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Burning intensity: an overwhelming collective energy fills the empty plain of the Nevada desert

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The temporary city of Burning Man resonates with a unique communal vibrancy

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 Burning Man 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 in the Nevada desert.

‘Burning Man is not a laboratory to simply “understand placemaking”, it is not an “architecturally” rich environment in the usual formal sense, but a city of 70,000 people that constructs its own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, through the work of its participants’ own individual hands’  

There are many misconceptions about Burning Man, as to why people go and what they do there. At one extreme, some people come to party, to play, to be self-indulgent. Yet even these people come away changed from the experience of a strong, caring community. They come away inspired by the vast range of self-expression, be it Playa Art, Art Cars, Theme Camps, Dance Camps or people’s outfits. Burning Man is not a laboratory to simply ‘understand placemaking’, it is not an ‘architecturally’ rich environment in the usual formal sense, but in spite of this, and in some ways because of this, a city of 70,000 people constructs its own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, through the work of its participants’ own individual hands.


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Playa artwork: Tree of Ténéré. Photograph by John Marx


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Playa artwork: Inside the Mind of da Vinci, by Mischell Riley. Photograph by John Marx

Burning Man illustrates the power of engagement in many ways. In any other part of the world, imagine the scale and density of a city of 70,000 people. Yet as you walk this city, you see no litter. If you continue to walk from the city core, where there might well 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, take this back to their camp, and ultimately back to their hometown for disposal. So deeply ingrained is the idea that this is your community, shared with others, that people care scrupulously for the environment as a whole.

It is a valid question to wonder what all this might have to do with architecture, as this is a temporal city, that has 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. 


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Playa artwork: Medusa Madness, by Kevin Clark. Photograph by John Marx


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Playa artwork: Mechan 9, by Tyler FuQua. Photograph by John Marx

An understanding of this might start with what goals we have as architects to create enduring value in the world. 

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 and convey a sense of 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 evinces vibrancy, authenticity, participation, and a deep caring and kindness, at a level of intensity that is off the charts. 

As architects, and as a culture in general, 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 pledged to serve.

Lead image: Event-goers congregate at Burning Man in the Nevada desert. Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Abitare no 572.

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy.