What is a beach, really? A D.C. institution transforms its stately great hall to answer this age-old question

By Spencer Peterson
July 07, 2015
Noah Kalina
| Credit: Noah Kalina

This summer, D.C.-area beachgoers can forgo the sand, sea, and sun and opt instead for an abstract exploration of the natural and cultural signifiers of beachdom (i.e. a giant, beach-themed indoor ball pit). The National Building Museum has converted 10,000 square feet of its columned great hall into a “beach” with an ocean of 750,000 recyclable, translucent plastic balls.

The installation, which comes from Brooklyn-based design firm Snarkitecture, has beach chairs, umbrellas, and a snack bar at one end—all in a stark white that Richard Meier would approve of—while a spongiform material underfoot gives the vague impression of sand. At the opposite end, a mirrored wall visually extends the 50-foot-wide monochrome Chuck. E. Cheese pit to another shore on the horizon.

The Beach is Snarkitecture’s largest work yet, and comes after seven years of exploring the “territory between art and architecture, emphasizing the transformation of the familiar into the extraordinary,” says principal Alex Mustonen, through things like branded fabric tunnels, and t-shirts based on New York City subway tiles. (From the look of his apartment, small round objects are an aesthetic fixation of Daniel Arsham, the firm’s other founding designer.) For the Building Museum, it’s an even more playful follow-up to last summer's BIG Maze, a wooden labyrinth designed by Bjarke Ingels.

Last winter in London, a ball pit in a studio apartment catered to young professionals on lunch breaks. The concept in D.C., says Building Museum executive director Chase Rynd, is an immersive installation that “turns our understanding of the natural environment on its head and offers us the opportunity to question our own expectations of the built environment and see where pushing the boundaries can take us.”

The museum raised $12,155 on Indiegogo to help fund the Beach, which is open until early September, as the centerpiece of its annual Summer Block Party series of events and exhibitions.