What does the Burning Man temple mean—and to whom?
Burning Man announced in December that this year’s temple will be the Temple of Direction, a row of 26 austere, right-angled, Japanese-style gateways, connected to form an 180-foot-long structure. The designer is Geordie Van Der Bosch, an architect who lives in San Francisco and is part of a brass band, a DJ/music collective and a group that hosts roller skating events at places like Golden Gate Park and a former church.
The tradition of the Burning Man temple began in 2000, when Sonoma County, California, artist David Best built a structure out of scrap wood. It became a memorial to his friend and collaborator Michael Hefflin, who died in a motorcycle accident shortly before the festival.
Each year since, the temple has been one of the event’s central art pieces. Burning Man chooses the design and subsidizes it to the tune of about $100,000. Teams of maybe 100 or more volunteers engineer and pre-build each temple off-site during the spring and summer. Some temples have been made in Reno, but Van Der Bosch plans to make this one at American Steel, a shared studio warehouse in Oakland.
During the week of Burning Man, the temple tends to be one of the few quiet spots in a miles-wide sea of celebratory mayhem. People tack up photos of lost loved ones. Some write notes right on the beams or walls. Others leave the ashes of dead family members, friends or pets. On the event’s last night, a crowd gathers around the temple, sitting on the ground several rows deep, somber and quiet, and the structure is burned to the ground in an act of symbolic release.
David Best, the artist who built the first temple 19 years ago, has made about half of them since. His temples are highly ornamented, made of elaborately cut plywood, with echoes of sacred architecture from places like Bali, Cambodia or Tibet. To some degree, Best’s designs have set Burners’ expectations for what the temple should be, but in non-Best years, artists have designed temples with different contours—stacked like a wedding cake or shaped like a pyramid, for example.
Burners don’t unanimously agree on what makes an appropriate temple. Within minutes after Van Der Bosch’s 2019 design was announced, the snark began to trickle on Facebook. Some criticized the angular building for departing too far from Best’s ornate visual vocabulary. Within hours, the snark was in full force.
“Budget cuts this year huh?”
“Are those popsicle sticks?”
And one person made a case against the design’s no-frills aesthetic by adding an Ikea label to the architect’s rendering.
Defenders were just as vocal. Some called Van Der Bosch’s temple elegant or beautiful, and many said they just looked forward to the experience of visiting it and watching it burn. Suffice it to say—whether they love it, hate it or reserve judgment until they see it in August—burners are passionate about their temple. I can tell you this for sure, because I am one.
From dust to dust
I’m not that spiritual, but if anything hits me in the gut metaphysically, it’s the temple burn.
As a kid, I used to line up in church on Ash Wednesday for the annual, special-edition communion, where the priest dipped a forefinger into a container of ash and drew a cross on each parishioner’s forehead. He’d say, “From dust you came. To dust you will return.”
“Yeah, whatever,” I’d think. I knew on some abstract level that we’re all mortal, but the true weight of that fact did not sink into my teenage skull, still thick with optimism. Fast forward 30 years, and it was sinking in good. By 2017, I had lost both of my brothers, a cousin and a handful of friends—not to mention my innocence, my figure and my abilities to roller skate and cartwheel.
After each death, there’d been a week-long flurry of funerals, flowers and cards, and then, bam, I was surreally transported back to work or school or home, trying to pretend my world was intact. In hindsight, that seems like a bizarre thing to try to accomplish. But what else are you going to do? I’ve always been envious of Mexico for having Día de los Muertos, a holiday for remembering the deceased. In the U.S., it seems we’re supposed to try to forget the deceased—and the life-altering, neurochemistry-altering pain that follows their losses, often for years—so we don’t make everyone else uncomfortable.
Anyway, in 2017—as if I needed Father Cody’s 30-year-old point about the ashes and the dust driven home any further—that spring, my dad died from cancer. Again—flurry, funeral, flowers, cards, bam. Back to trying to pretend I could work, parent and study just fine in a storm of nightmares, depression and dread.
In early September, I finally found a little solace. Over the years, I had enjoyed many a pleasant temple burn. They’d always struck me as peaceful campfires, lovely to watch, a perfectly good time to emote or grieve, which many people did, but I was never quite on their plane. This time, as the flickering, orange glow lit the dusty ground and the faces of the thousands who had gathered, I overheard a stranger say knowingly, “We’re all just walking each other home.” It sunk in like nothing else had ever sunk in before. It’s what Father Cody had been looking for on Ash Wednesday. It’s what the Buddhists are talking about when they talk about acceptance. And—in my secular heart, anyway—it’s the only thing in the universe that really, truly brings us all together. For a few weeks, the realization stuck with me, and I as I went about my daily business, the grumpy cashier at the grocery store and the drunk guy on a street corner asking me for a dollar practically seemed like family. Somehow, this made it a little easier to live without my brothers, my dad, my innocence, my figure and my abilities to roller skate and cartwheel.
In 2018, my family incurred no tragedies, and the temple meant something else altogether. My husband Jerry joined the temple crew that year, and the project came to symbolize late-night arrivals of an overworked spouse, sawdusted and sore from cutting lumber until midnight, buzzing with stories of complex architectural plans and new friends from the crew. I pitched in a little, too, stacking lumber on weekends and occasionally making breakfast or lunch for the builders.
Once we were on the playa, I biked to the temple during Jerry’s construction shift to bring him a sandwich. He gave me a quick tour—and as he showed off the industrial strength compression straps and 3D printed light fixtures, the feeling hit me again out of nowhere. We’re all just walking each other home. We are all in the same boat. All we have is each other.
There are, of course, a lot of places you could have that experience. Church. Yoga class. A mountain peak. Anywhere, really. And I’ve since had it again in the grocery store line and at the corner of Center Street and the freeway, where someone is sometimes asked for a dollar. But, by now, that association with the Burning Man temple has carved a groove in my psyche, and I like that I can expect to revisit that realization annually at a serene building that only lasts a week at a loud, crazy party in the desert, and that thousands of others will be there observing their own personal mile markers—or maybe just watching a big, quiet campfire.
The temple, said Burning Man Art & Civic Engagement Co-Lead Jeremy Crandell, is “one piece of infrastructure people expect and look forward to.” Marriage ceremonies there are common. In 2018, temple architect Arthur Mamou-Mani and his now-wife, Sandy Kwan, got married at the venue they’d just built. And Lauren Hufft—a Reno artist and ordained reverend who has performed enough weddings on the playa that she’s lost count—led a divorce ceremony in front of the temple. A woman she knows had spent several years finalizing a divorce, and once it was all said and done, Hufft suggested the ceremony. “[The divorcee] said, ’Is there such a thing?’ and I said, “If not, we can make one up,’” Hufft recalled. “It was basically about her cleaning her slate and allowing her to move forward.”
In 2013, the Bureau of Land Management honored Special Agent Michael Bolinger at the temple, months after he died from brain cancer, thus beginning an annual tradition, the Fallen Officers’ Memorial Procession. In 2016, Burning Man blogger Jon Mitchell wrote, of that year’s procession, “This one had a list of over a hundred names from all kinds of places, from the Policía de Puerto Rico to the Cherokee Indian Police Department, local, state, federal and military agencies. The list also included 25 canines.”
The temple ritual has also traveled far off the playa. In 2015, David Best made a Balinese-looking version with a tall spire on a hillside above Londonderry, Northern Ireland. He told the BBC that the intent was “to share in the celebration of peace in Northern Ireland.”
This month, Best and crew built a temple in Coral Springs, Florida, a short drive from Parkland, to observe the one-year mark after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. This temple is slated to burn in May, on a date that’s not yet confirmed.
Back to basics
Best’s Southeast-Asian-esque structures have what may well be an indelible reputation as “the Burning Man temple aesthetic” both on the playa and out in the real world. But as far as Burning Man staffers are concerned, the ongoing visual dialogue is still open for debate.
“Sometimes we get [temple proposals] from really well known architects,” said Burning Man Art & Civic Engagement Co-Lead Katie Hazard. “We see a bit of a trend at Burning Man that bigger is better. We really encourage the smaller people that are just building something in their garage, that … that’s valid too.”
As the selection committee reviewed 12 submissions for this year, they looked for someone with strong project management skills and “the right attitude.”
“Sometimes we get submissions that feel like artists want to make a name for themselves instead of it being a gift to the community,” Hazard said.
She added that part of Van Der Bosch’s appeal was his lack of glitz.
“Geordie’s background is in building,” she said. “He’s not this polished, famous architect. He’s built houses and decks and all that.”
“I built all kinds of things,” said Van Der Bosch. “As a typical architect, you tend to work for other people, other firms. I’ve been doing that for 12 years.” He’s also worked on affordable housing, a luxury housing project in Hawaii and the stadium at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The temple has a deliberate function,” Van Der Bosch said. “It provides a service. So, that’s the basis of how I design my temple. … I spent a decent amount of time studying sacred buildings. … One strategy is they try to create a sense of sacred through beauty. You can see that approach in Gothic cathedrals in Europe, with their stained glass and their vaulted structure.” Rather than start with these types of visual elements, though, Van Der Bosch started with this question: “You provide a service, and so what is this service? … “It’s remembrance and mourning and love and things like that.”
“The austerity was definitely a specific choice,” he said. “It’s pretty stern, and I thought that would create a different environment to the rest of Burning Man, because there’s a lot of spectacle there. … I wanted to create a place that shielded you from some of the other things at Burning Man, which can be really in your face and provocative. And that’s OK, but maybe you don’t need something that’s in your face and provocative when you’re putting a shrine up to your miscarried baby. You might feel a little sensitive at that moment.”
Van Der Bosch also drew from a technique called “borrowed landscape,” wherein the glimpses of the desert floor, mountains and sky from inside the temple are important parts of the experience of visiting the structure.
In a move that’s sure to satisfy the Ikea jokesters, Van Der Bosch plans to make the temple’s interior walls out of slats and leave loose boards nearby, which people can insert into the slats to make shelves to use as altars.
Another design consideration was the influence of Japanese tea houses. He’s seen ones where visitors need to duck through a low doorway to enter, an act that resembles bowing, and he likes the way that “humbling yourself” to enter a place can symbolically put people from different backgrounds on the same plane.
Come August, when the temple is finally built, will its critics and the fans come to a consensus? Probably not. But a lot of them might relate to a story that Jeremy Crandell from the Burning Man office told. He was at the Temple of Grace one day, a bell-shaped, David Best classic, and a good friend approached.
“He was visibly agitated and told me, ’What is this thing? This is the worst temple I have ever seen. It’s empty, has no soul.’”
Right then, another friend approached.
“He … placed a hand on my arm, visibly moved,” Crandell said. “Jeremy,” the friend said, “This is the temple we have been needing and waiting for. Its beauty clearly reflects the intention to create a spiritual space for us all.”
Crandell introduced the two. They hugged each other and moved on.
“There you go,” said Crandell. “There’s art doing its job.”