Back in graduate school, a professor once claimed that one needn't visit any particular piece of architecture to know whether it was good architecture, the merits could be determined in images. Thankfully, there are an ever increasing number of “acts of architecture” that require visiting, and right now our favorite is Snarkitecture’s “Beach” installation at the National Building Museum.
“The Beach” is the National Building Museum’s latest effort to embrace an expanded notion of architecture. 2014 was Bjarne Ingels Group’s BIG Maze. Collectively, these two installations signal something akin to New York’s PS1 Courtyard installations and “Warm Up” parties starting to happen in Washington DC. Last night, in our capacity as programming consultant for Dupont Underground, Archotus partisans went down to The Beach to meet Snarkitecture, put our feet in the sand and ride the waves.
The Beach is 750,000 three-inch-in-diameter translucent plastic balls contained within a walled rectangular space with a bi-level white astroturf floor, sloped down in the middle to evoke a shore. A pier extends into the three-foot-deep sea of balls, and there is an island off shore you can swim to. A wall of mirrors at one end of the space multiplies the effect and simplifies selfies.
The Beach does not look like much on paper. Early renders of the project were underwhelming, but in an intriguing way. There is a mode of practice in architecture right now that is deliberately reductive, stripped down and almost mute. Different practitioners have arrived here through different philosophies and approaches: SO-IL plays the social and theatrical, Philippe Rahm foregrounds the subject body, and Formless Finder plays contrarian with materials, to name a few. These practitioner’s work can be apprehended on paper, but there is a danger of misconstruing each piece. This work speaks softly and requires that you get up into its face. This work must be activated by people. And that requires a first hand visit.
Taken as a singular idea, a ball pit for adults sounds fun, but not particularly inventive. You can find out how to build one on Wikihow. But that is not what The Beach is. The Beach challenges some spatial and psycho-social assumptions.
Spatially, The Beach confounds scale. It playfully subverts the seriousness of the Building Museum’s massiveness. The central open space that was once the working floor of the nation’s military pension office rises up five levels, the roof held aloft by two colonnades of four massive columns. Add the Beach and the space becomes surreal. The columns are like redwoods, their scale is confusing, their faux marble finish is, strangely, also scaled beyond any earthly marble we’ve ever seen, and the balls at their feet start to be read as something else. Suddenly you are a tadpole in a plastic castle terrarium surrounded by your future siblings in egg form. The caviar-like quality of the balls only increases the farther away you get. If you are lucky enough to be able to pay a visit to the fourth floor catwalk, the installation becomes a platter of some strange tagine.
On the night we visited, Snarkitecture was giving the keynote address to the AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students) Grassroots Leadership Conference, the Building Museum was filled to the brim with future AIAs in business casual. Snarkitecture gave a quick run through of their projects, and then bid everyone to enjoy the Beach. Never have so many people ignored the architects and moved so quickly out of a lecture. In an instant, the Beach was filled with diving, floating, floundering future architects.
The social aspect of the Beach became clear: it is only complete when it is interacted with. The Beach requires activation, it cannot simply be viewed and contemplated. And, remarkably, interacting with the Beach can result in some of the same awkwardness one might feel at an actual beach. How much fun will I allow myself to have? Should I just watch? Or read a book? I’m feeling pale and un-athletic. Diving in is delightful, buoyancy is easily achievable, though swimming takes effort. The Beach is about as far removed from big “A” architecture as one can get. It is a simple idea, with complex effects. Those effects are surreal, both spatially and psycho-socially. They transport you, but they require you.
We’d like to thank the Building Museum for inviting us, and Snarkitecture for entertaining our currently-top-secret ideas for the future of the Beach balls.