One aspect that has caught popularity in recent years but has been part of the architectural discourse since the 70s through Archigram and Peter Cooks writings is the use of temporary structures. The fastest growing cities are precisely permanent temporary settlements: barrios, favelas, and other informal shantytowns. These ephemeral spaces can lead to incredible experimentation, creative problem solving, and innovation.
Black Rock City is in many ways similar to all of those rapidly expanding cities of the world, in a constant reiteration of states, being recreated every year from scratch. A set of simple rules, tested out by trial and error in the past years remain set into place while other aspects of its rebirth are in a constant renegotiation.
So what can we learn from its ephemeral status and the set of rules that are established organically in order to reshape our cities?
With architectural patterning reminiscent of Hygeia, the legendary city of Atlantis, or Campanella’s City of the Sun, Black Rock City
shares more with Thomas More’s crescent formed Abraxa and Leonard Cooke’s Llano (Negley and Patrick 1971; Hayden 1976; Bowditch 2010b). But, the most undeniable resemblance is to Ebenezer Howard’s original plan as outlined in his 1898 Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Moreover, its circular structure origins reminds us of prehistoric tribal cultural settlements organised around the campfire. But only through the study of its original conception and its yearly iterations we can actually reveal its unique interplay between utopian urban planning and organic development.
The historic origins of what was to become Black Rock City began with the relocation of the Man’s burning from Baker Beach in San Francisco to the Black Rock Desert, Nevada in 1991. Due to the several hundred mile trip, it was necessary to establish an overnight camp near the Man for the 250 participants who attended. The original form of the camp was a circle. This was not planned, but formed instinctively from the traditional campfire circle and the urge to “circle the wagons” against the nearly boundless space.
A few years later, from the need of finding the place in the emptiness of the desert and because people were constantly getting lost, four avenues were added, indicating the cardinal direction. By 1996, a second circle called Ring Road surrounded that. Also, a zone called No Man’s Land was established in front of the settlement to preserve the view of Burning Man. This was lined with “theme camps” and opened outward from the civic plaza at about a 60 degree angle.
In 1997 the event was forced to relocate for one year in another adjacent point to the Black Rock Desert which required the creation of explicit plans for compliance with county regulations. The shape of the space used forced the settlement in an arc shape which spread out laterally from the center. This was entirely circumstantial, rather than conceptual, however it unwittingly became another important step in redefining the current shape of the city.
Finally, the coming years brought in the introduction of a new radial street pattern, with the city laid out like a clock, with camps established on a large semicircle from 2:00 to 10:00, with major streets every “half hour”.
At its core, the newly formed city can be seen as a composition of functional modules which, through their top-down and bottom-up mix create a unique “urban” space. These are:
The Burning Man
At BRC’s centermost point stands the multistory towering Man effigy, “an imposing locus of physical and perceptual centrality,” from which the city radiates outward. The large figure of the Man became a unique identifier of one’s position by providing a visual bearing at every radial road, even from deeply within the city.
The Desert View
After its contemporary conception, the radial plan was never complitly enclosed deliberately in order to insure a constant view of the emptiness of the desert and the night sky as a theatrical backdrop for the city’s central district. We can draw here parallels to contemporay planning focusing on skylines and perspectives that need to be protected in the cities.
The Large Scale Sound Art Area
The open stretch of playa between Center Camp and the temple (and surrounding the Man) is filled with art installations. The spread of the footprint makes a bicycle a necessity for those who wish to explore the expanse of Black Rock City.
The Street Pattern
Black Rock City has a formal street and block layout which repeats year after year. The city is laid out like a clock, with camps established on a large semicircle from 2:00 to 10:00, with major streets every “half hour.” The inside edge of that semicircle or crescent-like footprint is the Esplanade. Streets that run in arcs parallel to the arc-shaped Esplanade are labeled with names related to the theme of the year.
The Central Camp
Center Camp functions as the hub of Black Rock City, a kind of a downtown or marketplace. It features the media center, volunteer headquarters, and major services for the city. At the heart of Center Camp is the Center Camp Café, in a tent as large as twothirds of a football field.
The Theme Camps
Theme camps are the main organizational units of Burning Man. They gather participants around a common interest and they act as neighborhood units. There are hundreds of theme camps each year. They range in size from a few dozen participants to a few hundred. One block of the city structure can host several theme camps. The camps function as group homes for Burners and their communitas.
Camps vary tremendously in scale, size, and residential typology preference, with many unique blends of form and function.For example, Vertical Camp features a structure designed from reusable scaffolding to create intricate towering apartments with a large communal kitchen and living area; as an alternative housing option it serves dozens of residents within a small building footprint. Vertical Camp challenges other participants to consider a compact city in place of the current dominant lowdensity land use pattern.
But what are the rules governing this apparently chaotic communal creative effort?
From a planning perspective, the best example of institutionalization at BRC is Placement, the method by which Black Rock City LLC employs a residential zoning schema and a social engineering tool. Theme camps are aggregated among interior blocks and along the central corridor to create a downtown district, to activate boulevards, and to encourage social interaction. Variously-sized theme camps are placed based on three criteria:
- ability to attract participants
- capacity for interaction
- a demonstrated willingness to meet deadlines
For example, Kidsville, a theme camp created for participants with children, maintains boundaries within which no mature content is permitted, and provides shared childcare and play spaces.
Despite this formal process, in anarchistic tradition, zoning remains entirely optional. Theme camps that are not willing to apply and all other participants who are not part of a theme camp may locate anywhere available, or choose among designated areas such as those reserved for walking camping, families, or quieter nights. This is where the organic renegotiation of rules becomes evident and effective. An interesting example of defining to what extent rigid rules are the norm and how negotiation takes place is the example of the organic restructuring of camps based on sound: theme camps featuring large sound systems are sited along the outermost corridors, facing open space for noise mitigation.
In the begining, there was nothing official about zoning; it was completely casual and self-governing. People simply camped with their friends or other likeminded folks. That meant that people who stayed up late and were loud at night camped together. People that had mad scientific projects involving explosions and fire clustered around each other, and those that liked the sunrise and afternoon activities created a spot of their own. In 1995, the first rave was brought to the “project” but the rave’s placement caused difficulties. It was upwind and close enough to make a decent night’s sleep impossible. The next year (1996), the rave was moved downwind and a mile out, with a clearly defined road leading to it. Though the previous year’s issues were resolved, the distance and lack of connection with the rest of the city proved to be problematic. In the next years, people organically organized into creating a “Loud” and a “Quiet” side of town. Theme camps started to organize depending on volume of noise output and preference in experience and in many ways the results look similar to what urban planners now talk as a 24-hour city. This is how, organically the two loud ends of the city where created.
Not completely free from cultural entanglements with outside society, BRC is an example of a democratically and collaboratively produced urban landscape transformed by negotiations between ideological and pragmatic limitations. These tensions between participation orthodoxy and an ethos of creativity result in annual production of a radical new heterodoxic space.