16 Years of Burning Man Temples and the Story of David Best
Walking through the Hayes Valley in San Francisco in the recent past, you may have come across a 25-foot-tall, intricately designed structure built mostly from reclaimed scrap wood from a nearby toy factory, its facade peppered with deeply personal handwritten messages from passersby. This was known as the Hayes Green Temple, an icon of the Burning Man community funded through its civic arts program, the Black Rock Arts Foundation.
Photo by: Eamon Armstrong
Hailed within the Burner community, the Hayes Green Temple was constructed by one of the most iconic contributors in festival history today: David Best.
As the man behind eight different Burning Man temples over the last fifteen years, Best is the sort of artist who the community celebrates – though much of his most iconic work has burned to the ground. The only records of their existence offer a brief view into Best’s intentions for the Burning Man community at large.
The Many Temples of Burning Man
Here’s a look at the Burning Man temples that over the years have been built, beloved and burned as part of the Best legacy.
2000: Temple of Mind (David Best and Jack Hayes)
2001: Temple of Tears aka the Mausoleum (David Best and Temple Crew)
2002: Temple of Joy (David Best and Temple Crew)
2003: Temple of Honor (David Best and Temple Crew)
Photo by: Styrous
Here’s a short video of Best talking about using the 2003 Temple of Honor:
2004: Temple of Stars (David Best and The Temple Crew)
2005: The Temple of Dreams (Mark Grieve and The Temple Crew)
The Temple of Dreams was the first temple designed by a builder other than Best, Mark Grieve. The mystic gateways were fit for an Emperor of the Far East and offered entrance to another realm where free expression was fun, art was a gift and participation was mandatory.
2006: Temple of Hope (Mark Grieve and The Temple Crew)
Grieve's second Burning Man temple depicted enchanting spires in an outdoor sanctuary. The Temple of Hope transported onlookers to an elegant courtyard where each tower curved differently.
2007: Temple of Forgiveness (David Best, Tim Dawson and The Temple Crew)
2008: Basura Sagrada (Shrine, Tuktuk, and the Basura Sagrada Collaboratory)
A haven for meditation and contemplation, Shrine's Basura Sagrada masterpiece was adorned with recycled metals that chimed in the wind and created a serene, tranquil rhythm.
2009: Fire of Fires (David Umlas, Marrilee Ratcliff, and the Community Art Makers)
The Fire of Fires temple had designs along the edifice to resemble a sort of celtic calligraphy while the mass of the ceiling was made to mimic the hearth of an open flame.
2010: Temple of Flux (The Flux Foundation: Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, Peter Kimelman and Crew)
As a monument to change, the Temple of Flux by the Flux Foundation taught us to stay in motion. It curved and reached upward toward the sky in a spectacular winding groove that was neither building nor wall.
2011: The Temple of Transition (Chris Hankins, Diarmaid Horkan and Ian Beaverstock and the International Arts Mega Crew)
With 5 smaller towers surrounding it, the Temple of Transition honored the beginning and the end. Created by the International Arts Mega Crew, it was distinguished as the first temple to dually function as a sacred space and a musical instrument for William Close and the Earth Harp Collective.
2012: Temple of Juno (David Best and Temple Crew)
2013: Temple of Whollyness (Gregg Fleishman, Melissa Barron, Lightning Clearwater III and The Connection Crew)
This pyramid was erected as a tribute to the unifying oneness that people find when they come together. It was created by the Connection Crew, famous for their work on the Otic Oasis. Individually the temple's many parts were fragmented and incomplete but when joined they formed a mighty mountain.
2014: Temple of Grace (David Best and Temple Crew)
2015: Temple of Promise (Jazz Tigan and the Dreamers Guild)
The cornucopia design for the 2015 Burning Man temple provided separation between the calm of the central space and the excitement of all that is happening outside. It extended an ear-shaped structure to the outside world and tapered in a spiral to envelope an oasis of trees that shaded an area with the written messages of soul-searching visitors. The Temple of Promise was also the second Burning Man Temple to become instrumental in a mesmerizing musical performance by William Close and the Earth Harp Collective.
2016: The Temple (David Best and the Temple Crew)
Always inspired by his travels, Best infused architectural hints from cultures all over the world into his most recent, and (what he says will be) his final temple at Burning Man. After traveling to Nepal, where he built a temple for the victims of recent earthquake devastation, Best returned with a tiered pagoda design and a fresh perspective. Rather than treat the Temple as its own art installation he came to the understanding that it actually belonged to the Burner community, much like the Man. Rather than punctuate the work of a single artist or designer with a name for the structure as has been done in the past, he thought it best that henceforth the temple should be “The Temple” to preserve it as an expression that represents us all.
Discovering the Temple: The Healer and The Storyteller
When Laurent le Gall began his career, he didn’t know anything about Burning Man. But in 2002, he read an article in a French newspaper about an “incredible utopian society in the desert” and was inspired to find it. All the Americans he knew warned him. “You don’t want to go to there” they said. “All you’ll find out there is sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
However, through the imagery in the article and from his friends, Laurent caught a glimpse of something more. Not only were some of the most breathtaking pieces of art on the planet being assembled at Burning Man, but they were also then raptured away in tremendous bonfires – never to be seen again.
After a long journey from France, Laurent arrived on the playa, fatigued in the dark hours of the morning. Worn by the harsh winds, unforgiving terrain and grieving from the recent loss of his father Laurent, approached what appeared to be a house of worship. As dust blew across the landscape and the sunrise peeked over the distant hills he realized that it had become quiet. He stood before this sacred monument in the middle of nowhere and not another soul was around. Then, a figure emerged from the structure covered in dust. He was walking with the same weathered pace as Laurent, and when they crossed paths Laurent spoke up to connect.
“Do you know who built this?!”
“Yes, it was me,” the stranger said, smiling. It happened to be David Best. “How are you doing?” he asked.
“Not too great,” began Laurent. He unpacked his sadness and explained his long journey that started on a whim and led him from the comforts of French civilization deep into a desert on the other side of the world.
As Laurent explained his purpose there, he drew out his camera and asked if it would be okay to create a record of their encounter for his documentary. He pressed record and asked Best: “Why did you build this?” Best's response was surprising.
“We built this for you,” he said. “We built this for your father.”
In that moment, Laurent began to understand that the ornate temple they stood before was not built to glorify ideas, but to house feelings that, through our own unique journeys, we all eventually come to know. He thanked Best for the incredible gift and thought about how his curiosity, grief and hopes seemed to deepen his understanding of the profound awe felt towards this perplexing, sacred structure.
After all, to him it was saturated with the divine, but strangely, the signage and words on its edifice didn’t claim any religion or belief system. Instead, the writing in, on and around the structure were the cherished stories, hopes and prayers of all the travelers who came to this place.
“When we contribute our own story to places they become spiritually meaningful,” Laurent explained to Fest300. “And in the feelings of those experiences that we share with others, we gain strength.”
Since this encounter, Laurent has attended twelve Burning Mans, each time circumnavigating the globe with a camera on his shoulder. In fact, the impact of his first Burn was so great that the following year he brought his family as well. His wife, Sandrine di Rienzo, who braved her first Burn while pregnant in 2003, has co-produced several films with Laurent on the Temples at Burning Man. She also co-produced their son, Lhassa di Rienzo, who attended his first Burn at age two-and-a-half and today is distinguished as the youngest member of the temple crew.
Through the love and support of his family and the community, Laurent found his calling in participation, even from behind the camera lens. His dedication inspired him to move with his family to San Francisco, where he grew as an artist and was awarded the first-ever Burning Man-appropriated grant for a media project. Laurent and Best stayed in touch and reconnect year after year at Burning Man, where Best built about half the gifted temples, including the first ever Burning Man temple (in 2000), the Temple of Mind.
Beyond Burning Man
As part of a recent production, Laurent followed Best on a trip to take the social experiment out of the proverbial lab. In other words, Best set up a temple in Londonderry, Ireland and, like the Burning Mn temples that came before, this one had a final purpose. It was built to be a gift. It was built to be temporary. It was built to be burned.
Photo Courtesy of Artichoke Trust
Given the potent Catholic heritage of Ireland that is rife with stories of horrific church burning and terrible bombings, Laurent wasn’t sure that the ceremony would be allowed. However, they were not only given the green light, the temple burn was warmly received by the town community. In fact, based on the feedback shared by Londonderry, the tragic history of the town's people actually lent a deeper personal meaning and experience for individuals in attendance. For Laurent, it wasn’t about belief or faith, it was about healing each other through the magic permeating our shared experiences. “This is about people having a place to celebrate their spirituality,” he explained.
Next, Laurent and Best plan to travel to other nations scarred by cultural conflict to share and record the experience of a temple burn. The hope is that it might restore something lost in these places as a result of all the sociopolitical turmoil and violence. For most Burners, one of the great joys of Burning Man is the sort of profound spiritual nutrition that so many, like Laurent, find there. In Laurent’s words, “As soon as we decide to put away all those pains and sorrows, we choose to embrace life for the sake of life itself and I think that’s something incredible that I’ve never seen before.”
The magic of the temple is truly that it creates a space for us to externalize the things that hurt us on the inside. In doing that, we get a chance to be reborn. We’re free to leave the pain that once was so much a part of us behind.
By bringing that experience out into the Default world for the first time ever, people who've never been to the playa now have the chance to see what happens when aspects of transformational festivals are used to heal real-world communities. Laurent and Best intend to introduce this experience in places like Cuba, India, Palestine, Jerusalem, and parts of Africa.
The Temples of Life
The current production, “The Temples of Life: The Utopian Journey of David Best from Black Rock City to the World” aims to chronicle the reception of temple burning in these cultures and share Best’s journey as an agent of global change. For those interested in seeing Best’s legacy become a part of our collective story, check out the fundraiser for ways to donate and be involved. The stakes are high, but, if successful, Laurent may actually offer the world the first record of a transformational event to actually accomplish what years of diplomatic negotiations could not – and I’d say that’s a win for humans everywhere.