Why Architects should pay attention to Burning Man…

BM17 IMG_3077 cropped.jpgAs architects we (and I am hoping this includes most of us here) strive to create buildings and cities that have a high degree of vibrancy, authenticity, and a strong sense of community. We desire an engaged population that not only loves their environment, but also participates in its creation, and in its ongoing evolution. The extension of which means they feel responsible for its maintenance and improvement and are inspired and empowered to infuse it with their cultural and artistic energy. They create traditions and rituals which carry this collective effort forward to successive generations. Ideally, this vibrancy extends across the full range of socio-economic strata, so that everyone participates and enjoys these benefits.

If they are successful, they will extend this caring sense of community beyond the physical environment, towards caring for each other’s well being, because they sense how each of us contributes to the success of our communities.

As architects, we contribute the physical structures that contain the workings of humanity, but more importantly, we contribute our own creativity and imagination to imbue emotional meaning, which in turn adds to the energy and excitement of the community.

This is our goal set, a lofty and noble dream.
When we broadly look at what gets built by architects, we can sometimes fall short of these objectives.

Burning Man, on the other hand, succeeds.
For one week, a city of 70,000 people organically forms in the desert.
For one week, 70,000 people create a community that creates vibrancy, authenticity, participation, and a deep caring, all of the things we strive for …. at a level of intensity that is frankly “off the charts”.

There are many misconceptions about Burning Man, as to why people go and what they do there. From my personal experience, Burning Man serves to teach us about “Community and Kindness, thru Participatory Art”. On one extreme, some people come to party, to play, to be self-indulgent.  Even these people come away changed from the experience of a strong caring community based on kindness. They come away inspired by the vast range of self-expression, be it Playa Art, Art Cars, Theme Camps, Dance Camps or people’s creative outfits.

Burning Man is not a laboratory to simply “understand placemaking”, it is not an “architecturally” rich environment in the normative formal sense we use in our profession, but in spite of this, and in some ways because of this, a city of 70,000 people build their own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, with the work of their own hands ……. if we ignore this, if we don’t take an opportunity to study what makes this work and thrive, we may find ourselves to be irrelevant to the people we pledged to serve.

–John Marx, Chief Artistic Officer at Form4 Architecture


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Silicon Valley Renaissance

IMG_1829We were drawn to the Architectural Review (AR) magazine’s Notopia campaign when it first landed on our desks with their June 2016 issue.  It was a reassuring vocalisation of a phenomenon that has very sadly crept into our profession and the built environment. As The Editor of AR, Christine Murray, writes soon “..we will be unable to distinguish any one global city from another”; …”the edge of Mumbai will look like the beginning of Shenzhen, and the centre of Singapore will look downtown Dallas.” According to Murray, this level of banal urbanism is endemic not only amongst the many nondescript buildings around the world but also amongst the sought-after iconic landmarks that fail to capture a sense of place.

Our fascination with Architectural Review’s Notopia campaign is not so much our dwelling on the recent short-comings of our profession (although we do indulge on some days) but more about the AR identifying a problem, giving it a name, or a diagnosis as it were, and thereby facilitating a potential cure.   How do we tackle this epidemic?  We have thought about this a great deal as we work near one of the world’s fastest growing hubs: Silicon Valley.  We wrote about this Californian technology paradise some years ago,

In terms of the magnitude of its inventions, the culture could easily be compared with the Florence of the Renaissance, and yet we have no movies to account for this vast urban carpet, no literature to mark the unfolding  of human affairs in its dispersed fabric, no iconic image etched in the mind of the general public.” (Form, Sept-Oct 2011)

..No Woody Allen filming in the streets of the Silicon Valley. In fact visitors to Silicon Valley are confronted with streets of drab, Notopia worthy stuff.  There are, of course, Renaissance-minded exceptions to this such as the new Frank Gehry campus for Facebook and the more accessible Facebook Classic Campus with its vibrant street life; but the overall effect is too disjointed to allow even the best building projects to thrive. Like many a booming community, Silicon Valley desperately needs a municipal vision, a town plan imbued with a sense of public life and intelligent placemaking.

We have certainly witnessed how entrepreneurs in the Valley have been interested in how design within their buildings can help achieve better staff retention and improve creative thinking. In many ways, the Silicon Valley is a pioneer in making the office a more friendly, collaborative, egalitarian work environment. Yet much of this is lost and becomes less meaningful when it is only experienced in a hermetic and enclosed way within the confines of air-conditioned rooms.

How much more attractive would Silicon Valley be if it built on Facebook’s vision in Menlo Park. Or that of Google in San Jose where civic mindedness is thankfully gradually being considered as a positive expression of the internet giant’s influence. If you think about it, the Valley is currently much like a business park where people go to work whilst having their homes in engaging and diverse places like San Francisco. As a result, tech-company employees are bussed from the more convivial cities and towns in the Bay Area to their workplaces in the Silicon Valley.

Wouldn’t it be better if Silicon Valley were a great place to inhabit and not only for those working for the big tech companies but for people of all walks of life?  This would require a real Renaissance in the Valley or phenomenon some call “techquity”, put simply, a drive to let everyone benefit from a city’s tech boom.  We hope that this is the next phase in the Silicon Valley: a more outwardly and community orientated agenda for development encouraging people to spend their time there walking, eating out, enjoying recreational or cultural pursuits or shopping and, of course, also choosing it as an attractive place to live and bring up families. And we are encouraged by news of Facebook and Google looking into building housing – including affordable housing – in the Valley which will help achieve this.


Form4 Architecture is currently working with The Architectural Review on a publication about these very issues with Wired Magazine contributor and architectural critic Sam Lubell writing about Silicon Valley.




“Balance is one of the most fundamental and least understood aspects of the inner and outer world we live in. We are in a constant state of readjustment. Imagine, trying to make progress, high on a tightrope, blindfolded, navigating by a sense of smell, without being able to assume which direction is forward … in addition, there are winds coming from multiple directions, all trying to blow you off the wire. This can describe the life condition of any of us.”  – John Marx Founding Director at Form4 Architecture

The Visual Poem above was created to describe these sentiments and in particular the plight of the architect. The predicament of architecture is something we are particularly concerned with in this blog. For it is by looking honestly at the many recent challenges the profession faces that we are able to better find the right balance between what can be conflicting professional, artistic and commercial interests. For some, this may cause the frustration of forced compromise, and yet the architect is tasked with something very noble in this equation. And all the more so when many of our public institutions and services have been privatized leaving a vacancy for the guardianship of what constitutes “common good”.

When performing his or her duty, it has often become the architect’s responsibility to fill this vacancy. To ensure that despite the many constraints a building project may be faced with – whether economic or the result of a particular site or complex brief – architects rise to the occasion to ensure that what is built nurtures a sense of place and a respect for humanity.

What do these lofty aspirations mean? They are about commonsensical things like making sure that what businesses build also benefits the wider community and vice versa. Profit and money are not the enemy, as some may argue, although a lopsided belief in profit and money at the expense of the environment or civic engagement is highly problematic.  Of course, architects are not sociologists per se or civil servants, but they should strive to work ethically by supporting the public realm in a way conducive to a sense of belonging and solidarity. This in addition to working sustainably – something that is thankfully more readily understood these days.

This, then, is all about a balance between the program of accommodation required and how this program can be made to do more to serve beyond the immediate functions to make something that gives back to society and, ultimately, the planet.  On balance, isn’t that what a remarkable building should accomplish? It is, of course, often a fine line to get there. So much can go wrong, so much can be value engineered out and so many special interest groups can trip up an altruistic project.

So this balancing act is tough and the path is far from clear.  Everything is trying to get you, as architects, to waver, but like a tightrope walker, architects must make their way with resolve to achieve just the right balance.


Design in Balance

Speech for receiving the American Prize for Architecture 2017

We asked ourselves:

When did the world become so grey ……..?
When did the public fall out of love, with the built environment?
When did our profession polarize so deeply between the pragmatic and the self-indulgent?
When did we begin to neglect the people we pledged to care for?

We could
debate the causal merits of Modernism in this disconnection,
the difficulty in translating a minimalist approach
to a wider culture
have we exhausted the conceit yet
“that the public just needs to catch up ….”

Modernism, technology and science
have given us an abundance
of wondrous gifts
that have progressed humankind
to ever greater heights
with so much more
to yet discover in the future

we have seemed to have lost
the Human Spirit
the joy,
of simple poetry
the quirky, subjective arbitrariness
that gives life its meaning

Architecture has the power to inspire us
to celebrate the human condition
in imaginatively assertive ways.
When clarity of form
pairs with emotional meaning,
place-making follows,
communities form,
relationships deepen,
people become engaged with their environments.

Given this dynamic
of our current Zeitgeist,
one might ask,
how would our work react to this?

For me,
and, if you indulge me here a bit

I marvel at the range
of manifestations of Nature,
the possibilities of the organic

Drawn toward the curvilinear,
the serpentine,
the sinuous arc
that beckons
a vision
towards a future architectural fabric.

The curve embodies the flow of vitality
finding its way into the physical world.
Flow is the common denominator
in both the ease of use
and the lyricism of form.

people all flow.

A curve is not the only way
to express this dynamic,
but when expressed with clarity,
this formal relationship can create a cohesiveness
between a wide variety of uses and needs,
unattainable with the rigidity of the straight line.

This may all sound a bit dramatic,
seeming to lean towards a myopic formalism?

Let’s critically examine
“form for form’s sake”,
and as a result
perhaps we might favor
a thoughtful balance
of the rational
and the artistic

In the belief that navigating
the creative tension between these two dynamics
is where exceptional architecture is born.

For us …..

The Rational:
Is a mixture of Environmental Psychology,
technology in all its latest forms,
first principles in Sustainability,
an adapted Silicon Valley version of collaboration:
creative listening
to both the material aspects of the site
the aspiration of the social / client world
surrounding the architecture to be.

The Artistic:
Inner priorities for activism in design.
Architecture is a poetic act
impacting the spirit,
especially when coming from a point of view
with a narrative.
I defend the appropriateness of the sometimes arbitrary,
the subjective,
the self expressive vs. self indulgent
it distinguishes me from the machine I use to design

I want to reach deeply to the emotions of users through the lyricism of dynamic form,
to unleash their excitement about city living,
about participating in vibrant communities,
aspiring to create an architecture that straddles
the iconic
and the humane
in one design.

In closing,
I would like to advocate for
a greater sense of balance in the practice of architecture
a both/and approach
instead of

I would like to advocate for
a reintroduction of a sense of the poetic
in balance with the rational

with the hope that this
will invite the public
to fall in love
with architecture

once again.
Thank you

John Marx
Design Principal
Form4 Architecture

Shared Purpose

A whole placemaking movement has evolved to counteract a well-recognised phenomenon of towns and parts of cities that are a bit like a no man’s land.  Sometimes they come across like this because they are overdeveloped with little room for spontaneity or they are just bland and lack spark or soul.

Have architects forgotten how to design places that thrive and are full of life? When comparing how fondly many speak of historic building and settings in comparison to more recent additions in the built environment, you might well argue that too many architects no longer know how to connect with people through their buildings.

Yet something slightly magical happens when buildings become meaningful in the lives of people who see and occupy them. And particularly so, if they are public buildings because when successful they engender civic pride. This is something every citizen should be allowed to feel for free. For it can elevate us, make us feel a part of something greater than ourselves while engendering solidarity. Surely this is something we want more of and need particularly now in increasingly divisive era.

A common misconception is that civic pride is only engendered through important landmark buildings like town halls, museums or libraries.   However, buildings of all types in the public realm can achieve this. They can be residential or commercial or industrial.  They can be used for leisure or healthcare or entertainment. What matters is that they generate a sense of shared purpose and vibrancy.

Too often new developments treat their occupants in a singular fashion as either just consumers or producers.  This presumptive design sucks life out of places.  Architects need to work with their clients in a way that avoids excessively prescriptive uses.  This also applies to future uses of buildings. The strongest buildings are the ones that can be remodeled to perform completely new functions. For example, from private house to school to offices. A building or place that is able to transform itself also feels vibrant: an aspect of design that is critical to engagement.

Vibrancy also comes about through inclusiveness in the way a place is used and occupied.  This is a critical issue in our time when commercialization and gentrification are limiting the range of shared purpose possible within many new developments. Architects need to address this together with their clients. And architects need to come together more to address what the shared purpose of their profession is in creating buildings and towns and cities that people will take pleasure in for years to come.