Building Burning Man: The Unique Architectural Challenges of Setting Up a City in the Desert

The Black Rock Lighthouse Service by Jonny & Max Poynton. Image © Dan Adams

Every year in August, a temporary metropolis is erected in Black Rock City, Nevada. This is Burning Man, an annual event of art and architecture that attracts some 70,000 participants. The people who come to Burning Man come from all walks of life. What is incredible is that they come together to construct an ephemeral city that lasts for 7 days. These people assume the role of architects and construction workers and use the desert to build all sorts of shelters in a fast, sustainable way. The desert is so remote, and everything built in Black Rock City is packed and taken home at the end of the event, and some of the art is burned on site. This poses a unique architectural challenge. The people who have come to build these structures have to plan them way in advance to accommodate all the challenges of working in the desert, but the result is worth it - a striking, unique city, democratically built, set against a desert landscape, and for only one week.

We had the chance to interview Kim Cook at the World Architecture Festival in Berlin. Kim Cook is Director of Art and Civic Engagement at Burning Man. Kim Cook and her team are tasked with increasing the impact of Burning Man’s arts and civic initiatives. As part of her role, Kim engages with artists and community leaders to increase opportunities for funding, collaboration and learning.

Building Burning Man: The Unique Architectural Challenges of Setting Up a City in the Desert - More Images+ 1

David Basulto: Burning Man has grown in scale to resemble an ephemeral city. How can this challenge be managed?

Kim Cook: Well, one of the things is that the city is built almost entirely by volunteers. Burning Man has 100 year-round staff, 700 seasonal hires and 7,000 volunteers that build the city. With that, one of the things that I think is really important is the caring of the volunteers. We have to think about how to invest in the quality of the experience for the volunteers as well as how to present new opportunities for people to volunteer. Where is the next wave of commitment going to come from if you don’t make space for other people to volunteer?

Furthermore, as Burning Man’s visibility has grown. Every year, 35% of the attendees are here for the first time. So we’re always bringing people into the community and we have to think about how to support them as they encounter these new cultural practices and behaviors. We want to help them have the experience that they’re seeking.

Another challenge is that, like any city, you have aging infrastructure. We use containers and cranes and various other kinds of physical objects, all of which need to be maintained and invested in.

DB: This ephemeral city has attracted countless architects, who come to create interesting installations year after year. What are the main challenges they face when designing structures for Burning Man?   

KC: Well, the main architects that I know that come to Black Rock City to build things are actually architectural students. In fact, there are a couple of universities now, one in Germany and one in the UK, who bring their students to the desert to execute their architectural projects. I see them struggle. They struggle because of the conditions, and because of the lack of supplies. Whatever they have with them is what they have to work with.

Tangential Dreams by artist Arthur Mamou-Mani. Image © Debra Wolff

So, the people that come here have to quickly learn how to self-organize, how to maintain their stamina, how to take care of themselves while creating this work. These are the challenges I see people wrestle with, but it is rewarding because they learn about their own capability when they manage to complete it.

I think that there is something triumphant that happens when you have the extreme nature of the environment working against you and you manage to succeed anyway. There is a feeling of being liberated from the limitations of one’s own possibility. Now you can imagine the impossible and imagine doing it. It’s pretty terrific.

Tangential Dreams by artist Arthur Mamou-Mani. Image © Ales, Dust to Ashes

DB: Is there any particularly challenging architectural installation that you remember, that left an impression on you?

KC: Yes. There’s so many. I will refer to two from 2016. Last year, there was a project called “The Black Rock Lighthouse Service.” From the start you have this idea of lighthouses in the desert and that kind of symbolism alone is very appealing. They made the lighthouses structured like quartz crystals, so they were not entirely vertical.

Each of the lighthouses was dedicated to a different goddess from a different culture. The interior spaces were decorated in the style of these goddesses and you could climb up inside of them and between them. It was absolutely stunning. And they burned the entire work at the end. Just like that - someone creates something that beautiful, and then surrenders it. It’s sort of astonishing.

That same year, another artist proposed a project called “The Catacomb of Veils” and it was sort of like a big pyramid, with three pyramidal structures. It was a massive project. He was not able to complete it as he had imagined. He was still building when the event began, so we couldn’t open it. Eventually, it was opened for visitors, but we only had 48 hours before it had to be burned down.

I found the Pyramid project to be just as successful, because of the way that he worked with his volunteers. I think he had 50 or 100 volunteers, and everybody was cooking meals together, and trying to complete what they had set out to do. Everybody was treating each other with kindness and encouragement, and that was a success in itself. It ends up not being just the structure but also the process that affects the experience.

There’s also something about this architecture of these symbolic pieces every year, of the city, that is created to correspond to the emotion in the community. That itself is really kind of interesting.

DB: What do you think are the challenges you will face as Burning Man continues to evolve?

KC: Well, I think the challenges really comes back to how we want to be committed to a cultural integrity but at the same time we have to be careful not to confuse the objective with the experience.

I have a partnership with a city in California called San Jose. It’s just south of San Francisco, and a much larger city. 177 square miles. The Cultural Affairs Director and the Economic Development Department wanted to install artworks in the center of the city. It was a lovely idea and I wanted to work on how to use these installations to ignite other possibilities, so it becomes an invitation and not just an object.

Now the city is working with us to create neighborhood park mentorship programs so that the artists of Burning Man can work with members of the community to imagine what sort of art installations they would want in their park, and then to co-create it. We want to focus on the culture of the community.

The reason that it is important, is that people live the culture. People come and they participate and they give and they express themselves. There needs to be a sense of being a part of the culture. If people start going to Burning Man just so they can get a taste of the Kool Aid instead of helping to make the Kool Aid, then all of the sudden it’s just like anything else that’s become commercial. And I think that’s the biggest risk.

DB: Burning Man goes beyond what happens in Black Rock every year. What can you tell us about its impact around the world?

KC: Burners Without Borders, a civic initiative from Burning Man, has 34 chapters around the world, and this gives us the unique ability to organize together and to make something or to do something. Doing so creates so much more civic responsibility, and personal responsibility in the community.

For example, in Corpus Christi Texas, for many years now, they’ve been doing a clean up of the seven-mile strip of beach. They clean maybe five tons of garbage every year from this beach. They’ve done it so consistently that finally the county named it Burner Beach. This history of working together makes our communities more resilient.

This is a very significant aspect of the Burning Man event that evolved over time. Every year you build a temporary city, you work with heavy equipment in extreme conditions, you know how to make a shelter that can withstand 100-mile-per-hour winds, and when the festival is over, you also come away with an extraordinary capability to reach out across a large social network of participants– that is remarkable.

Another example is that burners have been going to Calais and to Thessalonica and building secure shelters for refugees that aren’t accepted into official refugee camps. There’s this one woman who comes to Burning Man; she’s an artist and a model. She went to the cliffs of Greece built a light installation so that when people landed with their boats and they couldn’t find a path on the cliff, they could follow the light. I saw a visual of it, it was extraordinary.

Another thing that I think is very interesting and that I’m thinking about is how to shift from looking at Burning Man to looking out into the world. We have 700 to 800 volunteers that are called the Rangers and the rangers function as intermediaries between the people and law enforcement. They have a set of training called the Ranger Academy and they consider themselves as deriving their authority from the people they support.

They’re not a force or an imposition. They’re actually a resource. And so, we have been talking to the United States Institute of Peace about the way in which UN Peacekeepers are trained and exploring whether or not there can be some cross-training between the rangers and the UN Peacekeeper because UN Peacekeepers are primarily military forces that are brought in to keep the peace.

The Space Whale by The Pier Group with Matthew Schultz, Android Jones and Andy Tibbetts. Image © Zipporah Lomax

The other piece has to do with the way in which the art is made, which is really allowing someone who’s never picked up a welding torch or a hammer to engage and to learn and to be a part of building and making something. I think this can be helpful particularly for young people who are living in difficult situations where they feel like they have no control over anything in their environment, and this is even more so the case with youth who are traumatized. The Burning Man can offer some form of therapy or release.

The Space Whale by The Pier Group with Matthew Schultz, Android Jones and Andy Tibbetts. Image © Mark Hammon

Those are just some examples of how the experience of participating in Burning Man can be thought about in other contexts.


Image gallery

See allShow less
About this author
Cite: David Basulto. "Building Burning Man: The Unique Architectural Challenges of Setting Up a City in the Desert" 18 Apr 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

More interviews from ourYouTube Channel

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.