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Ashes to Ashes

An industrial city hall in the desert

City Hall
Black Rock Desert, Nevada

Inspired by Cedric Price’s Fun Palace and ideologically in between a ‘factory of labor’ and a ‘factory of leisure’, Ashes to Ashes re-imagines City Hall as a cybernetic incubator for human experience and interaction. Using Burning Man and an evocative amalgamation of industrials forms to propagate a social environment that is both ethereal and non-temporal, it helps create a ‘factory of society’. By integrating the post burn materiality and liturgical logics of ash, its sustainable and spiritual meanings create a familiar yet foreign sight that, as the burning ‘mantra’ intends, melds both institution and industrial into a singular civic structure that eventually, through erosion, gives up the ghost.

(Left) Photo of the burning of The Man. Reuters/Jim Urquhart.
(Right) Radar image of Black Rock City taken from the TerraSAR-Xsatellite in 2011.

Burning Man is an annual festival held in Black Rock City, a temporary city erected in the desert of northwest Nevada. For roughly 10 days, tens of thousands of ‘burners’ attend to create a fleeting, experimental, and participatory metropolis that is entirely dedicated to self-expression, whether it be through art, music, dancing, partying, or other recreational activities. This energy generates new connections between individuals and their creative powers, allowing them to surpass social limits and standards set by society and the outside, greater world. Since 1986, Burning Man has created a mirage-like sanctuary for those looking for an escape or re-invention of their identities.

Catharsis and creation through annihilation is embedded within the spirit of Burning Man, as signified by the climax of the event; a symbolic ritual in which a large wooden effigy of “The Man” is immolated, meant to touch as many people’s lives as possible before it flickers away in the wind. Stories have been shared of burners who have lost loved ones and have experienced the burn as a release of negative thoughts and emotions that have been eating them away, allowing them to return to their lives in a restful and peaceful state. As a result, the ashes left over post-burn are incredibly rich with emotion and memories of those who attend, manifesting a sense of permanence in light of the temporary experiences.

Burning Man adopts several principles that ensure environmentally and socially conscious attitudes that make up the self-sustaining and self-reliant culture of the multifaceted movement. One of these includes MOOP, or “Matter Out of Place”, which refers to the origin of objects and people. Specifically meaning that anything that is originally not of the desert playa should be removed by the end of the event, ensuring that no trace is left and that the site’s original and platonic state is preserved for future generations to enjoy. I made the realization that as much as the playa is preserved of any waste and signs of inhabitation, there is one material that is impossible to clean up and dispose of; the ash left over from the burns. This material has been accumulating over the desert playa for over 30 years, creating a mnemonic landscape. This particular idea fascinated me due to the potentials of overlapping realities and quantum entanglement, providing a backbone for my project. How can you create a familiar sensation in the middle of the desert where all matter is considered out of place? What can arise from demise? Can anything truly belong where nothing else does?

As traces from the past, silos, grain elevators, smokestacks, and other similar structures are left standing idle, yet monumental, in our post-industrial landscapes. They’re seen as physical manifestations of highly functional thinking. Standing shiny and still in semi-rural and rural landscapes, these structures are the formal columns of contemporary temples that represent industrialization and progress. Thus, they possess high recognition value and are extremely visible from afar, no matter the context. By utilizing these ethereal remnants of a past civilization, alongside the sustainable potential of the ash within the landscape, the zeitgeist and adaptive ideology of Burning Man can be enhanced by giving new purpose to decommissioned, forgotten monuments that are pollinated across our country. By mixing high-technology with high-typology, artificial with natural, memory with experience, permanence with the temporary, a city hall for a non-city can now properly exist between realities.

An insignificant lot in the desert playa is chosen and then split into seven components, each of which focuses on materiality, post-Fordism, the human experience, or the Burning Man Experience. They are made from either pre-exisiting industrial structures or are made on-site from fly ash bricks that requires cooperation to fully assemble.

The above obliques show the assembly, growth, and erosion of the site, city hall, and Burning Man as a whole as it seemingly heads towards a more corporate and mainstream festival. Year 0: Decommissioned and acquired industrial infrastructure from external locations are transported to site and assembled into their proper locations. Using existing structure and techniques and placing them in the desert creates a familiar yet dreamy sight which feeds into the ‘Matter Out Of Place’ studio mantra and the Burning Man ‘Leave No Trace’ philosophy. Year 5: Civic programs are made out of fly ash bricks during the construction phase, using the industrial structures which were previously installed and provide resources and support. Work is done during a post-festival festival, where volunteers are invited to collect ash immediately after the burning and start work on the city hall. Year 7: Ashes to Ashes is fully assembled, providing a spiritual connection to Burning Man while also forming the backbone for organized chaos like never before seen. Year 20: Burning Man as a whole heads towards a more corporate and mainstream event, attracting sponsors and attractions that distort the original premise. Year X: In a distant future, Burning Man and its subsequent facilities are reduced to ruins due to environmental conditions and disuse, becoming one with the desert and creating a new attraction.

Taubman College 2019 Student Showcase

The installation itself attempts to mimic the ideology, as drawings extend from the planar wall and are hung from an existing steel column which engages the space of the showcase, encouraging social interaction and exploration of the project through physical movement as well as optical.
| marnieto@umich.edu