Burning Man: Great Party, Urban Template

Event: Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.13.07
Speakers: Larry Harvey — Founder & Executive Director, Burning Man; Rod Garrett — City Planner, Black Rock City; The Eye — Architect, Camp Disorient; Hayley Fitchett — Urban Planner, Gensler (London)
Moderator: David Koren — Director of Marketing, Perkins Eastman
Organizer: AIANY Emerging NY Architects Committee
Sponsors: Green Depot; Haworth; C/S Group; Johnsonite; drink sponsors: Steaz Green Tea Soda, Sambazon Açai, Guayaki Yerba Mate

Burning Man

Site of 2007 Burning Man. At the bottom left of the image, you can see the site of 2004 Burning Man. There are three alternating sites for the temporary city in Black Rock City, UT.

Courtesy Google Earth

A site for boundless music and art; a place where one can both lose and find oneself; a great party; and a grand experiment in city building. This is how Hayley Fitchett, an urban planner at Gensler, describes Burning Man, the weeklong annual “experience” in Black Rock City, UT. Since 1986, when a group of friends gathered at Baker Beach in San Francisco, Burning Man has grown exponentially. This year’s temporary city in the desert reached a record of 48,000 participants, and it is partially because of urban planning that Burning Man is so successful.

The concept behind the plan, according to Burning Man founder and executive director Larry Harvey, is to create an experience that is then manifested by the participants when they arrive. The layout of the site is symmetrical, alluding to temple design, and the marks in the sand reference Buddhist Mandalas. Participants arrive to an established sacred space that serves as a base for their art. Spirituality is innate and planned before the event begins.

It is a chance of a lifetime for an urban planner to be given a blank canvas to develop a temporary city that is erased and recreated every year, claims Rod Garrett, Black Rock City’s urban planner. The current plan was established in 1997, and it is a culmination of improvements that take into account everything from population growth to security concerns. It is hemispherical in plan with concentric and radial streets. The Man, an effigy that is ritually burned on the final night of the event, is located at the center. Participants orient themselves in relation to the Man and the view of the desert beyond. People are assigned to a campsite, and can find their sites because radial streets are named after positions on a clock and circular street names relate to the theme of the year (2007 was “Green Man” so streets were named after natural habitats). A pentagonal limit surrounds the plan providing emergency access and a security boundary.

Burning Man’s plan is straightforward and simple, but it is the constant layering of visual cues that makes the event successful, says Fitchell. The highest point in the city is the Man, and the lowest area is at the perimeter. A café is centrally located that acts as a community center and a refuge from the desert. People are drawn to the center of the plan, where most of the action occurs. Streets are wider in public areas to accommodate larger crowds, and narrower in the more private encampment areas. The Man, an annual monolithic temple, and large art works scatter the landscape providing landmarks. Decorated vehicles and “theme camps” act as entertainment hubs throughout.

In her professional life, Fitchett finds she thinks about the truly democratic plan of Burning Man, and believes that more humane cities are possible by applying ideas established at the event. She quotes Winston Churchill: “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us,” and for her Burning Man is the realization of this saying.