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    Burning Man 2013: City, Culture, Art & Architecture

    By Vatjaiswal
    Oct 7, '13 7:51 PM EST

    What is Burning Man

    I kept hearing about burning man as this week long insane camping event held annually in the deserts of Nevada, USA. The event came highly recommended from those who have been to it so I decided to go this year and check it out myself. It was definitely one of the strangest and coolest experiences I have ever had in my life. Unlike the common belief, burning man is not just about partying or drugs, it has much more going on. I experienced so many emotions in one week that it is hard to call it just one thing. It was survival, partying, art, experimentation and self reflection. The strange thing is everyone loved the event for different reasons. So what can burning man offer you? Read on…

    The City & Urban Planning

    The temporary “Black Rock City” only exists for one week and was surprisingly large (7 miles X 7 miles). It’s too big to walk and explore so a bike can be your best friend there. It was made up of 72,000 people this year alongside 40,000 RV’s, tents and bikes. The orientation of the city was interesting since it was facing its back to the winds. This became most apparent on the last day when the “man” was burnt and the flames + smoke went away from us.

    The city was divided into two main parts- residential camp grounds and open areas containing large structures and art works. The campgrounds were further subdivided into camps which contained 40-50 people each. These camps would often have a theme, a small structure and a thing that they were gifting to others for free (an attraction of sorts). Some had free drinks while other gave showers to dirty residents and so on. The residential areas were intentionally grouped according to the types of events held. Some were loud and generally enjoyed at night time while other parts of the city were best explored in the morning. The city’s radial organization was good but confusing. But that didn’t matter because me getting lost was probably a good thing- more things to see and more people to meet. The roads and blocks dividing the neighborhoods did actually have names but their accuracy was poor. Any given address could mean hundreds of tents- good luck finding your friend.

    The open area was subdivided into playa (Spanish for beach) and deep playa (Spanish for don’t go there on foot because it will take forever to return to your camp). The playa contained the two major structures- the man and the temple. The deep playa consisted of the infinity beyond the playa. It had small artworks sprinkled everywhere. It was peaceful to be there by yourself exploring the nothingness on a bike or watching the sun rise in the morning alongside people partying on art cars at a distance.

    I particularly enjoyed the compactness of the residential areas contrasted with the openness of the playa. Where the residential areas would distract you with all the events and camps- organized neatly into blocks, the playa was distraction free endless desert. No roads with no destination. I would explore the deep playa aimlessly for hours to find a piece of art or to get a good photograph.

    It was hot as hell in the daytime (40 degrees) and pretty cold at night (10 degrees). One of my buddies actually fainted due to dehydration but the emergency services took care of him at once. He was back on his feet and partying in no time :D The emergency services, rangers and police on site made everybody feel comfortable. Other than survival concerns, one would feel completely safe at burning man. All tents and RV’s were open but I heard no mentions of anything getting stolen. On the contrary, there was a culture of sharing everything so stealing didn’t make sense.

    Toilets- oh the luxury of clean toilets at home was forgotten in a day. The city was peppered with many porta potties. They were serviced every few hours and were relatively clean. I especially enjoyed the fake posters inside these toilets which were meant to scare people using the potty. One of them said ‘beware of snakes’ – we have found snakes living inside the porta potties!

    At night time the city turned into a rave like scene. Everything was flashing with lights. One had to wear neon lights or rave sticks for safety so people biking around at night could see where the pedestrians were and vice-verse. As a result, everything was glowing in neon lights- art cars, people, bikes, structures, art pieces and so on. It was simply unreal walking around with thousands of neon lights moving around you in absolute chaos. This chaos was something to admire. It has a certain harmony and liveliness in it. Las Vegas would be a lame comparison but imagine every neon light on the strip moving around you in a chaotic manner + darker and way dustier…

    It was so strange to be there and imagine that everything that your eye can see will no longer be there in a couple of days. It was only one of the strange feelings. The culture was even stranger…


    Burning man is also an experimental society and culture. A major misconception (rightfully attributed to all the nudity and drugs) is that burning man is only for younger folks. Let me assure you there were infants, kids and 80 year olds at burning man having a ball. There are plenty of things to do at burning man and you will never be too old to go there.

    Everyone at burning man was looking out for each other. There was a sense of connection with others and one would not think twice about lending a hand to another person in need. I had heard about a barter system culture – that was completely false. It was a gifting culture. You never trade things, you just share them. Share everything you have from t-shirts to noodles, granola bars, water, hats, costumes, sunblock, alcohol, neon lights etc. It was amazing to be in a place where you could walk around and get a free drink, free candies, free bath, free meditation class, free bike, free everything. Of course someone paid for it, but at Black rock city where people share everything, things are simply free.

    The nudity was shocking at first. People were buck naked walking and biking around doing their day to day activities as if they don’t even realize their things are hangin’ out. It wasn’t a beach or tanning type thing. People were simply naked for their daily errands. That was weird. But only for a day or two. I got used to it and so did everybody else. That’s just how things were over there! Will you go full monty at burning man?

    Architecture and Art Cars

    Burning man is pretty much an architect’s dream playground. There were around 8-10 large building like experimental structures and 10-15 smaller ones- all made of wood so they could burn. It must be exciting to design structures that not only function and look good, but also burn well! The concept of burning man structures was that they will all be burnt in the last two days. All structures provided shade from the blazing heat, used as much wood as possible, provided for air and dust to pass through them and were structurally efficient. I was quite impressed with the structural engineering and was wondering if they were all approved by professional engineers for safety reasons. Anybody knows? Nevertheless, large or small – every structure was breathtaking and well suited for its purpose and environment. I call that the definition of good architecture.

    The biggest habitable structures were the 1) Man 2) Temple and the 3) Center camp. The man was about 40 feet in height along with another 25-30 feet UFO like spaceship thingy that served as a base. Three interesting things to note about that structure were 1. it contained nothing inside it except 3 slides for no apparent reason (why not right?) 2. the hands of the man could move up-down and 3. the structure burnt really well on the day of the event. I saw the entire structure (comparable to a 7 storey building) burn down in 15 minutes! The temple was another cool structure shaped like a pyramid. This was the only place in burning man that didn’t allow partying, drinking, shouting etc. This ‘spiritual/meditative’ space was made entirely of wood. Even the connectors were made of wood and all structural members came together with impressive wood joinery. Lastly, the center camp, which was not meant to be burnt, was made mostly of flag poles and tension cables covered with stretched canvas for roofing. It was a nice space to relax and lie down to take a nap.

    The architecture of the tents and camps were interesting as well since these were not professional designed by anyone. People built pretty incredible shade structures simply following instructions printed from a website. Bucky’s geodesic dome was a sure hit at burning man and I can assure you there were hundreds of those around. Some were only shade structures while others held activities inside them. I mostly spent my time under a neighbor’s shade structure called a monkey hut.

    The art installations and sculptures were very well crafted. Many installations had an interactive or animated element to it. I hear that burning man is slowing becoming an international hub for creative minds. Some of the installation even came from Australia! But, my personal favorite were the art cars. They were mostly modified scooters, heavy duty cars, buses and trucks. Ranging from one person vehicles shaped like cupcakes to a flaming octopus to 30-40 person massive pirate ships- the art cars were definitely the most striking feature at burning man. They were everywhere and there were thousands of them. They all drove at slow speeds playing loud music and welcomed anyone to hop-on. Whether you just wanted a ride to the other side of the city or wanted to party on it the whole night, art cars were always a fun experience. Have you ever ridden on a 70 feet long discofish? You can do so only at burning man. Go there, it is definitely an experience worth having once in your lifetime.

    Burning man 2013


    • marik

      please explain this music choice for the video.

      Oct 8, 13 9:14 pm  · 

      Iowa State actually (used to?) run a Burning Man summer studio involving construction of installations for the event, I think the only academic course in the world involving a visit to Burning Man. Unfortunately, the event has gotten much more popular in recent years, and tickets are harder and harder to secure, making it an iffy process every year to get the studio going. You can see some of their work below.

      Oct 12, 13 10:05 am  · 

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About this Blog

I am from Canada but currently traveling in Valencia, Spain. I will be traveling to Brazil, Taiwan and South Korea for the entire upcoming year, exploring the architecture and urban planning of major cities in these countries. My blog will focus on comparing architecture in different parts of the world, accompanied by photographs and videos. I would also like to write about how culture influences architecture of these places. Archinect seems like a great place to start and share my ideas!

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  • Vatjaiswal

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