WASHINGTON, DC — If that video of pro surfer Mick Fanning’s near shark attack kept you out of the water this summer, you can still get some fin-free beach time in before Labor Day at the National Building Museum. Snarkitecture’s ball pit The BEACH has been this vacation season’s top destination in DC, drawing so many visitors that that the museum had to suspend online ticket sales in its final weeks.
Snarkitecture is a Brooklyn design firm established by Daniel Ashram and Alex Mustonen. They’re known for creating playful and sometimes slightly subversive large-scale works, and The BEACH is no exception: a sea of 750,000 white plastic balls lap at a white Astroturf shore that’s dotted with white canvas sunbathing chairs and white umbrellas. What it lacks in color, it makes up for in munchies — the museum topped off the beach experience with a Union Kitchen snack stand where you can buy treats like organic ice cream sandwiches for the kiddos and locally sourced artisan cheese boards for the grown-ups.
Thanks to its accessibility, novelty, and questionable sanitation, Snarkitecture’s beach creates a sense of physical escape in the same way a trip to the Jersey Shore does. But it also offers psychological escapism via nostalgia, since most of us haven’t been in a ball pit since our last trip to Chuck-E-Cheese. Judging by the attendance numbers, which the museum recently reported as nearly three times last summer’s visitor count, it seems nearly everyone is eager to relive their seventh birthday party.
Part of the simple charm of The BEACH is the sheer unexpectedness of finding a giant ball pit in a museum setting, especially one bedecked by stately Corinthian columns, as at the National Building Museum. Indeed, the Snarkitecture studio strives to “make architecture perform the unexpected.” Just as interesting, though, is how visitors perform their beach selves involuntarily once they enter the exhibition. Babies laugh and cry as they toe the surf, teenagers show off their diving skills to the chagrin of everyone in their wake zone, and adults swim out toward the deep end or lounge, drink in hand, in a chair.
The museum touts the installation as the ideal climate-controlled beach day because it’s always 70 degrees and sunny. Given that July 2015 was the hottest month ever, this is actually a fact worth some serious consideration. Curiously, the concurrent exhibitions on view have included HOT TO COLD: an odyssey of architectural adaptation, which surveys sustainable architecture design for some of the world’s harshest climates, and Designing for Disaster, which explores how to plan and engineer more resilient communities in the face of natural disasters. In conversation with these shows, The BEACH becomes a refuge from — rather than just a fun imitation of — nature itself.
The BEACH continues at the National Building Museum (401 F Street NW, Washington, DC) through September 7. Tickets are $5–16 and available in person on a first-come, first-served basis.