April 20th, 2010  |  Filed under Building BRC

The City of Burning Man

April 20th, 2010  |  Filed under Building BRC

Black Rock City 2003, From 10,000 feet

Black Rock City 2003, From 10,000 feet

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

We might view Black Rock City as a great machine, efficiently providing the many hundreds of functions needed to help sustain us in a wilderness almost devoid of life. However, it seems more appropriate to consider it an organism, much more than simply a sum of its parts.

Our city is dynamic, adaptive and reactive. The streets stream with people like arteries seen under a microscope. It’s organic structure milling with the movement of information and materials, with organizing and building, nourishing and removing wastes, finally breaking down and disappearing. Additionally, it references the mythological Phoenix in symbolically burning and being reborn from itself each year.

2009 Black Rock City Plan

2009 Black Rock City Plan

The metaphor is enhanced by the general plan, where we speak of Center Camp as the heart of the city. Although that is central to the population, the soul or spirit of the city resides outside the physical body, but central to the whole. The Man presides on the axis from which the entire plan is drawn, and serves as a physical and social guidepost from every direction.

Set off by nearly a half a mile, the streets radiate outward, allowing self-orientation to the figure of the Man at every intersection. The cross streets arch to create a grid equaling two thirds of a circle, this third inviting the desert vastness and starred universe to intrude on our seeming self-importance. The roads are the life-blood of our city, allowing unfettered access and egress for people, as well as to the logistics of supplies and maintenance.

Life thrives on cooperation, all parts mutually sustaining one another. We see sculptors and theme camp builders working through the year to share a grand visual or participatory experience with us. For most of us, it means simply sharing our food and drink, a conversation or a smile. Whether large or small in its manifestation, we are made aware of our communal body, every part being equal.

People do require a certain minimum density and scale of neighborhood turf to feel comfortable. A few years ago, in addition to growing too large in one single mass, we had also inadvertently allowed an entitlement of insiders to evolve, physically displacing the others toward the outside of the city. Though there is no direct proof of connection, the issues quite evaporated as soon as the city was specifically re-zoned to ease those conditions. With the city still growing, it remains an ongoing challenge to anticipate problems stemming from perception of isolation within a crowd too large.

The Esplanade at Night

The Esplanade at Night

Often referenced as a “beautifully zoned tentopolis, designed with a precision of which the Renaissance city-state idealists or Haussmann would approve” (London Observer), Urban Planners come to our city each year to study it as a Petri dish of human culture. The observed interactions between our citizens and our ever-evolving design are applied in planning new communities around the world.

Although Black Rock City exists for only a moment in time each year, we know from “changed my life” statements that Burning Man is much more than a fleeting experience. Our city is more than its parts; it is an analog to a microcosm of life.


14 Responses to “The City of Burning Man”

  1. Doug T Says:

    The bigger the city becomes, the more important the concept of local “neighborhoods” will become. Keeping things at a human scale is vital for the sense of community and belonging. The Center Camp and the four plazas provide one way to accomplish this, but as city grows it will become more important. Theme camps tend to request that they be located next to other camps with similar interests and this should probably be encouraged by the placement folks. We don’t want to get to the point where it’s four or five or more separate mini-cities that don’t interact, but having separate sub-cultures makes for great “tourism” opportunities for the more adventurous Burners.

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  2. Astronaughty Says:

    The one interesting advantage BRC has over any other city in the world is that it can be any shape it wants to be, laid out in any way the organizers want. But what we get year after year after (boring) year is just the same semi-circle with minor tweaks. Adding the keyholes and putting theme camps on the 2 and 3 o’clock spokes are just small changes to what is always the same stagnated design. Yes, the semi-circle works, but with all the space and creativity you guys have at your disposal why not change it up each year? Why not experiment? Why not make things interesting, fresh, and exciting instead of overly familiar? No other city on the planet can do this except for BRC, yet you choose to squander the opportunity. Do you stick with the status quo because it’s cheaper and easier to pull off every year? Because you’re fearful people won’t actually want to EXPLORE the city to see what’s going on there? After 8 burns in a row I haven’t been to Burning Man for that last two because it started to feel like the city and the event had deemed itself “complete” and that no further experimentation in temporary community was needed. I call this stagnation. The playa is a giant blank canvas and yet all you want to do is paint the same picture (with small variations) over and over. That’s lame. Come on Larry, show some originally! Does the Man ALWAYS have to be X feet from center camp? Why can’t center camp be on 6 o’clock and the outer ring road instead of on the Esplanade? Does the temple always have to be x feet away from the man? What if there were two temples? What if the streets were winding instead of gentle arcs? What if you had had 3 or 4 “satellite communities” around the Man instead of one giant curved metropolis; what if you put the temple smack dab in the center of town? Anything, really, would be better then the same old layout with everything where you expect it to be. I get that here in the default world. Burning Man can, and should, do much better at providing a unique experience for its participants.

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  3. Nesdon Says:

    I disagree with Astronaughty. I think tradition and predictability are an asset. The city should evolve, not be remade every year just for the sake of novelty. Why throw away something that has proven effective just to make it less boring. I do agree that we should stay continually open to major revisions if and when we find good reasons to make the changes.

    I think there may be a critical size at which other plans, such as a suburban model, with relatively disconnected suburban units may be more effective than a megalopolis, but I do not find the current size of the city unmanageable as yet.

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  4. Cheri Says:

    I totally disagree with Astronaughty. I believe it’s a circular pattern for a reason. Yes, the pattern may be boring to some but it works. Everything comes full circle just like life. Maybe when the circle is finally complete (full circle) that will be the last Burning Man or time for something new to evolve.

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  5. Rod Garrett Says:

    While we do maintain some sense of historical context and familiarity, the primary factor in the city plan is functionality. The aesthetic considerations are more effect than cause.

    The suggestion of radical city re-configuration ignores my opening analogy. This could be considered similar to re-assembling a car in a different way – while the result may be more interesting, the issue is whether it will remain functional and safe.

    There was never anything arbitrary in the city design, and it has evolved and been highly tuned over time. The city’s plan is meant to provide the structure to allow vibrant change within it, but also does change to a degree every year. As 50,000 lives, and coordinated procedures are involved, each modification is carefully considered by all departmental staff who’s work may be affected, and total consensus is required for approval.

    Such adaptation will doubtless continue, but on the surface may look more like this year’s model than a total concept car.

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  6. Red Ree Says:

    It’ll be interesting to see an urban-planner viewpoint develop. One thing about BRC is that as a temporary city, a lot of the problems that develop in “real” cities don’t have a chance to take root. I’m talking about crime and slums, as well as homelessness, unemployment, and inter-generational issues. I suppose we could explore the “vernacular architecture of Burningman” since there is actually a common vocabulary of sorts.

    Sustainability is a big issue in urban planning these days, but BRC is anything but sustainable, relying entirely on fossil fuels and materials brought in from outside. OTOH, the only 100% sustainable building is no building at all…

    I noticed the density also. It’s rather low, actually – suburban rather than urban. And everyone seems to stake out a little “yard” with a fence!

    With regard to culture and zoning. Has anyone else noticed that BM has turned into Raver Central? In years past I remembered brass marching bands and taiko ensembles, but the last time I went it seemed like there was nothing but thumping electronica at top volume day and night, no matter where I was.

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  7. Porter Venn Says:

    I agree with some of what Austronaughty is saying.

    While the current design works, and works well, is it really the only possible configuration for Black Rock City?

    As a 10 year in a row attendee, sometimes I also long to arrive on the playa and see something truely different. Imagine Center Camp being way out at 12:00 all by itself like a sparkling oasis in the dark, or how about seperate “villages” in deep playa, maybe small 4X4 grids with theme camps.

    Whatever the configuration, I’m sure it can be done. I know changing the status quo can be a bitch sometimes, maybe even expensive, but this is Burning Man, a continous re-invention and experimentation, why not change it up and see what other possibilities are?

    Just as the 1997 Haulupa playa year led to the discovery of some new designs, there could be other possibilites that are even better than the current design that won’t be discovered until they are tried.

    My 2 cents.

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  8. Glenn Lym Says:

    I agree with both Astronaughty and Nesdon. For me I love the sense of “openness-anything can happen spirit” yet knowing where you are and where to find things creates a comfort level that lets me come back home after trekking around.

    These days in cities, a big deal, since we are no longer creating new frontier towns, is re-thinking what we have. So here in San Francisco we’re starting to get these wonderful little park-let inserted into what seemed like bland, used streets and intersections and the Presideo is developing into something quite nice. So you could say, why not tweak Burning Man that way. And that seems to be what has been going on over the years.

    Yet also in San Francisco, we are in the middle of adding the biggest new section to the city in years – Missions Bay. Mission Bay started out with a bang, canals, low residential units, tall thin highrises in a plan by the Pei office of NYC. But various neighborhood complained about the tall towers. So by the third master plan by other folks, to keep the same amount of square footage, Mission Bay is going ahead, and guess what, it’s looks like the worst of San Francisco teleported into the 21st century – unreleaved block after block of 7 story buildings with no connection to the place’s water roots and no sense of the area’s roots in tidal marshes and mud flats. It’s like SOMA extended. And in the mean time, the City is now allowing tall thin buildings elsewhere.

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  9. Glenn Lym Says:

    Center Camp works as it is in the center, close to the inhabitants. It feels like a center in a way that’s different from the Man location that is also a center.

    What feels strange is putting the loud sound camps out at 2 and 10, which in effect lets them collide with the desert and the art installations. Do the large sound camps really need to be attached to the city? What happens if you put them in an area and separate them from the art installation desert?

    Maybe something like this where you have the Esplanade run from Sound Camps facing into the open desert at one end to art installations in the open desert at the other end, with Center Camp in the middle of the Esplanade and the neighborhood stretches out from either side of the Esplanade. But where would the Man and the Temple go? Maybe each year they would alternate between one being near the Sound Camps and the other being amid the art installations?

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  10. Glenn Lym Says:

    Opps Diagram didn’t work uploaded…

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  11. SKUZ Says:

    I love the panopticon!!! BRC is in the shape of a panopticon. See and be seen, always something to watch yet its operational discourse doesn’t control the masses, but lets them be free!

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  12. Glenn Lym Says:

    Panopticon, that’s funny! Just looked it up in Wikipedia. At BRC, the issue is the reverse of the Panopticon. Instead of centralizing supervision at a single central point in the Panopticon, BRC is set up to orient dispersed peoples to a single point – The Man.

    Other cities can use sheer height to create a focus, like Manhattan to the Empire State Building. In San Francisco, one of the main axis is a line that connections the Ferry Building to Twin Peaks. You know you are on Market Street as you can see both, and know where you are by which is straight ahead. Imagine having a Mr. Man at one end of a big vista and a Mrs. Man (the Temple?) at the other, with the city laid out around the axis of those two. It is very interesting that historically, Market Street was laid out in the first few years of San Francisco by 1853. Though it was in the Planning Books, it did not exist until several decades later, as very large sand dunes had to be removed to create the lenght of Market Street. Instead, you went to Market street which was only a few blocks long and wandered through a dug out canyon thorugh a dune to get to Mission Street which was based on an old path that was easier to traverse, once a wood plank road was installed at great expense in the 1850′s. So the “concept” of the central axis of Market Street turned out to be a powerful planning goal that perservered through decades until it was realized.

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  13. Glenn Lym Says:

    I’m also wondering if you take the wind into account, how that might shape BRC. It’s main effect seems to be to set the orientation of 6 o’clock.

    This last year was the first time in my 3 years at BRC that I was camped on an outer ring (6:45 at J). Yet with the city winding around in a circular way to both sides of 6 o”clock, you have the outer rings between 6:30 through 10 picking up a lot of dust traveling parallel to 6. We also picked up the sewer smells from the porta-potty trans-shipment station. These outer rings and their camps act as wind and dust screens for the inner rings. Earlier I was usually around 8:30 and D. I would assume the same goes on from 5:30 to 2, only without the sewer smell.

    You can probably make the case, that historically, wind protection had a role in the shaping of cities. Like perhaps pueblos built into mesa cave facing the sun and perhaps shielded from the winter winds. In San Franciso, this is some indication that the Indians did not choose to dwell in the northern wind and fog swept sand dune part of the city (Sunset, Richmond, Pacific Hts, SOMA, Downtown), but instead chose more temperate, if not seasonally temporary, locations in the fog and wind protected Mission District before the Mission was there.

    Who would choose to build their city in an unprotected, open desert? These people must be crazy!

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  14. Rod Garrett Says:

    Judging by some of the comments, it appears to some that the city’s design is a bit arbitrary and stolid. However, it was originally based on logical and prioritized criteria – as “form follows function”. That is not to imply that form is in any way secondary to function, but rather that the form is developed to create the function.

    I would like to pass along some observations to those who would care to re-design Black Rock City. The primary criteria were, and still are:
    1. Logistics – i.e. getting people, supplies, and emergency services in, around, and and out of the city as efficiently easily as possible.
    2. Safety – being able to easily re-orient one’s self. Facilitate mentally conceptualizing the plan, and the location of places in it. Allowing, but limiting auto speed and traffic.
    3. Familiarity – Maintaining historical reference to the previous Burning Man events (i.e. Center Camp). Modeling the block size after a typical city block. Keeping the Burning Man as the primary visual focus, while still separated for the Burn.
    4. Social aspects – Defining a camping area where all felt as one of a single community. Allotting public space. Defining an amount of space per campsite (became self-regulating). Allowing in the greater Black Rock Desert by preserving an open view to the North East.

    One might refine that down to just logistics and social, but there were multitudes of secondary criteria involved in the original scheme. Since then, there have been hundreds of modifications, many simply to accommodate population growth. I won’t go into further detail, but it remains for you to consider all factors and their ramifications. It may be sobering to realize that you have fifty thousand people dependent on that, and with their very lives in your hands.

    saludos, Rod

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