The Living Language of Black Rock City

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Click any image to launch a slideshow of photos from Burning Man 2010 by Neil Girling, theblight.net (unless otherwise noted).

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Burning Man has a reputation: an accumulation of expectations and stereotypes that for some are inspiring and others bizarre. This year’s theme, Metropolis: The Life of Cities, clearly offered a particular relevance to the urban planning and design communities and I expected to be captivated by the participants’ explorations of the subject. But what struck me most about the event was nothing theme-specific. Rather, it’s what I imagine gives Burning Man its remarkable energy and following year after year: a living pattern language in action.

First, for those new to Burning Man, a short preface: every year, over the course of a week, 50,000 people come together to create a temporary city the size of northern Brooklyn in the middle of the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. A stark salt flat is transformed into a kinetic circus and city of lights and art by a diverse community — everyone from goth atheists to spiritual yogis to artists and just plain creative ravers — without formal direction, coordination or guidance. Yet “Black Rock City” somehow becomes a cohesive whole. Amidst and at the center of this constructed environment is a massive amount of art. Towering sculpture, small tables, cars decked out with lights and sound systems, fire blazing jets even multi-story architecturally sound structures make up this make-shift city. Meanwhile, an untold number of talks, workshops, meals, shows, spectacles and cultural happenings flood the city throughout the week.

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Burning Man 2010 by Neil Girling, theblight.net.

The whole thing is rule-free (except for rules implemented to protect the health and safety of others), more like a pulsing organism than a festival. How is this possible in the middle of the desert with practically no central organization?

The question brings me back to a living pattern language in action. The Burning Man phenomenon can be understood through the patterns of living described by Christopher Alexander in his work A Pattern Language. Alexander describes patterns of living as behavioral forces, both general and specific, to which architecture can offer solutions — the need for a gathering place at the heart of a home, or a transition space for walking into a house. People, communities and cultures generate many different types of architectural solutions, thereby creating their own language of patterns. (Think about the common language of French cottages, and how it differs from that of Polynesian huts.) Once these patterns are shared, anyone can then use them to address their needs.

Burning Man offers just this. The central team offers a framework but it is mainly service-oriented — toilets, safety (i.e.: medical services and police if they’re needed), central organization for help, a place to register and designate camp areas. Aside from that, the event works under the auspices of ten very broad (but very important) principles:

  • Radical Inclusion
  • Gifting
  • Decommodification
  • Radical Self-reliance
  • Radical Self-expression
  • Communal Effort
  • Civic Responsibility
  • Leaving No Trace
  • Participation
  • Immediacy

This bare bones structure allows for a sort of Petri dish of rampant individual expression and creativity. A concept and some fundamental direction offer the flexibility for people to take it and run with it. (Sometimes thinking inside the box is not so bad if the box is a flexible one). Much of the architectural language at Burning Man revolves around forms of shelter — tents, RVs, tipis, geodesic domes, shade structures — but these familiar typologies are transformed. People turn shade structures into towering monuments — one group created a MalMart, while another perched a light-up banana atop their “Monkey Business Camp.” “Art cars,” trucks fitted with sound systems and carrying DJs, are transformed into giant dragons, desert cruise yachts, trains, pink hearts, fire-breathing roosters that can carry about 30-40 people around the otherwise car-free Black Rock City, attracting followers and inspiring joy and revelry.

Photo by Neil Girling, theblight.net

Burning Man 2010 by Neil Girling, theblight.net.

Even the costumes, lights and colors begin to suggest a language of extreme expression. Bright greens, pinks, and golds stand out against the desert. Like the pinks and yellows of the Bahamas or the telltale white and blue of a Dutch cottage, Black Rock City has begun to develop its own color scheme/scape (as eclectic and non-conforming as it is).

A remarkably primal sense of community permeates Burning Man. You need to find your way across long distances, late at night and through white-out dust storms. Cell phone reception is limited to a spotty internal network, and the only communications systems are a Black Rock City radio station and distributed publications. A sense of humanity and survival kicks in when you need to figure out what to eat and where to find more water (though you may just as readily be surprised by someone offering you a steak, you can’t count on anything). The return to this community mentality is palpable as people return to their camps for food and water and to regroup with their community, making sure everyone is safe, before heading back into the cold dusty desert for the night’s escapades.

This was my first visit to Burning Man and I found it fascinating and beautiful. Extraordinary things can happen when platforms and systems provide a central concept and structure that is rigid enough to offer definition but flexible enough to give people the freedom to make it their own. There are, of course, arguments that Burning Man is not all roses: there could be a greater variety of cultures, tastes and ethnicities represented; the “burning of the man” and the waste produced at the festival are contradictory to a sustainability based ethic; and there is a lack of utility in the massive amounts of thought and energy put into what are ultimately play-driven projects. But despite the arguments, I believe Burning Man has created something extremely powerful — it allows people to realize their creative capacities, leveraging the power of a community of many individuals. That is something that our own cities can learn from.

Satellite view of Burning Man 2010 via GeoEye.

Satellite view of Burning Man 2010 via GeoEye.

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Jerri Chou leverages social good to develop and scale innovative businesses of the C21st. She is the founding partner of All Day Buffet, The Feast, TBD, and the corporate social innovation strategy agency Lovely Day where she acts as Managing Partner — all of which offers her a deep understanding of and network in the social innovation space. Through her work, she has gained extensive knowledge of innovation, business strategy, new model research and integration, branding, communications and partnership development.



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