Galactic inspiration: The architect behind 2018 Burning Man's twisting temple

Updated 31st January 2018
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Galactic inspiration: The architect behind 2018 Burning Man's twisting temple
Written by Nell Lewis, CNN
Every year, in the last week of August, tens of thousands of revelers descend upon Nevada's Black Rock Desert to a city built from scratch. A week later, they leave the desert without a trace.
They come for Burning Man, a 10-day festival dedicated to community, where attendees are asked to follow a set of rules that include the practice of "gifting" -- buying and selling anything is a strict no-no.
Founded in San Francisco in 1986, as a bonfire ritual for summer solstice, the event moved to Nevada in 1990. Over the years, it has grown in popularity, with the temporary metropolis becoming a celebration of art and architecture, showcasing futuristic structures made with state-of-the-art technology.
Since 2000, a wooden temple has formed the sacred center of Burning Man.
Last month, the design for this year's temple was announced. Galaxia -- a space-age construction of 20 timber trusses that spiral towards one point in the sky -- is the creation of French architect, Arthur Mamou-Mani.
Digitally designed and to be built using 3D printers and laser cutters, the temple demonstrates the power of robotic tools, in keeping with this year's "I, Robot" theme. The Burning Man Journal wrote that Galaxia "celebrates hope in the unknown, stars, planets, black holes, the movement uniting us in swirling galaxies of dreams."
Burning Man temples often have a symbolic meaning. Last year's temple, designed by artist Marisha Farnsworth, was made from 100 beetle-infested dead pine trees to highlight the decline of California's forests. The Temple of Promise (2015) was a tunnel of arches representing a journey from the immense to human scale, while the Temple of Whollyness (2013) was a geometric pyramid designed to make visitors reflect on how to become more whole.
Burning Man climaxes with the cremation of the temple, which Megan Miller, Burning Man project's director of communications, says provides a "collective release."
London-based Mamou-Mani is no stranger to Burning Man. As an architecture lecturer at the UK's University of Westminster, he and his students have brought art installations to Black Rock City for the past six years. CNN caught up with him about his latest design.

CNN: What was your inspiration for Galaxia?

Arthur Mamou-Mani: Originally, I worked on a project for Virgin Galactic, designing a spaceport for astronauts as they prepare themselves for their trip into space. That project didn't happen, but it's always been in the back of my mind.
I think there is one thing that has united peopled spirituality over the years: we've always worshiped the sun, or things we can directly see, or which have a direct influence on us. Now we have a better understanding of astronomy, and we roughly know the shape of our galaxy, other galaxies, black holes and so on. So, I thought it would be interesting to have a spiritual place that has a close link to our scientific understanding.
CNN: You often use robotic tools to design. Do you worry they'll make your job redundant?
AMM: It's a very exciting moment for architects. I don't believe in a giant 3D printer that will print an entire building, I think that is science fiction. But I do believe in choreographing the construction site with the help of robots. So instead of losing jobs, the construction site will become extremely high-tech, and the jobs that will emerge from this will be the robot operators -- the concrete robot operator, the timber robot operator -- a community of people that will share knowledge about construction robotics.
Galaxia design by night.
Galaxia design by night. Credit: Courtesy Mamou-Mani
CNN: Why do you use digital technology?
AMM: When I graduated (from the Architectural Association) it was 2008, the year of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the financial crisis. It took me a long time to find a job. I realized that very few practices were using the technologies I had been taught. I was trained to think ahead of the time, which was fantastic.
I think that if we resist the advance in technology, we will be just falling back. We should anticipate the takeover of robots and learn -- learn coding, learn mechanical engineering, learn digital fabrication, learn parametric tools, learn computer science. It's so important for the new generation to understand that because if we don't do it now, robots will take our jobs.
CNN: Why do you take your students at Westminster University to Burning Man?
AMM: Burning Man is very extreme, it's like an architecture boot camp -- you take the students there not just for an architectural experience but also to experience community living. You are immersed into your art.
It's been very good for them. It has helped them become much more aware of how to fund a project, how to organize logistics, how to do timelines -- things that architecture students wouldn't usually think about, because they're usually abstracted from the reality.
By doing Burning Man we push that entrepreneurial and pragmatic spirit -- strangely enough, because Burning Man doesn't seem pragmatic at all. On the contrary, it is because it's so extreme that it requires a high degree of pragmatism. It's full of dreamers, but the kind of dreamers like Elon Musk who are extremely pragmatic people -- you don't send a rocket to space if you're not.
Tangential Dreams, a Mamou-Mani design for Burning Man 2016.
Tangential Dreams, a Mamou-Mani design for Burning Man 2016. Credit: Courtesy Mamou-Mani
CNN: Are the Burning Man structures art or architecture?
AMM: I would love for them to be both. Cathedrals are, for me, the most incredible, uplifting structures. Or the Eiffel tower -- is it architecture, is it a structure, is it a symbol, is it art? It's all of it. What I love about English culture is that there is this word "design." It doesn't mean furniture design, or architecture design, it means all of it. It means the process of creating.
CNN: Do you think the futuristic, urban designs of Burning Man will influence permanent architecture?
AMM: There are two aspects to the buildings at Burning Man. One is the geometry and the incredibly complex structures. Then there is the more boring side, which I think will have a bigger influence on the future of architecture: the principle of self-reliance. How people come with their own technology to harvest the sun, how they deal with waste, how they recycle it, the way they're using materials to insulate their food. That for me is the future of architecture. There is a huge problem of sustainability in our cities. The Burners, they know that. It's in the biography of Elon Musk that he (and his cousin) came up with the idea of SolarCity on the way to Burning Man. It's already influencing the future of our cities in that sense.
CNN: Why do you want to design temporary structures built to be destroyed?
AMM: I'm a fairly ego-less architect. The idea of a permanent, forever building I find ludicrous, because we are not permanent beings. We're here together, it's a journey, we're learning. Every structure is a piece of learning.
Bismuth Bivouac alight at Burning Man 2015. Design by Jonathan Leung, a student of Toby Burgess and Arthur Mamou-Mani from University of Westminster.
Bismuth Bivouac alight at Burning Man 2015. Design by Jonathan Leung, a student of Toby Burgess and Arthur Mamou-Mani from University of Westminster. Credit: Courtesy Mamou-Mani
CNN: How will you feel when you see your temple burn?
Amazing. For me, I don't see it as the end. Often, in Western culture, we see a beginning and an end. My parents are hippies, and they always talked to me about the more Eastern philosophies in which things are cyclical: where you die and you're reborn. When I see it burn, I'll see the end of that and the beginning of something else.
The Eiffel Tower was meant to be temporary, but it was so powerful that it stayed. I hope that one day, one of my structures will be so powerful that it will stay.