Desert City, City of Culture

I went for the Art, for a vague sense of the “hip-cool” countercultural presence there.

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 mist,
wherein surrealistic objects appear out of nowhere
then disappear just as quickly.

One might ask what this has to do with architecture?

Burning Man
The Catacomb of Veils, a large and lyrical art piece built in the Nevada desert during Burning Man 2016, from the artistic vision of architect Dan Sullivan.

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. Ideally this vibrancy extends across the full range of socio-economic strata, so that every-one participates and enjoys these benefits.

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. This is our goal set, a lofty and noble dream. When we broadly look at what gets built by architects, we can sometimes fall short of these objectives. Burning Man, on the other hand, succeeds on at a level, we can only admire in wonderment.

From my personal experience, Burning Man serves to teach us about community and kindness, through participatory art. From the first moment you cross that line drawn literally in the dust, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the quality and intensity of your experience on the Playa—the sheer 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. The aspect of range is well illustrated at Burning Man: more than 300 artworks are set out on the Playa ranging from museum-calibre sculpture to The Jedi Dog Temple, designed by a five-year-old boy. The participants recognize that everything within this range has a deep value to them, because, in the case of Burning Man, each art piece is a gift, created from the heart. However, they also embrace the idea that the nature of each piece is different and adds value, each in its own special way.

As architects and as citizens, we might benefit from embracing the concept of design value across a much broader spectrum than we currently permit. If we ignore this, we may find ourselves to be irrelevant to the people we have pledged to serve.

John Marx is the founder and principal of Form4 Architecture in San Francisco.

Burning Man 2018 takes place from August 26 to September 3, in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.