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[First Look] Inside This Year's Burning Man Temple

The Dreamers Guild's 'Temple of Promise' design depicts basic human needs through outlandish architecture.
Temple of Promise, 2015 photo by Brian Walls, via

Black Rock City, Nevada is the collection of streets, buildings, civic services, and infrastructure that makes up the workings of the annual Burning Man festival. As a functioning urban environment—albeit one for just a week—and hosting over 60,000 people at peak capacity, the city has real needs, ranging from the utilitarian to the spiritual.

Burning Man is notorious for a lot of reasons, but one thing it isn't, is completely spontaneous. Although it has been heralded as a Temporary Autonomous Zone (both the term and Burning Man share roots in some of the same San Francisco-based art and lifestyle circles), in order to build a temporary city for 60,000 participants and make sure everyone leaves in as few pieces as possible, there is a certain established system for building the city, lending the weight of tradition to even the temporary edifices.


Since 2000, the same basic layout of radial city streets inside a pentagonal perimeter has been used. The eponymous Man sculpture always forms the center point of these geometric shapes, and is the literal marker from which all distances are measured when building the city from plans. But it is not only permanent fixture of this temporary city.

The Temple, although it is renamed and looks completely different every year, has been part of the city since 2000. David Best, the co-designer of the first Temple alongside Jack Haye, has built about half of them, while the others have been built by a number of different groups. The Temple for this upcoming year is called the “Temple of Promise,” created by a collective known as the Dreamers Guild.

Temple of Juno, 2012 photo by Peretz Partensky, CC-BY.

To one who has never attended, it may seem a New Age idealism that a festival would need some sort of nonspecific spiritual sanctuary. But the tradition of the temple space is very well defined: it is largely a place about mourning and remembrance, after Best and Haye dedicated the first temple to a deceased a friend and collaborator. Like any outpouring of popular symbolic gesture, like the attaching of “love locks” onto bridges, or writing names on walls, the idea took hold and now becomes a necessary fixture within the environment. The insides of the temple structure are always covered in mementos, messages, and artifacts from lost loved ones, which are left to go up in ash and smoke when the Temple itself is burned on Sunday as the last major event of the festival.


Temple of Transition, 2011 photo by Victor Grigas, CC-BY-SA.

These are the design elements that go into a successful Temple: the construction is wood for easy burning, there is plenty of surface area to allow writing of messages on its surface, and the structure is almost always unpainted. The Temple allows shade, but also lets the cooling wind pass through—combinations that also mean it burns easily and quickly. This year, the Temple of Promise is a cochlear structure, a spiral of parallel lines, leading to a courtyard with symbolic willow-shapes in the center. Its modern look is a new direction from other years that have adopted more traditional temple imagery borrowed from stupas, pyramids, and pagodas. If this year's Burning Man is true to form, however, this new shape will fit the same urban mold, becoming the Temple when the denizens of the city arrive in the desert to make it so.

Honoring the Dead, 2013 photo by Cory Doctorow, CC-BY-SA.

Click here to learn more about the Dreamers Guild's "Temple of Promise" design for this year's Burning Man.


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