Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Friday, November 27, 2009

Living The Ephemeral City, Enjoying the Ephemeral Architecture

The playa man. Photographer Dan Adams. 2009
All images are copyright in their respective year, by both the photographer and Burning Man
“Zozobra” marionette burning event is the oldest civic celebration of its kind in North America. It has gone up in flames every year since Will Shuster created it in 1924. Shuster assigned all rights, title and interest in Zozobra on June 19th, 1964 to The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, which retains exclusive copyright and Trademark to the figure. His inspiration for Zozobra came from the Holy Week celebrations of the Yaqui Indians of Mexico where an effigy of Judas, filled with firecrackers, was led around the village on a donkey, and later burned. Zozobra is a hideous but harmless fifty-foot bogeyman marionette. He is a toothless, empty-headed facade. He does not have a leg to stand on. He is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Over the years the effigy has grown larger, reaching a height of 49 feet in 2001. It is stuffed with bushels of shredded paper, which traditionally includes obsolete police reports, paid off mortgage papers, and even personal divorce papers. Zozobra’s event is considered a Fiesta where anguish, glooms, problems, are wiped off by burning the marionette.

A similar event in the burning of a man’s statue, the “Burning Man”, is far more interesting than Zozobra’s for the architects’ point of view. Not only for the creation of an “instant city” but for the exhibition of great ephemeral architecture and art. At the end of the summer, architects, artists, designers, come together to build the city and to burn “the man”.

What follow bellows is combined, adapted excerpts from Burning Man’s web page, that clearly explain the nature of the event.

The man and the neon monkey. Photographer Don Davis. 2009.

Burn Night. Photographer: Peter Pan. 2008
The celebration of Burning Man's annual fire ceremony began in 1986, created by Larry Harvey and Jerry James. There is, a founding myth: the story of how Larry Harvey and his friend Jerry James burned a wooden man upon the beach in San Francisco on June 21, 1986. Many stories now embroider this initial act: accounts of Larry's broken heart, his vanished love affair, his allegiance to his father—a self-made man, a carpenter. By deciding to burn a man, Larry and Jerry not only invented the man, they also engaged in the first recorded form of what we now call "radical self-expression." It is a remarkable fact that, during the early years of growth on Baker Beach, not one of organizers or workers who toiled to create the man ever asked what it meant, though they sweated to build it.

For the next four years, the annual fire party was held at Baker Beach in San Francisco. A 1990 Cacophony newsletter item invited interested people to meet in downtown San Francisco to help assemble a wooden sculpture to be burned at a San Francisco beach in an annual celebration. The building area for this event was in a parking lot in San Francisco near 11th & Folsom. The Park police interceded in 1990 to prevent the culminating conflagration of the statue. This was a transitional moment for Burning Man as the event evolved with a new location, a change of date, and the beginning of a new meaning for the celebration.
Curators say that trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind; to truly understand it, one must participate. There are no rules about how one must behave or express oneself (save the rules that serve to protect the health, safety, and experience of the community at large); rather, it is up to each participant to decide how they will contribute and what they will give to this community. The event takes place on an ancient lakebed, known as the playa. By the time the event is completed and the volunteers leave, sometimes nearly a month after the event has ended, there will be no trace of the city that was, for a short time, the most populous town in the entire county. Art is an unavoidable part of this experience, and in fact, is such a part of the experience that Larry Harvey gives as theme each year, to encourage a common bond to help tie each individual's contribution together in a meaningful way. Participants are encouraged to find a way to help make the theme come alive, whether it is through a large-scale art-architecture installation, a theme camp, gifts brought to be given to other individuals, costumes, or any other medium that one comes up with. The Burning Man project has grown from a small group of people gathering spontaneously to a community of over 48,000 people.

Basura Sagrada Last Sunrise. Photographer Ales Prikryl. Last Sunrise created spectacular silhouette of Temple. Created by Shrine, Tucker and the Basura Sagrada Collaboratory

Basura Sagrada’s Temple. 2008. From Comfort and Joy.

Mausoleum in Dust. Photographer Glen Mehn. 2001.

“There wasn't much art on the playa in 1995, but as more artists created bigger and more complex installations each year, it occurred to me that a new kind of art-making was evolving, completely outside of the mainstream art world. On the playa, artists weren't attached to sole ownership of their work, which was community-based and communally built. Groups of artists and friends worked together on projects, sharing resources and co-operating instead of competing. Most amazing to me was the sense that these artists were so far removed from notions of preciosity and market value that they were actually burning their work at the end of the event. They weren't trying to attract a dealer or a collector…..they were doing it for the experience and for the community. …Burning Man has in a sense given art back to the community. Participants don't have to go into a museum or gallery to look at the art in a detached manner; they can help build it, they can touch it, and they can play with it. In a sense we have a sort of informal art school happening in the desert, as artists share information with those who have never created art”. (Christine Kristen aka LadyBeeHow I Fell From the Art World and Landed at Burning Man)

Giant wood sculpture designed by Arne Quinze at the Burning Man festival in Death Valley, USA in September last year. The sculpture is a larger version of the timber installations Quinze has built at design shows in London, Cologne and Miami and required 150km of wooden laths. It measured 60m x 30m x 15m high.

Arne Quinze’s installation burning. From
The Burning Man Regional Network grew to 150 Regional Contacts in 100 locations around the globe, In reaction to the overcrowding experienced in 2007, and anticipating that upwards of 50,000 people would be gathering in the Black Rock Desert for the 2008 event (it topped out at 49,599), the Burning Man Planning Department expanded the geographical layout of Black Rock City to accommodate this growth. They also have an Art Department, a Department of Mutant Vehicles. By 2008 over 785 theme camps and villages filed questionnaires requesting placement, and 746 met the criteria and were registered and placed, as part of Black Rock City's urban planning efforts (unregistered camps acquire space on their own, on a first-come first-served basis).

Burning Man Map organization. See that the urban fabric is represented with words.

Aerial View of Black Rock City. Photographer Scott London. 2009

Camp organization, in a closer scale. From

“Black Rock City (the name given to the settlement) thrives, in part, because of smart design decisions. The city is laid out in a series of concentric circles; the largest is nearly two miles in diameter. The concentric streets are given different names each year; in 2008, in keeping with the American Dream theme, they were cars: Allanté, Bonneville, and Corvair to Hummer, Impala, and Jeep. The order is alphabetical, so the name of the street you're on tells you how far you are from the center of the circle. The rings are intersected by radial roads identified by clock position—2:00, 3:30, 6:15—and any location can be instantly reduced to its coordinates: "I'm at 7:30 and Fairlane," or "Look for me at 4:15 and Dart." Together, the naming system and the circular design mean you always have a sense of where you are; what's more, you can get anywhere you want to go without directions. One-third of the circle is set aside for art installations, which complements the "residential neighborhoods" in the way that urban parks make cities livable. Indeed, the layout is reminiscent of nothing so much as Manhattan's, with its grid system enhancing navigability, its juxtaposition of dense development with open space, and its tallest building visible (reassuringly) from every vantage point.Before 1996, Burning Man was a design free-for-all. Participants pitched their tents, or parked their RVs, anywhere they wanted. The results included traffic jams, confusion, and, perhaps most disappointingly, feelings of isolation. Then Rod Garrett, Burning Man's self-taught city designer, developed the circular layout. The basic concept, he says, grew out of the idea of circling the wagons against the elements, as well as the desire to "express and abet a sense of communal belonging." There were also security concerns, suggesting the need for a clear perimeter, and an expansion of emergency services, which required clear sight lines and agreed-upon street names. Over the years, Garrett has refined the plan, even instituting zoning—yes, zoning—to separate potentially conflicting uses. (Loud dance clubs are located at 2:00 and 10:00.) The influence of Jeremy Bentham (with his panopticon), Frank Lloyd Wright (Usonia), and Frederick Law Olmsted, whose social activism informed his park designs, is everywhere”. (Excerpts of Learning From Black Rock, article by arch. Fred Bernstein, January 17th 2009).

Pre-Burn. Picture by DzM. 2008. The denizens of Black Rock City wait for The Man to burn. A group of fire-dancers from the Fire Conclave provides a short performance.

In 2008, 38 fire groups originally communicated their intention to participate, and 29 of those lasted through the summer to participate in the Fire Conclave. The membership totaled 1,294, making this the largest group of fire performers and support team in the world. In all, there were 810 fire performers, 335 fire safeties, 29 radio communicators and 120 musicians.
The challenge is great: to create a creative, choreographed and compelling fire show that furthers the art of fire dance. The tools that the performers use has pretty much stayed the same, while the intention and manner in which those tools are being used are continually evolving.
In an effort to spread the benefits of the Burning Man ethos, in late 2007, the Burning Man Project fostered the creation of Black Rock Solar, a non-profit company dedicated to installing low- or no-cost solar power for schools, hospitals, and other public buildings who would not otherwise be able to afford it, while training members of the local communities to install photovoltaic systems.

Architectural installation. 2009.

Thunder Dome. Designed by The Death Guild. 1999.


Bernstein, Fred. Learning From Black Rock. January 17th, 2009


  1. Hi Myriam,
    if you wish to follow up on the ephemeral architecture of Black Rock City you can visit my blog you will see some design solutions for the biggest ephemeral city in the world.

  2. Hi Glade, thank you so much for sharing!



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