With winds of more than 40 mph, a scorching, unrelenting sun, and freezing nocturnal temperatures, the desert is one of the most challenging conditions to build in. Yet despite the gruelling conditions, the desert has seen some of the most innovative and compelling designs — and nowhere has produced so many ideas for alternative desert survival as Nevada’s Burning Man festival.
Philippe Glade’s love affair with the desert began with an unconventional adventure 17 years ago. ‘In 1990, as a dare with friends, I was in a convoy of Peugeot 504's that crossed the Sahara from the north of France, selling the cars in Niger — where at the time there was a big demand for these sturdy cars.’ A few years and a few similarly dusty road trips in Africa and India, usually accompanied by a Brian Eno soundtrack, the photographer wound up in California.
Struck by an image on a flyer he had seen in San Francisco advertising a little known festival called Burning Man, the familiar feeling of adventure came flooding back. ‘48 hours later with a rental I was driving solo, again, on the long stretch of road 447 going up north to Nevada to a place I didn't know anything about.’ Glade recalls.
Zonotopia and the three trees, designed by Rob Bell, and photographed by Philippe Glade
‘After 7 hours a sign on the road invited you to drive on a vast expense of dried mud. Coming from nowhere, a “greeter”, covered with dust, asked for my ticket ($35 at the time) and gave me the directions: drive straight 10 miles and then make a 90 degree turn, and drive 4 miles and you will find the place.’
It was 1996 and Glade had reached Burning Man in Black Rock City, Nevada, the urban utopia constructed temporarily in the middle of the desert. First held in 1986, Burning Man has its roots in a bonfire ritual organised by a group of friends in San Francisco and is known today as a radical annual gathering of experimental self-expression, selflessness and radical thinking — demonstrated in the art and architecture participants build there every year, with a strict policy that no trace must be left after the event.
‘It was three days of bewilderment, “only in America”, crazy installations and behaviours. Glade says of his first Burning Man experience. ‘Back in one piece, covered in dust, and with 10 rolls of film, I was already planning for next year. I was hooked. Still am.’
Photographs are displayed in large format in the book with text describing the projects
Glade has visited Burning Man every year since — but rather than capturing the human happenings at the festival, by now well-documented by the press, (half-naked, half-costumed bodies staggering across the barren landscape) Glade decided to focus his lens on the camps themselves: ‘the structures, the urban planning the streets, how people deal with extremely harsh living conditions while leaving no trace at the end.’
Glade has now compiled his ongoing photographic document of Black Rock City’s vernacular architecture into a book — The New Ephemeral Architecture of Burning Man, published by Real Paper Books.
‘Every image in the book has a function, it illustrates a technic, a particular design, there is no filler, no gratuitous picture; I tried in the limit of the subject to show as much as possible of the city I belong to.’