From UC Berkeley to Burning Man: Meet Alireza Lahijanian, the engineering graduate behind the giant sculptures

Alireza Lahijanian/Courtesy

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Every year, the flat desert of Black Rock Desert, Nevada, becomes a temporary city where artists and counterculture-seekers flock to attend Burning Man. Central to the festival experience are the multistory sculptures — which are monuments, kinetic or still, that provide artists with an outlet for “radical self-expression,” a key principle of Burning Man.

lahijanian_mugBut behind every elaborate sculpture is the engineering necessary to ensure the viability and safety of each artist’s vision. One of the people charged with carrying out these projects is Alireza Lahijanian, a UC Berkeley engineering alumnus and co-founder of Rbhu, Burning Man’s partnering engineering firm and design consultant.

“The challenge I am most passionate about is the aesthetic,” Lahijanian said about sculptures he has worked on. “I get to dream a lot about everything. Every day doesn’t feel like work when you get to do something you really love.”

The company name Rbhu is Sanskrit for “ingenuity” or “inventiveness,” a credo that Lahijanian came up with for the company when he started it with co-founder Selinda Martinez. She had been working with large-scale sculptures, most notably Marco Cochrane’s 55-foot nude sculpture, a smaller version of which has also been featured at the Smithsonian Institution’s Burning Man exhibition. Lahijanian got on board with Martinez and soon discovered a need for engineering in large-scale sculptures.

Lahijanian came to the United States as a 17-year-old from Iran, not yet able to speak English. Entering UC Berkeley as a transfer student, Lahijanian made it into the 5th Year Master’s Program. Only about 20 undergraduate students participate in this pathway each year, according to Oliver O’Reilly, a professor of mechanical engineering and Lahijanian’s undergraduate and graduate adviser. O’Reilly described Lahijanian as “exceptional.”

“He’s got a great energy about him, and I think he’s pretty courageous actually,” O’Reilly said. “It’s remarkable what he’s done. … It’s a completely nonlinear path to finding your way.”

While living at the International House, Lahijanian explained that an excitement for experiencing something new helped him overcome challenges he faced. UC Berkeley, as he liked to say, taught him “how to fish.”

“I always had to push the extra mile,” Lahijanian said. “Berkeley gave me that confidence that I think so much outside the box that my brain automatically thinks outside the box.”

After completing his graduate degree in 2010, Lahijanian worked as a structural engineer on offshore windmills for Principle Power. Lahijanian knew he also wanted to stay in Berkeley, a city he now calls home after arriving as an international student.

Lahijanian also interned at Chez Panisse, a world-renowned restaurant and pioneer of California cuisine. Despite his passion for cooking, Lahijanian still found himself searching until starting Rbhu.

“I felt like, finally, I found something that I love to do for eight to nine hours a day,” Lahijanian said. “It didn’t seem like work anymore.”

At its start, Lahijanian would work on Rbhu projects from his regular seat at a kava bar until 2 a.m. Eventually, Lahijanian turned Rbhu into his full-time profession.

Many Rbhu projects now help artists with the structural and bureaucratic implementation of their work. One Burning Man sculpture — a stained glass, two-story, geodesic whale — was held in the air by incorporating the support into the sculpture itself. Many also include a human-machine interface, enabling people to interact with them. In a more recent project, a football-field-long teeter-totter had to be able to hold two people on each side.

Now, working on 50 projects in a year, Lahijanian wants to expand Rbhu with Martinez and to broaden their scope to include more public sculptures.

“I don’t want to own a company. I want to be a leader of a tribe,” Lahijanian said.

Contact Brandon Yung at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.