In the early years the Burning Man festival had few rules, but as the event grew in scale, Harvey realised the anarchy needed to be replaced by a degree of order.
"People craved orientation," he said during a phone interview with Dezeen, set up after a meeting at Design Indaba in Cape Town earlier this year, where Harvey was a speaker. "It was a very basic primal need."
As a result the organisers realised they had to act as a "de facto government" of this huge temporary settlement, which came to be known as Black Rock City.
Harvey, born in 1948, worked with late architect and urban designer Rod Garrett to perfect the festival's layout. "We needed urban design because it's a city," said Harvey, who started the festival on a San Francisco beach in 1986 before moving it to the vast, featureless desert, which is "the size of a small European country," in 1991.
Marcus Fairs: Tell me how the layout of Burning Man evolved. Why did you need to work with an urban designer?
Larry Harvey: Well, we needed urban design because it's a city. The contemporary form of it evolved by stages. Actually, in the very beginning there was a design that no one had actually consciously considered but just emerged as a response to the space. We were a small little band in all that emptiness, and like any group we sort of gathered around a centre and created a sense of shelter in the midst of this vacuum that had otherwise threatened to swallow us up.
One of the most significant discoveries was that we discovered the power of surveyors flags. We discovered that you could delineate boundary lines at any scale you pleased as long as people could see the line created by a succession of flags. Therefore you could craft space in an environment that was so disjointed.
People craved orientation. It was a very basic primal need. So we could create a boundary that served lots of functional purposes and especially create boundaries that people would camp along. Eventually that was the way we created everything: the streets, every aspect of the bounded environment.
It was not unlike the Greeks when they'd go about creating new cities. I may be wrong about this but I think there was a Greek god of boundaries that they would honour to begin with, and that's kind of what we were doing. We thought we were Greeks.
Marcus Fairs: At what point did you decide that you needed to bring an architect or a designer on board? How did the collaboration with Rod Garrett come about?
Larry Harvey: Well that started in 1997. [Rod] was the landlord of two of my colleagues, and once I got to know him I came to collaborate with him on a lot of things; not only designing the city but we had a very close creative collaboration in designing the themes every year, the architectural aspects. I would invent the theme and then we would work together to find means of expressing it. He would design the man bases as we call them, because they function as pavilions rather than just as pedestals [of the central effigy] and he would design those. We would go back and forth together, which was lovely.
I soon came to realise he was a genius. He could see things in three dimensions in his mind and produce designs with remarkable clarity. So he was very talented and as geniuses do was able to focus his attention on any design question so considerably that he could find solutions, elegant and organic solutions to problems much faster than most people can.
And you know, it wasn't just Rod dreaming something up in a fit of utopian enthusiasm. It was us talking to him incessantly about the practical needs and myself talking to him about the symbolic needs. He was an intuitive man, he was an artist.