The Design Observer Group

Posted 01.10.11

Nate Berg

Burning Man and the Metropolis

"Intersection," installation by James Reagant and Charles Fields, 2010. [photo by MadeIn1953 via Flickr]

It's not exactly the ideal place to build a city. No water, little vegetation, limited animal life. August temperatures climb to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and drop close to freezing at night. High winds kick up powder-fine dust into blinding storms. The place is, in a word, inhospitable.

But year after year in late summer, a small city rises on this ancient lakebed in the Black Rock Desert, in Pershing County in northwestern Nevada. It's the annual event — or festival, or party — known as Burning Man, an eight-day experiment in self-expression and self-reliance that is now one of the most notorious cultural events in North America. What began as a bonfire attended by 20 friends on a San Francisco beach in 1986 has exploded into a global mega-event with 50,000 participants. They form a sprawling temporary community of tents and trailers that has evolved over a quarter century into a highly planned, intricately organized and fully functioning city.

Summer 2010
On the first night of the most recent Burning Man, Monday August 30, it is 11 p.m. before I get through the lines at the entrance gates. Tens of thousands of people are already here. Some have lived at Black Rock for weeks, constructing the infrastructure and laying out the roads that await the new arrivals. This city is off the grid, so it's dark when I roll in. And it's huge: one hundred and sixty blocks — each on average as long as a Manhattan block and nearly as wide — arranged in a semi-circle on the playa. Finding a place to camp is not a problem. Finding a good one takes a bit more luck. "You should have gotten here earlier," says a scraggly-haired man, just shy of middle age. "All the street-facing plots are taken up. You gotta in-fill." He's referring to empty spaces in the center of blocks. "There's a good spot over here, next to a couple of hot Russians." He leads me through the darkness.

The next morning, my tent is an oven, so I escape out into the sun and the surreal. I'm surrounded by tents and RVs and plywood huts and geodesic domes and an unbelievable assortment of temporary domiciles. The immediate camp looks familiar enough: people cook breakfast and lounge in camp chairs. But all around us, the party has begun. Strangers in capes and space helmets shake hands, fallout shelters and Old West saloons rise from the desert, bodies are painted, kites fly and drinks flow. It's not yet 8 o'clock.

Top: Burning Man center camp, 2010. [by Geoff Stearns]

At its core, Burning Man is an artistic event. It takes its name from the main attraction: the Man, a large wooden structure that is burned ceremoniously on the penultimate night. But the week is about much more than just anticipation for the fire. Organized around ten principles that encourage creative expression, the exchange of ideas, self-reliance, community interaction and participation, Burning Man is part gallery and part studio. Huge and bizarre art projects are installed on the playa, the bed of a lake that dried up 9,000 years ago. School buses converted into pirate ships and seizure-inducing light displays are scattered throughout seven square miles, surrounded by a perimeter fence. At night the desert glows like a neon wonderland. Intricately decorated "art cars" glide through the streets, and tricked-out bicycles bump along the uneven ground. I see blasts of kerosene-scented fire and hear dance music in every direction. Revelry flows through the night and into the next day. The vibe is a mix of a rave, a museum, and a drunken stroll on the Las Vegas Strip.

Burning Man is the sort of place where a man in a monkey suit will drive past in a motorized banana and a naked baby boomer with a megaphone will offer you a vodka tonic as you walk down a dirt street. Organizers have in fact struggled to shake the reputation of a drugged-out desert party. But while that reputation is partly true, it's more accurate to think of Burning Man as a temporary gathering of people living together outside the conventional constraints of modern life. This prospect has turned out to be incredibly attractive to urbanites from San Francisco, Las Vegas and Portland, and fellow rogues from cities around the world. Attendance at the 25th annual event was more than 51,000, the highest in its history.

On the Way to Metropolis
With so many people living together on federal land, outside the jurisdiction of any local government and without any services, Burning Man has necessarily taken on the form and functions of a city. To turn the "party in the desert" into a city, albeit one that exists for only one week at a time, organizers have developed a set of operational and physical guidelines. With its high-resolution urban plan — which resembles the prescriptive master plans of designers like Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier — and its departments created and run by volunteers, Burning Man feels like a slice of modern urban life, and in some ways an improvement.

That this city can exist without major catastrophe is due in large part to the organizational skills of its government. Now a proper limited liability corporation based in San Francisco, Black Rock City, LLC, has about 35 full- and part-time staff members and a six-member governing board. They work year-round, applying for permits, awarding arts grants to participants, lobbying local governments and interacting with federal agencies. At the event itself, department heads oversee communications, infrastructure and emergency services, among other city functions. Burning Man has become an Organization — a necessity, perhaps, but one that the anarchist-minded participants of the early years never saw coming.

Left: The Man, 2010. [by Mayhem] Right: Larry Harvey in front of San Francisco's City Hall. [by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid]

Larry Harvey, who has been involved with Burning Man from the start, is the city's unofficial mayor — or its benevolent dictator. Even as the festival has ballooned into a massive production and its organization has grown to dozens of department heads and thousands of volunteers, Harvey drives its direction and embodies its vision. Chain-smoking in his San Francisco apartment, he holds forth on the history of the festival while an inch of ash grows on his cigarette. Burning Man might be defined on the ground by the ever growing number of participants, but — he is clear — it's still his baby.

Harvey is not only the mayor of Black Rock City: he's also the art director, selecting the theme that guides artists' work from year to year. Past themes have included the Vault of Heaven, the American Dream and Evolution. In 2010, it's Metropolis. This is not just an acknowledgement of Burning Man's increasing city-ness but also an opportunity for critique — both of the city in the desert and the actual cities it temporarily replaces. The early years of Burning Man were defined (and indeed made more attractive to many) by lawless gallivanting on the desert frontier — guns shot off at random, cars driving across the playa at high speeds, unrestricted escape from the rules and regulations of metropolitan life. All that has changed. As the festival grows, it becomes more like the overly organized places some participants had hoped to leave behind.

Burning Man has taken on more order than originally intended, but for the organizers, that's not a bad thing. The event has evolved and expanded, and that means paying attention to the needs and safety of attendees, the impacts on the land (protected by the federal Bureau of Land Management), and the proliferation of a unique culture. With time, this attention has become institutionalized in a city government. This is what makes Burning Man more than just another festival. What forms in the Black Rock Desert every year is not a campout or a love-in or a bunch of merry pranksters dropping LSD. It's a physical community — one made of equal doses of utopianism and pragmatism. A look back at the history shows how this community has evolved.

From Baker Beach to Black Rock Desert
The first year, 20 people gathered on Baker Beach in San Francisco, just west of the Golden Gate. The night ended with a ritualistic burning of an eight-foot-tall wooden structure. The next year the crowd grew to 80, the year after to nearly 200. In 1990, Burning Man, now inked in the social calendar of Bay Area bohemians, drew more than 800 people to the beach. It also attracted a contingent of the S.F.P.D. who prohibited the crowd from burning what was by then a 40-foot-tall wooden man. This brief interaction with the local police set the beach party on a path toward the modern Burning Man when, a few weeks later, organizers took the structure far into the wild with a smaller crowd of followers. They burned the Man for the first time on the Black Rock Desert, just outside of Gerlach, Nevada. The event had found a new home.

Black Rock City, 2005. [by Sterling Ely]

The Black Rock Desert is more than 300 miles from San Francisco, so the Bay Area participants decided to camp overnight. Spontaneously, the camp formed into a circle. The next year, spontaneity gave way to bureaucracy, as the Bureau of Land Management, which issued the permit for land use, required that organizers submit a plan for camping areas and roads. This was Burning Man's first urban plan.

Soon the participants were dabbling in civic organization. In 1992 a team of "non-confrontational community mediators" known as the Black Rock Rangers formed to help eventgoers and mediate disputes before they escalated to the point of requiring police presence. At the time, no one imagined a future city staffed by emergency services personnel, airstrip operators and recycling collectors, but the early public services of the Black Rock Rangers were the first expression of a municipal model that would come to define Burning Man.

By 1993, the third year on the playa, the population had soared to above 1,000. The event was now a full week long. In 1995, 4,000 people attended, and the camp began to be known as Black Rock City. The model of municipality established in the early '90s is the main reason Burning Man was able to transform itself into one of the most ambitious visions of utopian urbanism in existence today.

But that urbanism is grounded in hard realities. The tragic death of a motorcyclist on the playa in 1996, just before the festival began, and a near-fatal incident in which a car ran over an occupied tent a few days later, confirmed the fact that an unregulated, unorganized Burning Man could not survive. It was time to think seriously about how the event worked, and how it could work better. With 8,000 attendees, Burning Man had reached the size of a small town, and organizers began to look to cities and towns for replicable models — and mistakes to avoid.

Burning Man was held on private land in 1997, a move that lasted only one year but which had the effect of accelerating its transformation into a city. Washoe County, Nevada, had jurisdiction over the private land, and its rules for special events and festivals required that organizers submit road plans, and that the event have garbage removal services and lighted walkways. Organizers came up with a road plan, but they felt the other requirements violated the principle of radical self-reliance, and they had to draw a line.

"For the first time, we had to debate with a public agency about our intentions — about not having garbage removal service or lit walkways," says Marian Goodell, now a Black Rock City board member and director of business and communications. The event organizers won that debate, successfully swerving around the county's requirements, a success that marked the beginning of a new era of interactions and negotiations between Burning Man and "the man."

Top left: Black Rock City Post Office. [photo by George Post, (c) 2002] Top right: Black Rock City Department of Public Works. [by Michael Michael] Bottom: Black Rock City Lamplighters. [by Dan Dawson]

Burning Man returned to the Black Rock Desert in 1998, under the jurisdiction of the BLM. Its subsequent growth solidified the relationship with the federal agency, which has had both positive and negative aspects for the festival. One downside — cited by nearly all the organizers — is the government's allocation of law enforcement, which they contend is larger than it needs to be. The substantial police presence affects the feel of the city and has contributed to the rising cost of a very expensive event. (Black Rock City's annual event expenditures now total more than $12 million. Ticket prices have risen from $35 in 1995, to between $200 and $360 in 2010. Rising payments to law enforcement agencies are a constant source of contention.)

The upside is a better city plan, with rules and best practices enforced by the BLM. "We need to have emergency services, and we need to have roads wide enough for a service truck, ambulance or fire truck," Goodell explains. "The same requirements a normal urban area would have. On our own, we've decided to have certain protections beyond what's required."

Over the years, Burning Man has gradually come to resemble a city not just in physical form but also in the bureaucratic constructs that underlie modern urban systems. Before the event this year a construction team arrived at the site to build the city's infrastructure. Other teams devised civic structures like the will-call booth and center camp. Road builders laid out the city's blocks and marked intersections. Emergency service personnel have grown from a handful of volunteers into a team of hundreds. Volunteers formed a "Department of Mutant Vehicles" to regulate art cars. They created an information booth and a post office to deliver mail within the city and to the outside world, and began broadcasting news from BMIR, Burning Man Information Radio. New departments formed to handle recycling, street lighting, toilet paper stocking in the porta-potties and crowd control at the front gates. For nearly everything that needs doing, there is now a designated person or group to do it. This has created an environment of pseudo-public officials at Burning Man but hardly a hierarchy of power. There are paid, professional staff at the top of certain departments, like the Department of Public Works or Emergency Services, but most of the bureaucracy consists of informal groups of people getting specific things done. Organizationally, Burning Man is very city-like in its assortment of arms and duties, but beyond that, there are few similarities with the slow-moving machine of a typical city government.

Black Rock City street plan, 2010.

Burning Man doubled in size every year throughout the '90s and by 1999 had exploded into a mid-size city of 23,000. With the increased attendance, planner Rod Garrett began to notice some of the fabric of the community coming loose. "We got to a point where I saw people becoming irrationally angry with each other and with the city," he says. "It occurred to me that this might be an effect of overpopulation, and that we'd hit some tipping point where people were no longer comfortable." With that, Garrett redesigned the camping blocks into an expandable ring pattern that could accommodate an increasing population without rancor and unpleasantness.

Over the next decade, Burning Man attendance would double again, and organizers have come to rely on the gentle persuasion of urban form to maintain control. "The event's gone from maybe 12,000 to nearly 50,000, and it's still basically the same design," Garret says. So where does it go from here? Nobody really knows. Harvey has no plans to cap attendance, and Garrett believes the same design, with minor tweaks and adjustments, could handle another 50,000. But a Black Rock City with 100,000 residents is just as hard for them to imagine as today's city would have been 25 years ago.

As Burning Man grows, organizers have avoided making rules about behavior (for the most part) and instead have encouraged civic and community activities that align with the ethic of the event. "We've shown that you can actually deal with the complexity of urban problems by using specifically cultural means," Harvey says. "The citizens participate in creating the city. In fact, half of our 'control' is based on watching their behavior and meeting their needs. And that's the whole history of the development of the city."

"Megatropolis: The Life and Death of a City," installation by Chris Hankins and crew, 2010. [photo by Nate Berg]

Lessons for the Rest of Us
Black Rock City — let's be honest — is not actually a city. It has city-like qualities and operates in city-like ways, but fundamentally it is a temporary vacation community developed for a specific purpose by a specific subset of people who take time off from their default lives to experience it. The challenges and problems of real cities only begin to surface here, and the intricacies of navigating local politics and policy are hardly broached at all.

But really, that's not the point. People who go to Burning Man aren't trying to recreate an urban experience or play City Hall. They are experimenting with new ways of living, as generations have done before them. In the 1960s hippies and progressives checked out of city life in favor of communal living "close to the land." But they were part of what was already a long American tradition, from the transcendentalists' mid 19th-century Brook Farm, in New England, to the socialists' early 20th-century Llano Del Rio in Southern California; even the Pilgrims were escaping from another life in the old country, seeking the utopia of a city on a hill. For one week in August, Burning Man participants agree to try out a new way of existing, and their intentional living spurs an ethic of participation that creates a unique community experience.

If the primary purpose of a city is to meet the needs of its citizens, Burning Man succeeds far better than many permanent cities. To be sure, Black Rock citizens have needs that are not as complex or diverse as those of residents in New York or Bangalore or Lagos. But the way the city has met those needs could be instructive to urban thinkers elsewhere. The main lesson is simple: active participation makes for a better community. In Black Rock City, residents say hello to their neighbors, collect recyclables, and at dusk light lamps on the path to the Man. They set up their own communication systems and emergency response teams. Participation is the organic result of citizens continually taking ownership of their community and their experiences within the community.

"It changes their philosophy of how they want to be involved in their cities, how they want to be involved in their world, how they want to personally spend their time," says Harley Dubois, a Black Rock City board member who serves as city manager. "That is where the change happens. And that happens thousands of times every year when people come to Burning Man. That's huge."

Top: "Astor Place," installation by Cory Mervis and crew, 2007. [photo by Eddie Codel] Bottom: "Subway," installation by Matt Ganucheau, 2010. [photo by Matt Ganucheau]

At Burning Man, participants create the city they want. This is not particularly revolutionary — people want more, and they do what they can to get it. What is revolutionary — or at least highly unusual — is the ease with which people, regular people, can effect that change at Burning Man. It's so different from the typical city of dense bureaucracies, political barriers and uninvolved or disaffected citizens. By encouraging participation, Burning Man organizers grow a culture based on interaction and creation. Citizens are empowered to feel as though they can change their community, and indeed they can. That Burning Man is temporary means that there is only a limited time to act, and a limited time for actions to take effect. How well this ethic survives outside the festival is hard to know, but organizers believe that if participants have a positive experience at Black Rock City, they can translate that experience into the practice of their everyday lives.

So, yes, the event can be about finding oneself, or radically rethinking one's life, or even eating LSD and walking through the dust. But this individual change is framed in the context of defining what people want from the world around them and how they can bring it about. Burning Man and its organizers believe people can realize that vision simply by living life the way they want to live it, and interacting with others the way they want to be interacted with. And as Burning Man has grown from a small gathering into a temporary city, attendees have become more intimately involved in the community around them, empowered to enact the changes on whatever scale is necessary to improve their quality of life during their eight days in the desert. It's city-making at the individual level. While that may seem like too small an effort to affect our permanent cities, what it actually does is underscore that one of the scales of the city is the personal: the city as experienced by diverse individuals. Rethinking the city at that scale, it's easy to find ways to improve upon the urban form. People realize that they can do things — maybe small things — that improve how they experience and interact with their fellow citizens. To create power in that way doesn't require a political office or city budget, only the desire to make life better. Community improvement through community participation is not difficult to achieve. It happens every year at Burning Man. And possibly beyond.