People don't believe I went to Burning Man to see the architecture and urban design: After all, the eight-day festival is known for pleasures far more radical. As it turned out, Burning Man's layout and structures—and even its infrastructure—are among its most compelling features.
The utopian festival began in 1986 with a gathering of 20 friends on San Francisco's Baker Beach and has mushroomed in size since its 1990 move to Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Some 50,000 "burners" participated last summer. Burning Man is a utopian gathering around a giant effigy (which, famously, is torched on the Saturday before Labor Day). Money is more or less banned and self-expression is encouraged. Some participants turn their encampments into works of conceptual art; to help them along, the organizers give each festival a theme. This year, it was the American Dream, and many camps were designed as spot-on commentaries on sprawl and real estate mania. Like the best urban planning, the layout of the festival is a kind of outline filled in by an enthusiastic and creative public.
Black Rock City (the name given to the settlement) thrives, in part, because of smart design decisions. The city is laid out in a series of concentric circles; the largest is nearly two miles in diameter. The concentric streets are given different names each year; in 2008, in keeping with the American Dream theme, they were cars: Allanté, Bonneville, and Corvair to Hummer, Impala, and Jeep. The order is alphabetical, so the name of the street you're on tells you how far you are from the center of the circle.
The rings are intersected by radial roads identified by clock position—2:00, 3:30, 6:15—and any location can be instantly reduced to its coordinates: "I'm at 7:30 and Fairlane," or "Look for me at 4:15 and Dart." Together, the naming system and the circular design mean you always have a sense of where you are; what's more, you can get anywhere you want to go without directions.
It helps that the festival's namesake is at the precise center of the circle, where it serves as a beacon 24/7. One-third of the circle is set aside for art installations, which complements the "residential neighborhoods" in the way that urban parks make cities livable. Indeed, the layout is reminiscent of nothing so much as Manhattan's, with its grid system enhancing navigability, its juxtaposition of dense development with open space, and its tallest building visible (reassuringly) from every vantage point.
There is more to love. Black Rock City has no phone service (cell or otherwise), which means all conversations happen face to face. Communal facilities, including a vast café (coffee, tea, and ice are the only things for sale), are handily located in a giant, tentlike structure at 6:00. Private vehicles are banned—virtually everybody rides a bike. (It helps that the terrain is completely flat.) If real Sun Belt cities were laid out as cleverly, retirees could pedal from place to place.
Before 1996, Burning Man was a design free-for-all. Participants pitched their tents, or parked their RVs, anywhere they wanted. The results included traffic jams, confusion, and, perhaps most disappointingly, feelings of isolation. Then Rod Garrett, Burning Man's self-taught city designer, developed the circular layout. The basic concept, he says, grew out of the idea of circling the wagons against the elements, as well as the desire to "express and abet a sense of communal belonging." There were also security concerns, suggesting the need for a clear perimeter, and an expansion of emergency services, which required clear sight lines and agreed-upon street names. Over the years, Garrett has refined the plan, even instituting zoning—yes, zoning—to separate potentially conflicting uses. (Loud dance clubs are located at 2:00 and 10:00.) The influence of Jeremy Bentham (with his panopticon), Frank Lloyd Wright (Usonia), and Frederick Law Olmsted, whose social activism informed his park designs, is everywhere.
True, Burning Man is anything but sustainable: Everything required is shipped in, and everything left over is shipped out. But, this great urban planning experiment may succeed precisely because it doesn't have to last. Still, it teaches important lessons about using the built environment to foster a sense of belonging. There are lots of reasons to go to Burning Man; for design lovers, it's quite a trip.
Fred A. Bernstein has degrees in law and architecture and writes about both subjects for publications including The New York Times, Interior Design, and Metropolis. He lives in New York City. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the January 2009 print edition.