NEW YORK, October 13, 2007 -- Show Burners an aerial photo of Black Rock City, and you can expect a wave of
nostalgia -- or anticipation, depending on the time of year -- to wash over them. But have you ever
wondered why the city has its distinctive C-shape?
Burning Man Director Larry Harvey and City Planner Rod Garrett explained this, along with a bit of the
history of Black Rock City's form and architecture at a panel discussion in New York. About 200 people
crammed into a lecture hall at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects to hear them,
along with the architect behind Camp Disorient and a professional city planner.
In the early years on the Playa, there was no specific plan for Burning Man. People more or less camped
where they wanted to, and the event, as old-timers are wont to remind us, was far more free-form than it
is today. But 1997 was a watershed year. Held on private land, the event was for the first time in Nevada
not under the jurisdiction of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which in that era was relatively
libertarian in its oversight. Local Nevada authorities decided to send the Burning Man organization "back
to San Francisco with their tails between their legs," Garrett said, presenting them with a series of
festival rules that seemed designed to ensure failure.
Burning Man persevered. When the event returned to the Black Rock Desert in 1998, some of the elements
were retained, notably the concept of blocks and streets, which facilitate emergency services.
The Man, then as now, was the focal point of the new city, and the layout has him sitting squarely at the
end of each of the radial streets, him "the ultimate landmark," according to Harvey. "You know where you
are if you know where he is."
But there's more to Bernie than a flammable landmark. Although Harvey professed to be a "stone-cold atheist,"
he described the Man as a "sacred space." He recounted the founding story, in the now-standard version: "One
day, on impulse, I called a friend and said, 'Let's go to the beach and burn a Man'." His friend, Jerry James,
asked him to repeat that, not quite understanding or believing it the first time, Harvey added.
The Man they built was eight feet tall -- "a crucial two feet taller than we were," Harvey noted. You had to
look up to see him, and, as Garrett later noted, the Man now stands on a pedestal as result of many of the
Playa artworks being taller than the figure itself.
So, picture the scene in 1986: a couple of guys erect an eight-foot statue on a beach and then burn it after
dousing it with gasoline. "We were in a public place that was radically inclusive and a promiscuous social
environment -- rather like Burning Man is today," Harvey said. Bystanders were drawn to the first Burn,
looking upwards at the figure as it burned. "There was the Man at the center," Harvey said. "Since we were
at the tide line, we were in a semi-circle around it."
It is, Harvey said, perhaps stating the obvious, "the nature of ritual to repeat itself." Looking at a map
of modern Black Rock City, he said he noticed that "it was just like the beach." Burners, arranged in a
semicircle looking up at the Man, with a vast expanse -- swap the open Playa for the Pacific -- behind it.
Later Harvey and Garrett said that the city plan would never close the circle, turning the city's metaphorical
back upon the Playa.
Another important facet of Black Rock City, said Harvey, is bilateral symmetry, which is to say you could draw
a line down the middle and each half would be the same. This pattern repeats in the city plan, in the Man, and
in David Best's temples. "Any temple worth its salt," Harvey said, " has always been bilaterally symmetrical --
just as we are." (Those who question whether Harvey has a heart -- or an appendix -- might find some ammunition
One way Black Rock City differs from most of its inhabitants, according to Hayley Fitchett, another panelist
who is a London-based architect for Gensler Architecture, Design and Planning Worldwide and a Burner,, is that
it is more European in character than American. Center Camp, for instance, the equivalent of a town square, is
"visited and used by newer citizens rather than inhabitants." Like most European cities, she said, Black Rock
has "a functioning Main Street, the Esplanade," which is more or less open 24 hours. Also more European than
American are the mixed-use aspects of Black Rock neighborhoods, with citizens generally preferring to "live
near the action." This is seen in the relatively sparse population of the outer streets, compared with the
areas near the Esplanade, Center Camp and the plazas, where the high-traffic theme camps often are found.
Fitchett said she has been surreptitiously incorporating elements of Black Rock City design into her work.
For instance, she tries to leave buffer zones around industrial areas to let neighborhoods grow organically,
similar to what happens in the space near the large-scale sound camps.
The Eye, the architect behind Disorient, spoke about the evolution of his camp, which has evolved from a typical
sound camp into a well-planned, changing community. The camp's large sign, which spells out its name, includes
an art car behind the letters D-I-S, that detaches from its home and takes Disorient's music out onto the Playa.
That is probably the most well-known feature of the camp, but the Eye said he designs his camp with differing goals
in mind. As seen from the sky, the camp is like a drawing; from the street, it is a sculpture; and from inside,
it is a living environment.
In a question-and-answer session after the presentations, Harvey said the Burning Man organization is "hoping to
provide storage to participants so they can build upon what they have built." While big camps like Disorient pay
for storage in Empire (and little camps like the Black Rock Beacon rely on the kindness of strangers), it is
difficult for many participants to wrangle their equipment to the Playa year after year. Harvey said the BMorg
was negotiating with the local Paiute tribe about providing storage on its lands.
Harvey also said that the average Exodus waiting time had been halved this year and indicated he did not see the
traffic bottleneck at the end of the event as a major problem, even with the record population in 2007. He said
there would remain only one exit from the event.
Garrett mentioned that after donating solar cells used to power Black Rock City infrastructure to Gerlach this year,
that the organization planned to continue providing the units to the town in the future.