Talking with my son ALEX, a fire safety engineer on The Temple Of Transition, at this year’s BURNING MAN FESTIVAL
Alex and I were talking about magic – serendipity or the illusion of it – and as we often do these days, got onto the subject of The Burning Man Festival in Nevada. This year, he helped build the temple and then helped burn it down.
Amazing, I said, that the temple was constructed in order to burn it down. Reminds me of the artist Andy Goldsworthy. The very thing that brings his work to life, also brings about its destruction. The sun illuminates his ice sculptures and eventually causes them to melt. Once he constructed a hive out of driftwood at the convergence of two river currents so that when the tide came in the whole hive gradually floated away – stick by stick, to join the current, until it had gone.
But Goldsworthy says this doesn’t feel at all like destruction. It feels, instead, as though he has touched the heart of the place. Something magical.
When I went to Burning Man for the first time last year, I did feel I had touched on something magical. This year was very different.
Because that sense of everything being spontaneous was actually carefully organized behind the scenes?
That’s just it. This time I was on the organizational side of things – first helping to build the temple and then working out how they’d burn it down on the final day of the festival.
Furthermore, I got to go out last minute to do the surveying for the temple because I had some experience from my degree and so we went out there to the middle of the desert when there was nothing and helped lay out where the site would be and where the different temples would be.
So how was this experience different from your first experience, the year before?
For one, the temple was a very different building when I went the first time. It was called the Temple of Flux and it was natural forms – a canyon kind of thing. The theme of the festival was Metropolis, so in contrast, the temple was a canyon of natural forms.
It was very very moving the first year. And that particular quote that was written across the temple itself - not just the things I wrote on it – but the things you would read from other people.
What was written on the Temple of Flux?
“Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” And that obviously had a big impact. It was in huge letters on the Temple of Flux.
That made a big impression.
It’s hard for me to describe why it was so particularly important to me. But I guess that at the time I went to the festival maybe I had been trying to be someone else, I don’t know.
I had a very pure experience of the festival as a participant at that temple, going by myself. But this year I arrived on site, and helped build it. I know about the building at all its stages – the engineering of it, thinking about how it would burn. It was a very different perspective.
What exactly was the design this year, again?
One central tower that was I think twenty-six feet across on the inside and then a hundred-and-twenty feet tall and five sixty-foot towers surrounding it, which were at each base, the footprints of them, like sixteen foot across –
In any case, there was one giant tower surrounded by the other towers, with ramps and cloisters connecting them.
The building was the spiritual heart of the festival. Although the festival is named after the 'man' the temple epitomizes the spiritual experience of Burning Man, whatever that might be.
The theme this year was Rites of Passage so it was the Temple of Transition. The different towers represented different things. Clockwise around it went Birth, Growth, Union, Decay and Death and the central one was the Temple of Gratitude. Just those names, in and of themselves, can suggest what the festival goers, The Burners, would write on the walls, how they would choose to remember or transpose their emotions onto the building. And then those are released at the end of the festival with the burning of the temple.
It was always moving and powerful to be there but in a very different way this year. It was moving and wonderful to see how successful the temple was….
What do you mean?
Every time you went there, the central area was full of people lying on the ground looking up at it, and people all around being very emotional and writing moving and personal messages all around it. That was the intention of the building, but I didn’t feel like I was able to connect to it as a pure spiritual or emotional symbol because I knew it as a building.
In that regard, almost like a character and an example of how it had grown. I would walk around and know I had hammered in certain plywood in a certain location or had a certain conversation at another spot during the building of it. It was like the building itself was a relic of the experience I had or was having as opposed to a conduit of emotion for my everyday life.
That’s how I feel about my sculpture. I don’t want to look at it once I’ve done it!
Being part of the creation of the experience wasn’t a psychological vacation, or it wasn’t the transformative experience it was before, where it almost felt like I was in a dream or a magical place. My inherit curiosity about how it was done led me to be involved in it and consequently to see the man behind the curtain, if you will.
But you built it knowing it was going to be burned down~ so what was that like? Did burning it down, in a sense, hold the magic of the experience for you?
The night of the burn, maybe ten or fifteen minutes before the actual burn, was probably the climax for me. It had been such a stressful day, trying to organize with the Burning Man people, delegating tasks within the crew and dealing with different personalities and all that sort of thing. By the end of it I was just exhausted, not just by the day, but by the week of Burning Man and the two weeks prior as well – when I’d been building the temple. So I guess in a way it was the apex of the anticipation of it all.
There were ten or fifteen minutes left. The whole temple was sealed up - the different outer towers and the inner towers and the wood and fuel was loaded into it – scrap wood, fuel and things. I realized we hadn't yet placed the fuel on the actual ramps and there had been this kind of concept of having fuel running down the ramps.
So basically I went in, last minute with two other guys, with some bags of paraffin and cellulose lactose, which was stuff we had left over, and went back into the temple for the last time. It was surrounded by the festival goers waiting to see it all burn. And we were up on the viewing platform putting down this paraffin and scattering the rest of the cellulose lactose and being able to smell the fuel that was already in there, particularly in the central tower….
Didn’t it feel really dangerous?
I was in charge of the risk assessment of the fire plan – and the Burning Man ethos is all about taking care of your own safety and things like that. But yeah, it did feel dangerous.
We did what we needed to do and quickly got out of there because it definitely smelled dangerous.
It was one of those unbelievably unique experiences of this temple - the last thing to be there. I arrived when there was nothing. And then I got to be there on it and literally be able to be surrounded by all the messages that people had written and the fuel and see it in its final incarnation before it was committed to flames.
And when you looked down, and you saw the crowds, what did that feel like? What did it look like?
I was surrounded in all directions in the middle of the desert by a dense crowd who were all waiting to see this building go up. It was amazing. I guess it was that moment of anticipation you have being in a play, the feeling of being behind the curtain and hearing the crowd on the other side of the curtain, but this time it was reality. It wasn’t like a play or a performance. We were actually burning it down. All the people who were waiting to watch it burn, had very real emotional investments in the burning of it. So there was a mix of responsibility with this, almost playful frivolity! That feeling of running around and scattering fuel around and seeing the crowd around you, and knowing that where you’re standing won't exist in ten minutes.
It must have been amazing!
It really really was. But the main point is that the purpose of the temple was to be the spiritual heart of the festival. For me, the truth for all architecture, and one of the things that drew me to buildings in the first place, is the amazing power buildings can have, the art of creating environments and settings. To understand how these environments are made and seeing them realized is my true passion. But in this case, this removed me from being able to appreciate the building as it was intended to be experienced. The uniqueness about that last 15 minutes however is something I'd never have been able to experience if I had held on to that certain type of magic.
There's a difference in letting a building serve you, and being one of the people who creates it.