A recent trip to one of the strangest spectacles on Earth – an arts festival in the Nevada desert – reminds us how exciting construction can be when it’s done in collaboration with the culture it springs from

I have just returned from the third-largest city in Nevada: Black Rock City. This city, with a population of 70,000, exists for just nine days, once a year. It is one of the densest cities in the USA and has its own airport but almost no cars; most journeys are made on bicycle or foot. 

If the thought of that isn’t mind-boggling enough, this all happens in one of the harshest environments on Earth: the Nevada desert. Here the weather is often violent and unpredictable, with dust storms, high winds, boiling hot days and freezing nights.

Founded as a small gathering in San Francisco in 1986, Burning Man has evolved into what it advertises as a “temporary metropolis dedicated to art and community”. Attending Burning Man festival is like landing on another planet: a vast desert populated by a peaceful, friendly, out-there people with a culture of its own.

The aim is for attendees to help “co-create” a huge arts festival, surrounded by giant interactive art installations and sculptures. Imagine a scene from the movie Mad Max and the Serpentine summer show times fifty and you won’t be far off. 

The more control people have over their built environment, the more invested they are in it

The infrastructure needed for that many people is a tough enough task regardless of the harshness of the desert environment. The outcome is an amazing mix of the weird and wonderful; the speed of construction and the transience feeds innovation. Built to survive extreme conditions, high winds, sand storms and large temperature fluctuations, none of the structures would see the light of day if they had to go through a conventional “planning process”. 

But the Heath Robinson construction, with a nod to health and safety, only adds to your sense of adventure. The thoughtful and collaborative design process means the buildings are always fit for purpose – be it shelter, celebration, remembrance, rest or fun. 

As I reflect on the extraordinary few days I spent in this bizarre place, I wonder what lessons can be learned from such a feat of ingenuity – and how it relates to our experiences in the UK. 

The truth is, there are myriad reasons why you could never, or would never, create much of the building practice at Burning Man. The speed of construction revolves around an absence of rules and regulations that one would never wish to emulate – especially now as we, as an industry and as a city, grapple with the aftermath of a tragic fire. 

Yet the outcome is so extraordinary, so uplifting and exciting, that capturing the energy that makes such a city would be a good start. Through my role on the National Infrastructure Commission and now the Major Projects Association I can see that long-term, large-scale projects with long timelines could definitely do with a quick burst of energy now and again to keep the momentum going.

So, how do we do it? There are actually examples of it already happening: pockets of success in London and other cities around the UK and abroad; examples of projects where the energy and excitement of temporary events have been harnessed to create real, lasting pieces of city. Before “meanwhile use” and “pop up” became a thing, the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) pioneered this way of working, using temporary projects to demonstrate, “simply but powerfully, the potential for a better city”, to quote Sarah Ichioka, former LFA co-director.

Notable LFA projects included the temporary pedestrianisation of Exhibition Road in South Kensington, and EXYZT’s Southwark Lido – a joyful temporary lido complete with beach, paddling pool, sauna and sun deck, which sprang up on Union Street and became the springboard for architects who would form Practice Architecture and Assemble, the first architects ever to win the Turner Prize in 2015. 

Before “meanwhile use” and “pop up” became a thing, the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) pioneered this way of working, using temporary projects to demonstrate, “simply but powerfully, the potential for a better city”

Whether it is through co-design, co-production, collaboration, or co-creation, the idea of acting together is a fundamental principle that is easily transferable. It is also a principle that the mayor of London is keen to promote through his “good growth by design agenda”. This week I listened to Sadiq Khan and his deputy mayors talk of their ambition for “co-creation” and how it can help to positively grow our capital city, by changing the way we approach ownership of projects and the responsibility for outcomes.

My own practice, dRMM, worked over a 10-year period to deliver the reconstruction of Hastings Pier. The success of this project has much to do with the ongoing consultation process that has embedded the project into the heart of the community. Hastings Pier adds appreciable value to a project because it establishes an early shared vision that guides the design team toward a solution based on an authentic understanding of a community’s wishes and needs. It ensures that design is the product of the culture that builds it, not the product of a singular ego or fashionable trend. The more control people have over their built environment, the more invested they are in it. 

Burning Man is not a spectator sport, and neither should the design of our built environment be, but we must understand that different people will want to engage in different ways, just as Burning Man itself is perhaps not for everyone. 

If we can all encourage a true spirit of working together, within an environment of mutual respect and social inclusivity, and build on existing success stories in London and further afield, co-creation is set to be a benchmark which I hope will continue to change the way we make our cities.