When the Temple of Direction was first announced as Burning Man’s 2019 Temple, the IKEA meme was one of the most notorious responses amongst the cacophonous scrum of community opinion on social media. A community member had taken the logo of IKEA and photoshopped it onto the rendered picture of the austere and simple Temple design.
A few months later, the same person approached the Temple of Direction designer Geordie Van Der Bosch at a fundraiser, apologized for his meme and acknowledged the effort and skill behind the design.
“I showed up to a fundraiser and he was one of the people that walked up to me and told me he owed me an apology. Of course, we have a huge amount of friends in common and he caught a lot of shit from my friends for saying that,” Geordie remembers.
“I think as soon as I was a human to him and not just some name on a piece of paper behind a digital image, he realized, ‘Oh, a real person did this, and they put a lot of effort into it.’ But I’ve got to say, I appreciate a good snarky comment as well as the next guy, and that one was pretty funny. So you know, I can take it. It was also gratifying to see a lot of people that I know rise up to my defense.”
According to Geordie, people often underestimate simplicity and many other community members didn’t initially appreciate the amount of thought he had put into the Temple design.
“Simplicity is often the most difficult to understand. It’s very easy to understand something that is just so dazzling that it just wows you right away, as some of the past Temples have done. I feel like a lot of people are now warming up to the Temple of Direction, who were critical before, and they can see the grace and the monolithic nature of it and how still it is. And I think that they’re starting to now imagine what the interior is like or what the experience of going there will be like,” he says.
For the Temple build crew, the design’s simplicity has already had an impact on their experience.
The design is based on Japanese torii gates, which include two vertical columns and a horizontal beam. Twenty of these “gates” will create a stepped undulation that starts small at one end of the Temple, rises in the middle, and then descends to a smaller entrance at the other end.
The modular design has enabled the crew to build each component in Oakland’s American Steel and then ship them to a smaller (a.k.a less expensive) space in Reno, where they are staged ready for playa. It also means the crew has rocketed along with the build, with three-quarters of the Temple now staged in Reno and ready to hit playa, and they will need to spend less time building on playa.
“I have 20 sections, and we’ll just lift them up and then put them in place and anchor them down to the playa. Hopefully that has a couple of advantages. One, ideally it reduces the amount of on-site construction time so we can have the Temple open on time (ed note: No, that’s not a poke at you, Galaxia). But since we’re not doing a lot of actual construction on the fly, that reduces MOOP potentially as well,” says Geordie, who has received many comments on how relaxed he seems about the build despite the huge amount of effort it still requires.
“You know, I do feel like I’m in a good space and I am surrounded by a lot of good people. This design has been living in my head for a long time, and a lot of the details of the construction I thought about way in advance,” he says.
The modular construction strategy has also “democratized” the build by enabling many different people with a broad range of skills and experience to take part.
“It doesn’t make sense to divide the tasks up with, ‘Oh, only the really experienced people could do this and people that don’t have much construction experience could only do that.’ I simplified it to where everybody can learn the techniques and after a little while, almost everybody is an expert,” Geordie says.
The San Francisco-based builder and architect has brought his own expertise and experience to bear on the project, as well as his awareness of community needs, and his ideas about service and sacred spaces.
Geordie completed his master’s degree in Advanced Architectural Design at the California College of the Arts last year, and recently spent six months studying architecture, sacred spaces and rituals in Japan, which have had a big influence on this year’s Temple.
“The simplicity of some of the architecture in Japan reminded me of the playa itself. You have kind of a playa, you have sky, you have the sun, you have the mountains, and beyond that there’s not a lot there,” he says.
“I went to this one shrine and it had a single large, very stoic, very plain torii gate and I just kept going back to that: the austerity and the simplicity but also the endurance. The playa’s been there for a very long time and it’s hard to imagine it changing very much, and it’s very, very simple. So I was trying to create an image of endurance through simplicity and I wanted it to hopefully look like it belonged in the playa.”
To amplify this sense of belonging, Geordie has used a Japanese landscape design technique to blend the playa’s surrounding landscape with the rise and fall of the Temple. Called “borrowed landscape,” this technique incorporates distant landscape or landmarks into the composition of a garden so the landscape appears part of the garden.
“As the Temple gets bigger, it kind of forms a mountain peak and you have the mountains in the background (which you can see through the gap through the middle), so at certain times of the day that hopefully makes it look it’s part of the mountain range,” Geordie says.
“I was influenced a lot by a certain designer artist called Sen No Riku. He more or less invented the Japanese tea ceremony. He made a door on his tea house that everybody who went inside had to crawl on their hands and knees. So he would make the rich person and the noble person and the artist and this person all bow down very, very low to the tea house and that was his way of bringing everybody to the same level,” Geordie says.
“Everybody who comes to the Temple of Direction, they kind of have to walk along the same path. And hopefully, walking on the same path, they’ll see the same things, they’ll have similar experiences and hopefully that will kind of bring them closer together through this shared experience.”
A Space for Everyone
Geordie — who says he has lived with a cast of community thousands in his head for the last 10 months — has spent a lot of time thinking about how to make a space that enables this shared journey while also supporting individual needs. A wide range of artistic collaborators has helped him to create this loving attention to detail and introduce some softness to the space.
“Making space for different types of activities was always at the forefront of how I guided this design and how I’m still thinking about it. Like what if somebody wants to go there and do this, can they do it? What if somebody wants to go there and do this, can they do it?” he says.
“I also see all these slats and they are like empty lines on a sheet of paper, ready for stories, tributes and memories to be written. I want there to be room for everyone to write their story. I imagine this one woman in my mind. She brings a ladder and she is writing the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ about someone important to her on the ceilings. She’s there a long time, but there’s room for her.”
The cavernous central hall has been designed to hold the space for all the feels and all the activities at once — from the joyous to grief-stricken, from the collective to the individual. Here, you’ll find the Koi Pond created by Joe Joe Martin, and a bridge that “symbolizes the connection between before and after” where you can watch the LED koi languidly swimming around below.
For those looking to take a breather from the madding crowd, Phil Spitler and Victoria Heilweil have created Luminous Waveforms, illuminated and fluidly elegant wooden benches that are inspired by nature and sound waves. They will be placed near the entrance and allow people to step away but still remain connected to the space.
“I’m hoping that the pond can be very soothing, calming thing for somebody who maybe wants to watch the koi swimming and be alone in their thoughts and can step away from some of the emotional drama that would be in a Temple,” Geordie says.
“And by providing seating adjacent to the entrance, I’m hoping that if an individual gets a little overwhelmed by the emotion inside the Temple, that they can step outside and be at the Temple but not necessarily be in the Temple if that’s what they choose.”
Meanwhile, the rigid geometry of the 20 torii will be softened by a series of Matt Elson’s paper lanterns, whose wildly organic shapes have been created with vineyard wood and waxed paper, and Jwo Wooty has created four interlocking and large-scale painting that will evoke the seasons and grace the central hall.
An Act of Service
The most central and guiding tenet for Geordie’s design has been the Temple as a service to the community and a space for quiet reflection.
For some, the grandiosity of a structure like Notre Dame says sacred space, but Geordie says he has always been drawn to history’s simpler sacred spaces. “Those were the images that I was drawn to — like Stonehenge, the Karnak Temple in Egypt and also to the Wall in Israel.”
“I was hoping that the design of the Temple could take a step back and allow people to be a little more inward-focused because there’s a less visually dazzling thing. I feel like the less emotion that a Temple might force upon you or might create within you allows you more space for your own emotions and maybe to get them out, or even to have them within the place.”
It’s a quiet, steady “holding space” style that reflects Geordie’s own approach to tough moments in life, both for himself, his friends and now for the rest of the community.
“I tend to deal with my own emotions quietly by myself, and that’s the way I approach the Temple is to deal with my emotions in my own way with a certain amount of time. But I like people to know that they can come to me with their problems, with their needs, and I’ll always have something for them. So in a way that’s kind of what I’m doing now with this Temple,” he says.
Keen to help this year’s Temple? You can contribute to the Temple of Direction fundraiser, which has been extended for another two weeks. The crew is also looking for extra hands to help with the last leg of build in San Francisco. They are building at American Steel, Oakland Bay 2, Friday-Sunday 10am-6pm, but also weekday evenings, 3pm-8pm, as posted on the Temple’s Facebook page. Hungry volunteers also appreciate meal donations. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help.