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Burning Man Has Become A Testing Ground For Extreme Architecture

Designers descend to try their creations against the heat and wind of the Nevada desert.

French photographer Philippe Glade has been going to Burning Man for 20 years. But unlike many other photographers, who document the festival’s famous art installations or Black Rock City’s sometimes eccentric residents, Glade focuses his lens on Burning Man’s ephemeral architecture. He’s found that the festival’s sustainable ideals–paired with the harsh climate of the Nevada desert–has turned Burning Man into a proving ground for extreme architecture.

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In a new book of images depicting the tents, domes, yurts, and camps of Black Rock City entitled The New Ephemeral Architecture of Burning Man, Glade exhibits a vast range of architectural structures in photographs from 2011 to 2015. The book, which was released late last year, is a follow-up to Glade’s first photo essay.

The festival’s transient architecture must meet unusual design requirements. First, buildings must abide by the festival’s central edict: leave no trace. That means no significant foundations, even for structures that can reach up to 100 feet (pounding a stake into the desert sand is okay, Glade says). Larger architecture must encompass the philosophy of Burning Man, with design that is welcoming and open so that people can mingle effortlessly (no fortresses allowed, Glade says). But most of all, the architecture must be able to withstand the gale-force winds of the playa.

Hexayurts [Photo: Philippe Glade]
Glade says that has turned Burning Man into a verifiable testing ground for designers, architects, and engineers to try out prototypes, particularly for lightweight, easy-to-assemble structures that could be used as disaster relief. “If after a week or 10 days the new idea or design is still up, that means it’s good,” he says. In other words, it didn’t get blown over.

Chief among these prototype structures is the hexayurt, a six-sided structure made from plywood and insulation. While it was initially designed for a disaster relief shelter competition, the hexayurt was first prototyped on the playa by the designer and entrepreneur Vinay Gupta in 2003 and is now a staple of the festival. Every year, dozens more of his open-source project’s 13 different models pop up throughout Black Rock City. The blueprints for building a hexayurt are available for free on the project’s website. But the structure’s reach extends beyond Burning Man–it was used as shelter during the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The Chiton [Photo: Philippe Glade]
Besides the popular hexayurt, Glade says, other structures frequently seen at Burning Man include domes and teepees. Other architecture relies on the principle of tensegrity, where tension and compression hold each structure together. In one photograph, Glade depicts Camp Inventistan from 2011. It’s a tall tensegrity structure that has a viewing platform on top of four freestanding masts.

One engineer named Rob Bell created flat-pack zomes–zonohedral domes–that can be assembled without specialized skills or tools. Some of the ephemeral architecture is more fanciful, like another camp modeled after your average white-picket-fence suburbia. One structure is entirely covered in loaves of bread that lasted for the entire festival. Glade says that at the end, its creators made toast for anyone who wanted it.

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Of course, not everyone turns their shelter into a work of art–or a potential business. The experience of the tech titans who come to network at Burning Man is entirely different, with gourmet meals, air conditioning, and luxury accommodations that hardly qualify as tents.

As for Glade, he sleeps under a tarp held up by collapsible poles–a simple shelter he’s been using for many years and that he will use again this year for his 20th trip to the festival. The lack of walls are entirely the point. “All year long I’m inside walls,” Glade says. “When I go to Burning Man, I don’t want to be inside walls.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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