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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Was it worth it?

April had come to an end, classes were done and what was left to do was to mark exams. Final year students had handed their thesis and finally I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. This was a particularly hard term for me, my last one as Head of Institute, with both the Structural and Fire Engineering and International Masters courses running at full steam, our biggest group of Structural Fire Safety Engineering undergraduates and a very intense week of thinking about education with the LRET Seminar. My summer was saturated and very poorly planned, in less than 3 months I had to fly more than 80,000 miles (I will spare you the details) with critical commitments throughout the summer. Thus, the end of the term was the last time I had to take a deep breath before I had to sink under the water again and hold my breath until September.

It is then, the end of April, when two of my final year undergraduate students (Alex Duffy and Phil Close) approached me with what they called “a crazy but very exciting idea.” I have to say that I agreed to see them hoping that all they wanted was to have a nice chat. I had enjoyed more than one of those chats with both of them, these were all interesting and very enjoyable nevertheless way too lengthy (mostly my fault...I get carried away when students are willing to listen to me).

They showed up with drawings for “The Temple.” Alex and Phil had just got involved in supporting the fire aspects of the design of “The Temple” for “Burning Man.” They were seeking for technical support from me.

For those of you who know me and “Burning Man” you will immediately conclude that there is nothing more distant from my “life philosophy” than “Burning Man.” For those of you who know me but do not know of “Burning Man” I will suggest you Google it so that you can come to the conclusion that “Jose Torero” and “Burning Man” do not belong in the same sentence. For those of you who do not know me, just believe me, I do not engage with nature, I support repressing your feelings, I actively engage in suppressing any form of counter-culture and I am convinced that the generation of 1968 and the Hippies are the source of selfishness and greed that is the basis of the inevitable demise of the Western cultural model.

As Alex put it “this will be the biggest and most impressive Temple ever built,” it represents the “transient nature of life” and thus the way it burns has to “reflect the evolutionary nature of life.” The final statement: “It'll be intense, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience!” On top of the magnitude and complexity of the task, the architectural design was already completed, the structural design was well advanced and the burn date was set to Sunday, September 4th. As you can imagine, given my commitments, my state of mind, the imminent deadline and the nature of the project this was the last thing I wanted to do.

Furthermore, undergraduates are the source of the greatest ideas but not necessarily have the experience or skills to develop them, thus the prospect of yet another unmanageable commitment was quite obvious from the onset.

I have to say that the only reason why I agreed to be involved was because I do not know how to say NO, especially to students. They are the one and only reason why I am in a University and they bring to me the energy that many times is the one thing that keeps me going. I feel I owe them, so I cannot say no. I took a deep breath and said fine...“but you have to do all the work! I can answer your questions, give you ideas but I am in no position to drive anything...” they obviously agreed, so we were ON, but... deep in my mind all I wanted to do was to run as far away as possible from this project.

As it happens, when you panic you enlist someone to help you, so I asked Luke (structural support) to come to the next meeting. I could have enlisted other people but I was truly ashamed of asking, I did not feel that I had the right to waste anyone else’s time in such insanity. Just to further overwhelm me, Luke took less than 10 seconds to fully empathise with Alex and Phil and before I could utter a word he was suggesting that the burning rates should be controlled in a manner such that the growth and decay of an individual’s life was reproduced by the rate of burning and the ultimate rate of collapse of the different components of the structure representing each stage of life. I am trying to paraphrase him, but his thoughts were so fluid and were expressed in such a natural way that I would never be able to repeat what he said! At that point I finally understood what I had got myself into...

The building design was consistent with the magnitude of the “metaphysical vision” – needless to say, seeing the first drawings was not comforting experience. First of all, it is massive (about 10 storeys high) and it is quite intricate. As can be seen from the sketch there is a main structure surrounded by 5 smaller structures all linked by cloisters and bridges. Each smaller structure represents a stage of life finally uniting in the central structure that somehow represents the union that is life itself...If you want to know more about this check Alex & Phil’s website ( you can imagine all this entered through one ear and left through the other so fast that it has left no trace, thus don’t believe anything I am writing, check their website, I am sure they have it right. The one thing that remained was the magnificent magnitude of the engineering challenge.

Alex and Phil were serious, it only took a couple of names from me and they did all the rest. They got money to buy cameras, they convinced the Principal of the University of Edinburgh to pay for Phil’s plane ticket (Thank you Prof. O’Shea! – At the end Phil unfortunately could not come – he was truly missed) and got started with true engineering work.

We had a couple of meetings and exchanged several e-mails concluding that the only way of controlling fire growth was to open the cavities inside the walls in a strategic manner so that the fire propagation will be managed in a manner that could be insensitive to wind (another factor – the place where the event is held (Black Rock City – Nevada) is well known for sudden and violent sand storms that can happen without warning). We will play with the connections and controlled reduction of the cross section of some of the structural elements to control the rate of collapse – I know that anyone reading this that has worked with fire in timber structures is probably already including me within the pack of lunatics self-labelled “the burners” (this is burning man lingo for those attending “the burn”) – but, for your comfort, I was as sceptical of our capability to master uncertainty as you probably are – more so when Alex told me that the person in charge of fire safety was a self-trained man who called himself Dave-X!

Well, Phil and Alex took the idea and with the help of Michal (thanks Michal!) developed a series of tests where they demonstrated how you could control the spread rate by varying the size and location of the openings. Needless to say, this was just done with a single panel under our lab hood, very far from the reality of a 10 storey temple but truly instructive.

E-mails continue to come and go. We discussed the structural details, connections, ignition sources, etc. You can see from the pictures below that there was a lot of effort and detail nevertheless the nature of the building was truly a challenge.

It was at this point (mid June) that I decided that I should attend the burning of the temple. I thought that although it will be very difficult to arrange all the logistics and “Me” being a part of the “Burning Man” was by every possible measure wrong, I was so impressed and motivated by Alex and Phil’s commitment that I decided I will give it a try. I wanted to be there with them to see the outcome of their effort.

So, to make a long story short, I had to cancel a meeting in Australia, had to change my plane ticket to come back from Australia through the USA, rearrange my arrival in Lausanne (where I was heading afterwards) and numerous other things that I will not bore you with. At each stage I was wrestling with subconscious forces that insisted that I should not go. The truth is that it did not make any sense.

In my struggle and “self-inflicted” ignorance I confused the burning of “The Man” with the burning of “The Temple” thinking that both will happen on the Saturday (“The Man” burns on Saturday, “The Temple” on the Sunday). So when I got an e-mail from Alex that opened with the following line: “Firstly...the Temple burn is the Sunday night! I truly hope that doesn't conflict with the travel plans you've arranged!” I flipped. What an understatement! I not only had to rebook all tickets with the associated hassle and cost but once again rearrange my already messed up schedule.

My subconscious did not stop playing tricks on me. Next thing I forgot was to buy the ticket....panic e-mails came from Phil and Alex indicating that “Burning Man” was sold out for the first time in history. Replies from me followed saying that I will pay “almost” whatever it takes for a ticket. This resulted in Alex finally finding a ticket for me. I am £270 poorer but the photo below did bring happiness to me when it arrived. That ticket was my ticket and now I was going to “Burning Man” – for God sake what was I thinking!

So, I left Sydney on September 2nd and after almost 20 hours of flight, two connections, a day change and 7 hours time difference I arrived in Reno. Not good, Reno and its airport are a sad example of “Casino Culture” that I find deeply unappealing, especially when I do not know what time or day it is. Got my bag and got the keys for my car rental. Things got a bit better when I saw the upgrade Avis gave...the American version of the convertible roadster...a decapitated Chrysler! Nevertheless, given the blue skies and the thirty something degrees, the gesture brought back life to my body...thank you Avis!

I decided to split the trip in two, I was afraid of falling asleep while driving and I did not want to get lost in the desert at night. So, I drove for an hour and crashed in a nondescript hotel next to Route 80. It was 7:45 pm when I arrived, I fell asleep at about 8:15 pm and was bright awake by 11:45 pm... the wonders of jet lag. A combination of reviewing a paper draft, some work on Fire Safety Journal and answering the 300 e-mails that had arrived while I was travelling brought me to 7:30 am when I went to the supermarket to buy supplies and a coffee. Supplies? Seriously... what do you bring to the desert? So I got olives, tortilla chips, baby bells and about 100 litres of water. The rules I used were, does not need to be kept cold and I do not need cutlery to eat it. In any case, it will not be the first time I survived 36 hours without eating. So with my supplies and a giant “Americano” I jumped on the headless Chrysler on my way to the “Burning Man.”

The road is quite remarkable. Is about 2 hours of amazing scenery and towns with strange names “Nixon,” “Empire,” etc. The highlight was Pyramid Lake. I could not avoid taking a picture from the convertible. Not very good, but makes the point of the scenery and the emptiness. Finally, I arrived and went straight to “will call,” where Alex said my ticket will be. The ticket was not there! All I had was a picture of Alex with my ticket! Despite the fact that everyone seemed to know Alex, he could not be found among the 60,000 people at the camp. So, believe it or not I resorted to Dave X, they paged him and he replied, “yes, let the Professor from Ireland in!” Isn’t it ironic?

What comes after is an experience that unfortunately I am not talented enough to describe with words. So please forgive me if I do not manage to convey the true magnitude of the place. Hopefully the photographs will do a better job. I will just point to a few landmark events.

Courtesy of Alex, I happen to be staying at “Camp Armageddon.” A collection of interesting characters that included a Stanford high power graduate reconverted into an organic blueberry farmer in Chico (California), an ex Marine now running a non profit that helps people build houses out of bales of hay and Alex’s father. My years teaching at Universities have generated a natural dislike for student parents and true disdain for “reconversion,” the term “organic” and especially sentences that mix the words “renewable” with “non-profit.” Thus I was set for a true psychological challenge.

When I thought that things could not get worse, a camp across the street started blasting heavy metal music – it was indicated to me that they had been assigned the time slot from 13:00 – 14:00. Exactly at 2:00 pm the music stopped and was replaced by Alex singing Elvis tunes with a ukulele – despite my apprehensions for “The King” and the “ukulele” it was a welcome relief.

I was taken by the hosts to the dress-up room provided with a feather head piece that would have made my Inca ancestry envious and delivered to this post apocalyptic real life recreation of the world of Mad Max.

Alex brought us to “The Temple” which looked much more impressive than in any of the diagrams I had seen. It was not only massive but it was ornamented by deeply personal messages that people had written for them to burn in some form of a cathartic gesture. In the centre some sort of “Voodoo meets Buddha” rituals were being performed supported by the rhythm of African drums. I have to say, I am generally completely indifferent to these practises, nevertheless, my self-control was tested when 3 naked men tightly hugged as they screamed a consistent message. This act was a means to break free from the emasculation that society brings on the modern man. My attitude changed from total disdain to absolute bewilderment.

The work done on “The Temple” was remarkable. Alex had managed to bring most of the ideas he and Phil had discussed with me into practise. “The Temple” had just become the first real scale test of the impact of cavity compartmentation on the growth of a fire in a timber building. This is a subject of great controversy on which rests the fire safety of timber buildings.

The night changed the flavour of the camp, nudity was substituted by flamboyant feather boas and faux-fur outfits that could be the envy of any fashion victim. The sanctity of the nudity and the prayer was substituted by loud music, screaming and fireworks leading to the burning of “The Man.” The party had begun.

A man approached me, claimed being an anthropologist and asked me what I thought about life after death. As you might suspect, my answer was not what he expected. If I would have been given some warning I would have probably given him an answer that hid the simplicity of my mind, but I had no time to reflect on my story. My candid answer rewarded me with a coin, black on the one side symbolizing death and white on the other side with a Hebrew inscription symbolizing the eternity of life. The coin was intended to be a reminder of how far I still need to travel to achieve enlightenment. Point well taken!

A further reward came as a statement: “Embrace Burning Man because you are witnessing the creation of a new social order.” By the end of that night I had concluded that “Burning Man” was a reproduction of the existing social order in a context where everyone could simply be a more radical version of themselves. The power of anonymity!

Unfortunately I was deeply unprepared. The boot of the car was full of suits and ties (highly inappropriate) and the only shirt I had was an old Berkeley T-shirt. It was pointed to me by many of the “brothers” that those were symbols of society imposed cast systems that were not welcomed at “Burning Man.” Fortunately, I did not get the message until it was too late, because otherwise I might have felt compelled to adopt the more appropriate attire that consisted of nothing. That would have probably been offensive to the rest of the “burners.” My unpreparedness was so extraordinary that I did not realize that given the 1000 m altitude the temperature drastically drops at night, so while the days are terribly hot, the nights are cold. The dress-up room provided me with some colourful fabrics that enabled me to circulate at night without being cold. Sleeping was a different story, after more than 48 hours without sleeping I finally retired to the car at 2:00 am. By 5:00 am, and after turning the car on for heating 10 times, I was up and out facing what was still a roaring party.

Alex and I left at 7:30 am, after the morning yoga session, back to “The Temple.” It is important to highlight one of the most interesting yet artificial premises of this group. There are certain “good rules” that are continuously overemphasized. Respect is one of them, I did not ask to do yoga, and thus no pressure or offer was extended to me. My space was respected. Affection is another one, brothers and sisters will greet with extreme affection in a choreographed manner that made a simple hand shake feel like a crime. Garbage control was an omnipresent one, while smoking is respected, people collected the ashes and cigarette butts as if they were precious gems. It leaves you wondering where the ashes of the first “non-Burning Man” cigarette will end ... on the floor?

At “The Temple” the worshipers were politely being driven out of the safety perimeter so that the work could commence. We went through a final analysis to attempt circumventing some of the constraints imposed by different external variables. I met some of the crew including the resident pyrotechnics expert. This individual seemed to derive way too much enjoyment from his work. I have to say that I left a bit restless. The indiscriminate used of “mild explosives” and “accelerants” could overrule any natural burning features. I came back twice again that day and my concerns continue to increase. The amount of fuel that was being added (in the form of anything that will sustain a flame) was quite overwhelming. I guess a big fire had to be guaranteed and once again, technical knowledge and a “natural” fire were secondary. It reminded me so much of the Dalmarnock tests, where we were trusted only until the critical moment. When the primordial objective is to be attained, the gut feeling of the “shaman” is more trustworthy than the knowledge of the “wise man.”

Sunday night “The Temple” looked glorious, the dust lifted by a mild breeze gave it a truly extraordinary look. People gathered around the temple with a sombre attitude. This posed a striking contrast with the party atmosphere of the previous night. Having been almost entirely deprived of sleep for almost 100 hours, the quiet and sombre nature of that evening suit me well.

The fire was simultaneously started in all five satellite buildings. From the onset you could clearly identify a sequence of growth, with the spread rates decaying in an anti-clock wise manner. Very rapidly the central tower started to burn with the flames spreading upwards at a colossal speed. In a matter of seconds the entire central tower was engulfed in flames (my feeling was that the in-house pyromaniac had given it way too much juice). The fire was so intense that at 100 m (safety perimeter) the radiative heat was close to the threshold of pain. At some point I almost stood up and started walking backwards but given that I was in the front row, it would have probably not been a wise idea to encourage others to start moving away. With great difficulty I controlled myself and managed to wait until the fire started to decay. Massive firebrands were being lofted, but in the almost absence of wind, they were falling straight back to areas were the fire was smaller. The smaller temples burned in the correct sequence (although I thought it should have been clock wise) with the collapses happening in a sequential manner as originally planned.

Unfortunately I had to leave immediately after. Believe it or not I had not had enough! It took more than three hours to get out of the camp and another three hours to drive back to the same hotel where I stayed on Friday. The time of arrival was 4:30 am, the time of departure of the first of my three flights was 9:00 am. Wake up time was 6:00 am. It is Monday now and I am sitting in planes on my 20 hour trip back to Europe hoping that at some point I will compensate for the 130 hours of sleep deprivation.

How can I summarize all this... did “Burning Man” change my life? Most definitely not! Was “Burning man” a good technical experience? Most definitely yes! Both from the physical and sociological sides. I have seen what would probably be the biggest fire I will ever see, I have explored the role of cavities, I have seen the potential consequences of a timber building fire, I have revisited the roles of the technical expert and that of the artisan, confirming once again that one of the strongest determining factors in our field is that relationship – the “shaman” vs. “the fire safety expert,” “the fire fighter” vs. “the engineer.” The technical expert always looses! Until we understand that dynamic we will have a hard time making progress!

From a personal side, I have confirmed that I have deeply engrained prejudices. Rightfully so sometimes but completely unjustified other times. Every minute of my 36 hours in “Burning Man” showed me that it requires deep thinking to purposely confront social structures, boldness and posturing are only thin masks of shallow social subversion that weakly cover conformism. Thus my prejudices in that sector are just reinvigorated. In contrast I have to say that I truly enjoyed the company of Ben, Alex’s father, he emerged as a deeply intellectual individual that had mastered the art of engaging, observing, learning and teaching in a manner such that it all simply appears natural. He made me reflect on that stage of parenting that evolves from guiding a child to delivering an adult. Like him, many of the people I met were probably more than what I expected them to be. My prejudices were truly unfounded and I am very sorry for that.

One final, but most important lesson I learnt. When asked to be involved and I did not say no, I did not realize what I was doing. I was allowing myself to enjoy my work. I was engaging with work in a manner that was consistent with the reasons why I chose this profession, thus I was deriving pleasure out of work. The big lesson... this is what I am supposed to do!

It is the students with their energy, their free spirit and their imagination that allow us to engage in remarkable activities. It has made me reflect back on the highlights of my career, that it was not me but Maria who encouraged me to save a derelict museum, it was actually Adam who first suggested that I should convince the BBC to film a documentary while we burned a skyscraper, it was Sam and Johan who instigated exploding an oxygen enriched building at 5000 metres above sea level and it was Alex and Phil who told me I should be involved in “Burning Man,” I am most grateful to all of these former students, but in this occasion especially to both of you, Thank you!

Alex promised me in his last message (before I arrived): “I'm confident you'll love it out here :)” and I did. Would I ever come back to “Burning Man” maybe ... but for different reasons, with a different objective and definitely more aware of what I am doing.

Was it worth it? ... Totally worth it!


Nick said...

Great story Jose! And your social commentary, now that provided some nice laughs-Nick

Michael Gollner said...

Thanks for such a great story Jose! I have to agree I would never have imagined the words "Jose Torero" and "Burning Man" in the same sentence, but I really enjoyed your account of the experience. Now that the fun is over, I hope you can please get some rest and lighten up on the travel!

Beave said...

It was a great pleasure having you with us even for a short time. Would love the opportunity of a face to face download sometime soon. I'm back in Northern England so will make time.

Temple Lead 2011

sam said...

This is seriously hilarious. Great post Jose! Having read this, it's probably for the better you weren't present in Peru with Johan and I :-)

Armen said...

Dear Professor Jose!!! I would say that despite your personal misgivings about Burning Man (that none of us were aware of), you were a champ! The rest of us at Camp Armageddon were almost as excited to meet you as Alex was for you to arrive! You seemed pretty comfortable out on the playa, almost a natural, you know? I'm glad you were able to join us and I really loved reading your blog post about your trip. maybe we'll see you out there again, home on the playa? Blueberry Playa Mama, Armen