August 22, 2014 3:16 pm

How housing experiments at Burning Man could help refugees

The desert festival in Nevada is inspiring new ideas about temporary homes and contemporary living
Camping on ‘Extraterrestrial’, one of the ‘streets’ at Burning Man 2013©Dan Adams

Camping on ‘Extraterrestrial’, one of the ‘streets’ at Burning Man 2013

The question of building instant, post-trauma communities for the 21st century is one that has racked brains from Syria to New Orleans and Dhaka, but some of the answers could be provided by an experimental festival held every year in a North American desert.

Burning Man is set in the inhospitable Black Rock desert of Nevada where, this week, 70,000 hippies, techies and adventurers will get down to some serious circus stunts, dancing and nightlong pyrotechnics. Costumes range from a human eyeball to camouflage-style queens in full regalia. Yet, among these curious desert blooms, it is possible to find some radical, sustainable architecture.

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Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt, first tested his prototype cardboard living structure at Burning Man in 2003. He believes his flat-pack structures are a cheaper, more durable solution for refugee camps than the tents often used by big aid agencies. In Black Rock City – as the sprawling Burning Man encampment is known – thousands of campers now use one of Gupta’s 13 designs and others that have evolved.

While take-up has been slow within the NGO community, the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is now considering using alternatives to tents, inspired by the likes of Gupta’s eco-friendly temporary housing. The Ikea Foundation is funding a project with the UNHCR to create unique flat-packed homes designed by Sweden’s Johan Karlsson for refugees, which are at present being tested on the Ethiopian-Somali border.

Hexayurt City, designed by Vinay Gupta for Burning Man 2013©Mitchell Martin

Hexayurt City, designed by Vinay Gupta for Burning Man 2013

“What Burning Man is doing is bringing back the idea of mass-produced housing,” says Gupta, speaking from a UN development programme in Belarus. While the likes of the Red Cross and the UN have been harder to convince, some techies facing high housing costs in urban centres are taking the festival’s ideas on board. For example, Alice Yu, a community manager at web app company Meteor, lives in a yurt she built herself in San Francisco.

Other living designs tested at Burning Man include yurtdomes, geotensic structures and the icosa pod, a structure based on triangular tensions. Meanwhile, companies such as Shelter Systems and World Shelters have blossomed out of the festival and now provide shelters for emergency disaster relief agencies.

While the ideas often look space-age, the roots of this type of innovation can be traced back to the work of Buckminster Fuller, the 20th century inventor of the geodesic dome.

Prototype shelters at Kobe refugee camp in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia©Ikea Foundation

Prototype shelters at Kobe refugee camp in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia

Burning Man acts as an annual laboratory for architecture, art and design, but its role as an incubator of creativity has been somewhat limited to its participants and the not-for-profit groups that the festival has spawned. However, practical ideas for coping with the extreme hot days and cold nights experienced at the week-long event are starting to attract wider interest.

Projects like the hexayurt are exactly the kind of creative contribution to world living that the organisers of Burning Man have fostered since they started the festival in 1986 as an annual fire ceremony. The festival aims to meld self-sufficiency and communal existence. There is no currency at the event other than trading skills or goods with each other, while everyone has to bring in their own food, water and other supplies.

Preparation is key to enjoying the festival – made famous by San Francisco’s tech elite. People can stay for as long as 10 days, while others fly in for shorter stints. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos have all padded “the Playa” – the term used for the flat, desert setting – alongside people from a variety of backgrounds, from business school yuppies to ageing hippies.

Burning Man gives people permission to experiment and think of possibilities they may not have tried before

It was the festival that gave Casey Fenton the inspiration for his global website Couchsurfing, which helps people sign up to stay on strangers’ sofas. “It was going to Burning Man and seeing regular people really going for their dream,” says Fenton, who attended his first festival at the age of 21 and has returned regularly over the past 15 years. “I left thinking I could do something. It’s a really, really inspiring place.”

The design of Black Rock City – the brainchild of the late Rod Garrett – is a radial arc, which has allowed the festival to grow or shrink every year without changing the urban plan.

“What is really interesting about Burning Man is it gives people permission to experiment and think of possibilities that they may never have been able to do before. When you start applying that to problem-solving it starts to get really interesting,” says Carmen Mauk, executive director of Burners without Borders, a not-for-profit group that initiates community initiatives and disaster relief.

‘Burners’ gather at the Chapel, an art exhibit at Black Rock City©Travis White

‘Burners’ gather at the Chapel, an art exhibit at Black Rock City

The ideas behind the “maker movement” – another important backbone of the festival that encourages people to build and create – have even reached the corridors of power in Washington DC.

Barack Obama, the US president, hosted the first White House Maker Faire in June. “Our parents and our grandparents created the world’s largest economy and strongest middle class not by buying stuff, but by building stuff – by making stuff, by tinkering and inventing and building,” he said at the event.

The original Burning Man festival has created spin-offs around the world, including AfrikaBurn in South Africa, Kiwiburn in New Zealand and Midburn in Tel Aviv.

The community element of Burning Man has taken a grip through groups such as Burners without Borders, which evolved after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, prompting scores of volunteers to head straight from Burning Man to help. Burners – people who attend the festival – also joined the relief efforts after hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Compound I, by Kristen Berg, at Burning Man 2012©Ian Brewer

Compound I, by Kristen Berg, at Burning Man 2012

Other spin-offs include Black Rock Solar, which started out as a volunteer group installing a 30kW solar array at Burning Man in 2007. After donating the panels to the town of Gerlach, Nevada, the group helps schools and hospitals in the area to harness solar power.

The festival is funded by ticket sales, priced from $190 to $650, with students offered the cheaper rates, and it is shaped by 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

“Leave no trace” is especially emphasised as every attendee is on the look out for “moop”, the Playa slang for rubbish. Every wrapper, every sequin and every feather of every boa has to be removed from the site when the festival ends. There are no dustbins.

“Burning Man is a fantastic case study in the power or repurposing of public space,” says Oliver Schaper, a senior associate at the architectural and design firm Gensler. “The willingness to participate; you have to be in it; you have to be involved.”

Camilla Hall is the FT’s US banking correspondent

Photographs: Dan Adams; Travis White; Ikea Foundation; Mitchell Martin; Ian Brewer

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