Creating the Black Rock City Café

[This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

Early in 2000, a young restauranteur presented an idea for a huge “Cafe” at Center Camp. His premise was “the larger the structure, the more coffee would be sold,” so if it was big enough it would much more than pay for itself. However, even if this formula didn’t prove out, a grand central meeting space would still be a fine community asset.

A 3/4 sphere of glued toothpicks was the model for a one to two hundred foot high dome, this to be built of timber bamboo shipped up from Mexico. The proposed structure was evaluated by our City Designer, Rod Garrett.

This design proved not entirely practical, as it would have an enormous surface area compared to the usable area within its footprint, and might roll through the city like a giant potato masher in high winds. Further, we had no expertise in building high in the air with bamboo, possibly having to import a crew from Asia. Lastly, the bamboo would simply explode into cracks and splinters in the extreme low humidity and heat of the high desert.

Center Camp, Aerial View
Center Camp, Aerial View

Rod was asked to come up with an alternative design. Without any knowledge of precedents for very large temporary structures built quite inexpensively in the middle of a vast desert having occasional hurricane force winds, this took some study.

It seemed prudent to design a structure which could be taken down, transported, stored and reassembled every year; therefore, it should be composed of durable and modular, replaceable elements. As the winds could come from any compass direction, the structure should be able to effectively disperse potentially great forces.

This resolved to the idea of a large diaphragm, a round ring pulled into compression by a membrane which distributed loading from any point. Being slightly peaked in the center, the deflected wind would tend to hold everything down. However, with the outer ring elevated for access, it could become a giant Frisbee.

Bedouin tents came to mind, developed over eons in similar conditions. So, in profile, another line was angled from the post supported outer ring down to the ground, but would remain partly open for access. This would anchor the structure in place, as well as deflect the wind upward.

Center Camp Cafe Elevation
Center Camp Cafe Elevation

Next came the materials. They should be lightweight and relatively ‘soft’. This for safety, should anything come apart and fly away. Shade cloth was chosen for its strength, reasonable cost, and because it was somewhat porous to the wind, reducing loads and lofting.

Instead of using rigid materials, a tensile cable structure was conceived. Anchored into the ground outside, it would form a network of double lines radiating in from the outer ring to a post-supported inner ring, and from there down to ground anchors (the locus formed by these cables became a central design feature). This open circle would rapidly release pressure differentials between the inside and outside of the structure. It would also elevate and open up the space, referencing the ancient dome of the Pantheon.

With that all in mind, the practical realities were laid out in the computer. In choosing a 12 feet by 24 feet module for the shade cloth, the 96 such panels emanating from a center circle of 48 feet produced an overall diameter of 250 feet. This made the radial span of the cable almost 100 feet, so intermediate cabling attached down to anchors added form and structure, and reduced ‘bounce’ from wind. It was a grand space, a footprint of 45,000 square feet with 2/3 of that clear of any posts.

Center Camp Cafe Interior
Center Camp Cafe Interior

We are told that the design was modeled in a computer simulation program and tested there in up to 120 MPH winds without failure. Since first installed in 2000, it has probably not seen winds half that high, but it’s reassuring nonetheless. At those times, it seems somewhat like being in the eye of a hurricane, outside — a roaring “white out”, while inside — simply dust and fluttering.

About the author: Rod Garrett

Rod was raised in southern California in the San Fernando Valley. He arrived in the Bay Area during the early '60's in time to encounter the Beat culture of San Francisco. Here he became friends with the poet Gary Snyder and the comic Lenny Bruce. During this same period he taught himself the art of landscape design and became a licensed contractor, specializing in the creation of fountains, pools and architecture. In 1995, he attended his first Burning Man, and joined the project as our chief designer in 1997. Working in collaboration with Larry Harvey, Will Roger, Harley Dubois, and other staff members, Rod originated the annual plan of Black Rock City. The huge tensometric structure that houses our community's central café was devised by Rod, as was the conception and configuration of the giant Laser Man at our event in 2000. In 2001, he designed the Temple of Enlightenment that formed the pedestal of Burning Man. As resident architect for the project, Rod also created many other structures and site plans for our Department of Public Works. Rod passed away in 2011.

18 thoughts on “Creating the Black Rock City Café

  • The Center Camp Cafe is a very innovative and pleasant design. I love how the decor is changed every year. The problem is, the space is becoming too popular and with the growth of the city, it may be time for the Cafe to expand. When the Cafe was conceived the population of BRC was around 20,000, now with it being 40 to 50,000 some thought might needed into expansion, just like the rest of the city…
    Of course, my suggestion would be for the “Big Box Cafe”….
    (Monkey Boy and I discussed this last year, which inspired me to put some thought into the problem, a few ideas have surfaced… to be submitted at a later date.)

    Regards,
    Roissy

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  • I’d love to read an article on why the decision was made to include a café that sells coffee in a city that boasts no commerce. I get the ice, since that’s so mandatory to keeping food fresh. But….coffee? Don’t get me wrong; I’m in full support of it’s presence. There’s nothing like an iced chai on a scorching afternoon. The choice just always seemed odd, and I’d love to hear somebody that’s “in the know” elaborate.

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  • This is a reply to Amber. Thanks for your question regarding our choice to sell coffee in our city’s central plaza. This strikes many folks as odd. That’s why I wrote an wrote an article on this subject in our 2006 newsletter. It’s entitled, “Commerce and Community – Distilling philosophy from a cup of coffee”, and you’ll find it here: http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/2006/06_news_sum1.html

    It reveals our true intentions, and I hope this will provoke discussion. As a footnote to that piece, a recent analysis of all the expenses involved in building and running the café indicates that it actually operates at a loss. We only hope to eventually see it break even.

    An upcoming article on Metropol will discuss the origins of this coffeehouse in the bohemian scene of San Francisco. Authored by P Segal – popularly know in our community as Miss P — it will also describe the earliest operation of our café, then known as the Café Temps Perdu, in the 1990’s. It makes a good companion piece to Rod Garrett’s’ article, and will provide a fascinating glimpse of Burning Man’s founding history. Look for it in this blog series under Culture.

    Regards,

    Larry

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  • Larry,

    Thank you so much for your response. That article really does help explain it in a way that makes sense. Suddenly my afternoon chai will mean a lot more. I’m really loving this entire blog series. I’ve only been to two Burns (this year will be my third) and am getting a lot from learning more about the city’s history and origins. It gives a lot of perspective. It’s one thing to know that a lot goes into building our second home each year; it’s another to hear the finer details of the work you all put in. Thank you for continuing to make Black Rock City better every year, and now I have a great answer for people I hear hemming and hawing about having to pay for coffee at Center Camp!

    Hope to see you on the Playa!

    All the best,
    Amber

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  • I’m a fifth year Burner and I am truly, madly, passionately in love with Center Camp. Just today I read Larry Harvey’s comprehensive and articulate response to the nay-sayers. From my first moments in Center Camp I intuitively felt all the intended effects he named as the reasons for its existence. I didn’t know much about Burning Man; but I knew I was at home here. Despite four more years of exploring so many nuances of Burner culture, on playa and year-round, this feeling has only deepened.

    To me, Center Camp is the heart of Burning Man, more so than the Man himself. (By this I mean the big wooden and neon Man, not Larry.) In 2007, as I came around a corner of our city and glimpsed its brilliant flags for the first time that year, Center Camp literally moved me to tears. To me it’s always intuitively represented hope and panache: In the middle of this harsh wasteland, there are flags and color and shelter and music and coffee(!!) and love, 24-7. He’s right: Community is drawn in and created there; and he’s right about the social lubricating effects of coffee, not nearly as messy as those of certain other beverages. And I don’t feel it detracts at all from the myriad other ways it’s created and flows around our beloved city.

    To those who would destroy this absolute jewel, this treasure, to satisfy their own rigid definitions of decommodification: Just don’t go to Center Camp. If you don’t like it, don’t go! Our enjoyment of it won’t be marred by your absence.

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  • First time I came, Center Camp clicked it all together for me. After staying up all night wandering through the vastness of the whole city, I got coffee as the sun was coming up and connecting with some friends who happened to be a gay wrestling team from SF.

    Swapping massages with them as we all woke up, on one side was a group of folks doing extreme yoga–“Place your right foot behind your left ear”–and on the other side a beautiful group of people doing capoiera.

    In wanders a woman in ripped fishnets, combat boots, leather jacket, and severe punk makeup. She set up a small portable speaker, pulled out a mike, climbed up on one of the risers … and proceeded to do the most astounding Dinah Washington torch songs in a spectacular voice.

    The sun gradually rose higher. The coffee took effect. Life stirred outside and lines began to form. But finally it had all worked its way inside me. That’s why I will always love Center Camp: It’s our biggest town square.

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  • While standing in a long line for coffee at Center Camp one day, my entire conception of waiting in line changed, as I realized there was no place in the world I would rather be at that particular time.

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  • To me the coffee shop seems terribly out of place. Kinda feels like you’re cheating. What can we do to bring people here? Ah ha! let’s feed their caffeine addiction.

    I will never buy a coffee there, then again, I don’t drink coffee.

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  • I’m thinking about the “center” and offer the following thoughts. Our attention is scattered. We must create a center which collects the attention if we are to assume our real identity. Think how a great city concentrates around a point. Think of the heart. It is the heart which can bring about unity of being. May all beings at Burning Man be well this year!

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  • 1998 wasy first Burn and I have not missed one year since. Every year as soon as I get set up I make a bee-line for Center Camp. It’s my favorite place in the world. The current design is fantastic but I feel it’s getting a little tired. I also think we need more space, especially the audiance areas. It seems some of the art has been in place for a few years which could use a change up as well. Thanks for the space and all of your hard work over the years!

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  • 2007 – We were standing in one of the lines for Coffee one morning at Centre camp and it was really busy. The baristas were busting their asses behind the counter in a buzz of choreographed action. Arms going in every direction like some kind of beautiful machine. Music was in the air along with rich coffee aroma. All of a sudden a very funky song started playing and the baristas just stopped working and started shaking their bootys. The wild dancing went on for the entire duration of the song at which point they resumed their barista work to a thunderous & heartfelt cheer from the crowd. It was one of this moments that make burning man what it is.

    While chilling at centre camp’s media centre a few days later a large mobile island floated into view complete with trees and vegetation. It was covered with pirates. The captain was hollering something menacing through a bullhorn about “prepare to be boarded” as they approached. They stormed the peaceful centre
    but instead of brandishing cutlasses or muskets they arrived loaded with the most amazing gourmet food on big silver platters. Suddenly the place was transformed into a cocktail party with all sorts of invaders wandering though offering us beef wellington, vodka popcicles, and french pasteries!! A beautiful young woman approached me and said she noticed that I didn’t have a name tag. So she peeled one off a sheet and pressed it to my chest. It said Hi my name is Dick Burns.
    She said there “your dick burns” to which I replied how did you know and with a wry smile she said “oh I can tell”

    A Centre camp fan!

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  • @Rob ward
    Unfortunately those pirates were apparently breaking the rules of Center Camp. For several years I gave away iced coffee and tea, 5 gallons at a time, in Center Camp. In 2007 I was approached by a woman identifying herself as being in charge of Center Camp who told me I would have to leave the area as no one is allowed to give away food or drink in Center Camp. I assumed she was joking as people often assume some false authority as a form of joke and I responded with some awkward joke. She then threatened to have me removed from the entire event. I had carried the 5 gallons of coffee (40 pounds) several blocks to get there and asked if I could stay for a little while to rest as I hadn’t expected to carry 4 gallons of coffee back to my camp. She allowed me to stay but came back in about 15 minutes (during which time I did not give away any coffee) and told me it was time for me to leave Center Camp.

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  • This is a reply to solaritea’s post. I’ve no clue as to the identity of the person who demanded that you leave Center Camp under threat of eviction. This is not our style, to say least. Moreover, I am not aware of any policy that could have warranted her claims (nor is Marcia Crosby, who runs the Center Camp Café). As you may possibly know, participants who distribute food and drink are required by law to obtain a Health Department certificate from Washoe County, but this doesn’t sound like their manner of proceeding, either. We have a good relationship with them, they are easy to work with, and no outside agency has the authority to evict participants. When authorized by us, this normally involves either felonies or gross misbehavior that endangers the safety of others. Evictions are extremely rare.

    What happened to you, as you describe it, sounds quite distressing, but with such scant information, I suppose it will remain mystery. After all the time that’s passed, we certainly can’t conduct an organization-wide investigation. For anyone caught up in such a situation, I recommend that they call in the Black Rock Rangers, who are trained in non-confrontational mediation. It is quite possible that the person who confronted you – and apparently failed to show any proof of her identity (all of our employees carry official photo ID) – was, as you initially suspected, another participant, or perhaps an overzealous volunteer. Had you demanded to see a Ranger, this would have uncovered the facts while they were fresh (or sent any imposter running).

    Regards,

    Larry

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  • In response to: Dennis Alumbaugh

    I agree the audience areas need to grow larger (ie: the first posting) but the Art is completely different for every year. Now, some of the flags may be recycled back in every four years or so. There is a very hard working cafe decor team which have work events every month (if not more) for sewing flags, lamps and other decorations for the up-coming year.

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  • I’m really enjoying this series; it fills in holes of history from my long-time burner friends. I’ve been attending long enough to develop fascination with the evolution of the infrastructure and traditions.

    I get the coffee in Center Camp. I’ve always been self-sufficient with my caffeine needs on the Playa (with enough to share with my neighbors), but certainly can see the draw for community.

    I was surprised last year to stumble across a camp (at 6:00 and H, I think) that was selling water. They had a big tank (and RVs with noisy generators), and were selling it for rather extortionate prices. While I’m no snitch, it clearly was setting up a strange local vibe, so I mentioned it to a BR Ranger who was similarly surprised, and said that he’d see to it. Nothing ever happened, and their activity continued throughout the event.

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  • I spent far more time building the café (almost 10 summers) than I ever did actually enjoying the fruits of my labor, but it still has a place in my heart. I actually came to this website to glean information for my Balsa Man project, which is a mini version of Center Camp.

    If anyone’s interested in seeing the Center Camp Café building process from the ground up, I’ve got a ton of photographs taken during the 2003, 2004, and 2006 seasons. Just click on my name above, which is attached to the website.

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  • I just returned from a trip to Amsterdam. After studying that city’s map I realized its layout is very similar to Burning Man! Is this a coincidence? Both cities are built around a center middle surrounded by half circles (streets in BRC, canals in Amsterdam). The similarities continue…both cities are places where people can flaunt their free spirits, express their sexuality, and enjoy freedom constrained only by a few rules and personal responsibility. Both cities seem to me to be places where one has to choose whether they will be a “day person” or a “night person” as both offer plenty of opportunities for fun and enlightenment 24 hours a day. Both are filled with friendly, kind people who are welcoming to newcomers. I think the municipal layout itself has a lot to do with the experience one has in either place!

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