Interview: David Best
This interview orinally appeared in the September 2009 issue of inGen Magazine.
As much as the icon of The Man has come to symbolize the ideals of Burning Man, the Temple has come to represent Burning Man’s emotional heart. In 2000, local artist David Best built The Temple of Tears as a place to honor a friend who had recently died in a motorcycle accident. Since that first year, the Temple has evolved not only architecturally but also as the emotional nexus of the Burning Man experience.
The Temple project, though, has grown beyond Black Rock’s sandy borders. In 2005, San Francisco’s Hayes Valley played temporary host to one of Best’s Temple designs. More recently, a Temple was constructed on a vacant lot in a low-income neighborhood in Detroit, providing a space for local residents to escape the stark urban environment that defines much of the Motor City. In 2008, Best passed on building the Temple at Burning Man, instead opting to take The Temple of Truth to the Electric Picnic festival in Ireland. For the 2009 Burning Man, the construction of the Temple was passed on to an Austin-based art collective for their Fire of Fires Temple design.
I had the honor of talking with David Best about what he sees as the function of the Temple and his views on the role that architecture should have within the framework of society. As an example, Best describes “a welfare office in Sacramento that costs 10 million dollars and a person walks into that office to get an $800 welfare check and that person is intimidated by this 10 million dollar building. There is something wrong with building a building that makes the person feel less and the organization feel better.” He goes on to state, “a building should make a person feel better about themselves.”
Architecture is often concerned with attaining some ideal of perfection. But Best sees the Temple as an imperfect structure due to the constrictions of time and money and materials – much of which is donated. But even if he were given the resources to produce a magnum opus, he wouldn’t want to. He says, “the perfection” of the Temples “are the people who come into them. That’s what makes them perfect.” It seems that for Best the construction of the Temple is only complete when it begins to serve the needs of the people for whom it was built.
Although each Temple has a theme – usually difficult subjects like death, suicide and loss – the structure itself doesn’t seek to make a statement or to give any answers. Instead, the Temple offers its space as a refuge for someone to go and reflect upon the struggle of his or her own experience and perhaps find the answer within that solitude. “There’s a lot of people who will never have anything, there are so many people without,” he explains, “And then, all of the sudden, there’s this building that is made just for that one person, that person who has lost a mother to suicide or a child to tragedy, and that person walks into this place and is like ‘oh, this was made for me, for the memory of my daughter . . . my crew always reminds me that the Temple isn’t built for the 40,000 people [who attend Burning Man], it’s made for that one person who has experienced loss.” He tells me this reminder helps when the building process borders on becoming overwhelming. In its essence, the Temple is simply a gift to someone in need.
I asked Best what made him decide to pass on building the Temple this year. He told me that every year he faces the tough decision of whether to return to the Playa. He describes the building process as “an addiction,” since the process of “working with such an incredible team of people” is such a hard thing to walk away from. But, he adds, “over the years, if I were to hold to it [the Temple] myself, it’s unfair to the community. It doesn’t belong to us anyway, it’s not like a private art piece, it’s more of a public structure, so the public should be more responsible for it than an individual.”
But this doesn’t mean that the Playa has seen the last of Best’s intricate and emotive structures. Best says that he will do one more Temple for either the 2010 or 2011 Burning Man. In the meantime, Best is currently working on building a Temple in Cuba. As for those of us who have had the honor of standing in the shade of one his Temple designs at Burning Man, we will have to patiently await Best’s return to the Playa.