The Burning Man Temple
Walking into the Salvagery on East Fourth Street, where a group of volunteers is constructing the “Temple of Transition” for the 2011 Burning Man festival, you get the sense that you’ve just walked backstage at a concert. Perhaps it’s that the laminated volunteer IDs that dangle on their necks are reminiscent of backstage passes. It’s like looking at something from a privileged vantage. But unlike Disneyland or Vegas, where going backstage might destroy the magic, seeing these cheerful volunteers tirelessly labor behind the scenes only sparks more curiosity to see the finished product.
“I just wanted to build something really big,” says Chris “Kiwi” Hankins, one of the designers. He isn’t just talking about the size of the object, but the scope of the idea.
A Temple is built and destroyed every year at Burning Man. When Kiwi and Diarmaid “Irish” Horkan, the two principal designers, heard that this year’s Burning Man’s theme was going to be “Rite of Passage,” they scratched their heads trying to come up with a design that would best articulate such a sweeping theme.
Then they realized that the Temple, and a journey through it should be exactly that. “It’s all about life, and being alive,” says Irish.
It’s actually six temples—five small pods and a tall central temple. Each mini-temple has its own theme: birth, growth, union, decay, death, and, in the main temple, the gratitude for all the good and bad that comes with life. Just like in life, they wanted everyone’s journey through the temple to be unique, so they set it up to challenge the temple-goers. There are steep ramps to ascend for a view from a higher level. They were careful not to shove the themes down the temple-goers’ throats with the décor and mathematics of the interior design.
“[We wanted to] set up an almost subliminal environment, kind of getting them thinking about these things by their own esteem,” says Irish.
Though the burning of the Man and the Temple serve the same basic cathartic function at Burning Man, the Temple bears a much more personal connotation, a fact of which Kiwi and Irish were fully aware. They tried to go for a design that was as non-denominational as possible. Instead, they relied on the Golden Ratio and a Sacred Geometrical design, which are mathematical systems found in cathedrals and temples the world over and also in nature.
“[This] enabled us to create a balance within the building from a visual point of view,” says Kiwi.
Part of the reason the scope of the project is so big is because it’s being constructed in Reno. They say there are obvious reasons of logistics and cost for building the Temple so close to the Black Rock Desert. But they’re also excited about what this means for future, perhaps, bigger, projects coming out of Reno. In many ways, this project has been a rite of passage for the two. Kiwi and Irish are, as their names suggest, from New Zealand and Ireland respectively. More than 20 countries are represented in the Temple, but Burning Man art projects have been based in Reno for years. Each year, the projects get bigger and bigger, from their personal art projects, to Megalopolis at Burning Man last year, and now the Temple.
This project has already been about birth, growth and union. Once they get to Burning Man, it will be about the decay and death of the Temple. One thing they obviously carry and will carry along the way is gratitude.
“It has the ability to change people’s lives,” says Kiwi. “Whether they’re helping to build it or walking into it.”