Burning Man heightens this sense of wonder by employing timeless concepts like site orientation, bilateral symmetry, exquisite detailing, and natural materials – concepts that the sleek, convoluted architectural forms of today seem to have left in the dust.

While Harvey played the mystic, Garrett was all professionalism, choosing to focus on the logistical challenges of Black Rock City and how it’s evolved since he came onboard ten years ago. Shaped like a C, with the iconic Burning Man itself at the center, the city plan is scaleable to accommodate a growing population, and allows people and goods to easily access all parts of the site.

Black Rock City

Well-intentioned though it may be, Burning Man is still prone to the pressures of development that threaten any growing city. Garrett related a fascinating tale of how, in the early 2000s, the theme camps (grandiose setups constructed by groups of longtime burners) were contributing to a sort of Burning Man gentrification, forming a literal inner circle around the main esplanade. In the spirit of equality, Black Rock City was rezoned in 2005 to spread them out along the radial streets. The result: the theme camps now act as attractors for “neighborhoods”, bringing together burners with similar interests.

It might seem that the very aspects of Burning Man that make it such a compelling case study – ephemerality, lack of context – would limit its applicability to real-world urban design. But Fitchett, the final presenter, convincingly argued to the contrary, explaining how her three years at Burning Man have informed her work as a planner. Want proof of the importance of landmarks? Look no farther than the Man, standing at the heart of the temporary city until the ritual burning on Saturday. Need reassurance that streets without traffic signals are actually safer? Observe the way bicyclists naturally take to the middle of the Black Rock City streets, while pedestrians cluster around the edges. Perhaps Fitchett’s most original Burning Man-derived insight was the conviction that our public space need not be mediated by commerce. “The chance to be a participant in public life,” she quipped, “should not come at the price of a cup of coffee.”

It was a comment that captured well the spirit on stage, and of the festival as a whole. In the two decades since its founding, Burning Man has become the riotous epicenter of American counterculture – a reputation it’s earned by providing a place, however fleeting, where people can relate to each other without the inevitable distortions of the dollar sign. Back here in reality, we might not be refashioning our street grids or imposing a barter system any time soon, but even so, Burning Man is well worth the consideration of those of us looking to reinvent urban life. After all, if Larry Harvey and his team can bring forty thousand people to the Nevada desert in summer, they must be doing something right.

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