Circle in the sand

Burning Man’s temple Galaxia, built partly in Reno, united the spiritual and scientific

French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani designed this year’s temple for Burning Man. It’s called Galaxia.

French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani designed this year’s temple for Burning Man. It’s called Galaxia.

Photo /Jeri Chadwell

The architect understandably feels a significant weight on his shoulders, designing the first temple to come to Burning Man since the recent death of Larry Harvey.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Galaxia is the future state of all living organisms, a utopian super-organism in which all are connected as one.

Considering the concept’s many parallels to Burning Man’s Black Rock City, it’s a wonder that it took until now for Asimov to play a prominent role in Burning Man. This year’s theme—"I, Robot"—finally connects the two.

London-based French architect Arthur Mamou-Mani seized this chance to submit a design for this year’s Burning Man temple that would draw upon the idea. It was this design, Galaxia, that founder Larry Harvey chose before passing away this spring.

Mamou-Mani, who has attended Burning Man for years with a contingent of architecture students from the University of Westminster, saw the theme as an opportunity to connect his students’ classroom learning with hands-on, challenging, meaningful work intended for a gallery like no other on Earth.

“The theme, I, Robot, was very relevant to the projects we do in general,” said Mamou-Mani, the 35-year-old whose firm, Mamou-Mani, Ltd., is noted for its use of digital fabrication through 3D printing. “So I thought, that’s beautiful, because it’s not just about the technology, but it’s also the temple, which is a very human thing. … So I submitted an idea, it got chosen, and here we are, six months later.”

The design, as described in the Burning Man Journal, “celebrates hope in the unknown, stars, planets, black holes, the movement uniting us in swirling galaxies of dreams.” It employs 20 twisting timber trusses that meet at a central point aimed toward the sky, like a swirling galaxy.

The temple, a component of the festival every year since 2000, has traditionally been a sacred place in which visitors can grieve for and remember the loved ones they’ve lost. For all that Burning Man and the temple represent to attendees, Galaxia’s design is not only about the people of the world coming together, but also about the convergence of man and technology, the physical and spiritual, the past and future, the living and the dead, and the heavenly and earthly realms.

“Galaxia is a temple for everyone, regardless of religion or background,” Mamou-Mani explained. “The idea is to use a universal symbol, the galaxy, to bring people together into these 20 gateways. There is no right direction; you can come from anywhere you want, and that reflects everyone’s differences and the act of coming together in a central space, which I think is the most beautiful aspect of the Burning Man temple, the way it connects everyone together.”

Rising from the dust

The logistics of building the structure, which will only survive for about nine days, are mind-boggling. Hundreds of people on two build sites, in Reno and San Francisco, have prefabricated the structure’s components. For ease of transport, the lighter, top half, called “the crown,” has been assembled in San Francisco. Meanwhile, a team of more than 125 volunteers—some Westminster students, some local artists, some with carpentry or engineering skills, and some simply Burning Man enthusiasts—have been busily making “the skirt,” or wide bottom half, at the Generator, a community art space in Sparks, since the beginning of April.

The temple will take 18 days to construct on the playa.

Transporting large sections of the structure to the Black Rock Desert would not be feasible, so the team has been creating small, uniform triangles made of 2-by-4 timber that, when laid flat in the proper sequence, could be “folded” up to create a three-dimensional sort of origami. Those triangles are joined together with metal joints, then fitted in a repeatable, volunteer-friendly sequence to create the 20 long, swirling arms, or “petals” making up Galaxia. The crown, which will contain the topmost segments of the petals that converge at the top center, will be lifted by forklift and placed atop the skirt, with a compression ring between them.

Beneath its “roof” is a central altar where visitors can place offerings and memorials, illuminated by the LED lights emanating from 30 chandelier-like teardrops composed of polylactic acid—a bioplastic comprised of vinegar, corn starch and glycerin—that were produced by a 3D printer and will hang from the central eye of the temple.

A hub-and-spoke wheel design that uses the tension of cables leading into a central plate serves as a foundation. Mamou-Mani likes the connection to a bicycle wheel, an image mimicked outside the temple in the benches that will double as bike racks.

Once the structure is erected—an exhausting, 18-day undertaking—Galaxia officially becomes a gift to the people of Black Rock City. When the event concludes, the crew will burn it.

Labor of love

Mamou-Mani received a $100,000 Burning Man Temple Honorarium grant for the project, almost all of which went into materials, transportation, rental equipment and tools, and still didn’t cover the costs. Fundraisers in London and San Francisco helped cover what they needed, including travel expenses and costs of living for five months.

“No one gets paid,” Mamou-Mani said. “I think money is a strange topic on this project because it’s so beyond that. … It’s an invaluable project. For me, I’ve never worked that hard, ever. I can’t even quantify that, and I don’t want to, because I never saw it as something that was to be commodified or something that would have an actual value assigned to it.”

The architect understandably feels a significant weight on his shoulders, designing the first temple to come to Burning Man since the recent death of Larry Harvey. He said he’s fortunate to have had input from Jerry James, an old friend of Harvey’s who often is called the co-founder of Burning Man.

James, who had been estranged from Harvey for a number of years, had found himself re-engaging with the event and reconnecting to Harvey. While perusing the Burning Man website in January, he came across the news that Mamou-Mani’s concept had been chosen and felt a pull to help out. He emailed the architect to offer his services but didn’t get a reply.

“I thought, ‘I’ll try one more time before I give up on this,'” James said. “I guess he saw that next email—I think the first one got lost—and I guess he was pretty excited to have me, given my background. I think the concept is fitting for this year’s event. I’ll go with what Arthur says about our faith in the unknown, the galaxy, infinity, eternity, all that stuff. I think it’s pretty profound, and, of course, for a temple where we celebrate and memorialize people we lost, thoughts about the galaxy for that kind of memorial go well together.”

The architect also appreciates this rare opportunity to play such a hands-on role. “There wouldn’t be another project in which the architect, the carpenters, the engineers, the scaffolders, the metalworkers, all these different people come together on one thing and discuss everything together,” Mamou-Mani said. “It’s not something where the architect has the vision and everyone else executes it. It’s not at all like this. It’s actually the opposite. It’s like, ‘What do you guys think of this issue? This is a drawing, but, obviously, you know more about metal than me, so what do you suggest?’ … So there’s a really beautiful, empirical loop. I wish all projects were like this because it really becomes something collective—and informed by logic and brains and humans.”

Kind of like I, Robot. Ω