National Building Museum

The D.C. museum has got the big, fun, dumb, summer thing down.

The National Building Museum has got the big, fun, dumb, summer thing down.

On the Fourth of July, the museum is opening “The Beach,” the third installment in its summer architecture exhibition series. Snarkitecture, an emerging Brooklyn design firm, erected a 10,000-square-foot enclosure and filled it with 750,000-something plastic balls—and the museum is asking viewers to dive right in.

“The idea of creating something that is unexpected, but also something that’s memorable” moved Snarkitecture, says Alex Mustonen, who founded the edgy practice with Daniel Arsham. The program for their show is what you’d find at any beach: deck chairs and beach umbrellas, for example. The designers carpeted the enclosure with a spongiform material that feels almost like sand. (That’s right: Kick off your sandals for this show.) The illusory ocean is deep enough for viewers to wade in. There’s even a boardwalk, with eats courtesy of Union Kitchen.

The suds get deep fast. (All photos by the author)

The Beach is the successor to “The BIG Maze,” an immersive, labyrinthine installation designed last year by the Bjarke Ingels Group in advance of that firm’s big survey. (It’s still on view, and it’s the best show the museum’s done in years.) Before that, there was “Mini Golf,” a nine-hole course designed by various D.C.–area architects. Chintzy in places, but honest entertainment.

As architectural follies go, “The Beach” is brimming with good vibrations. It’s a Pop Art reduction of everyone’s favorite vacation destination. Imagine Roy Lichtenstein drawing the Jersey Shore, applying Ben-Day dots to signal the churn of white surf (“I don’t care! I’d rather sink—than call Brad for help!”). That’s what Snarkitecture’s built in the National Building Museum, albeit in the firm’s signature monochrome. It’s silly and severe, and something of a study in materials to boot.

Two ways to relax at The Beach.

Contrast the National Building Museum’s unnamed series with two other prominent programs for these architectural follies, however, and all of a sudden, an enormous ball-pit looks like a less-than-serious undertaking. Late in June, the Museum of Modern Art P.S.1 opened “Cosmo,” the 2015 offering for the museum’s Young Architects Program. “Cosmo” is an outdoor pavilion, also a custom sustainable irrigation system, by the Office of Political Innovation (Andrés Jaque). Meanwhile, the Serpentine Galleries in London invited another Spanish firm, selgascano (José Selgas and Lucía Cano), to design this year’s Serpentine Pavilion.

The Serpentine Pavilion is as earnest and thoroughgoing as curatorial endeavors come. This series is about Architecture with a capital “A.” At the other end of the spectrum, the Young Architects Program will serve as the tent for the P.S.1’s “Warm Up” dance parties, bringing a hot list of DJs to Queens every Saturday this summer, including Cut Copy, Lafawndah, and D∆WN.

With mini-golf, a giant maze, and now, a Chuck E. Cheese-y pavilion, the National Building Museum is aiming for a demographic even younger than Millennials. These shows are for tots and their handlers. That’s not a problem by itself, as long as the museum balances playtime with smart, challenging shows on architecture, sustainability, and construction. But that’s not always the case.

Graphic treatments by Snarkitecture.

Even granting these shows as kids’ exhibits, there’s something off about the progression from mini-golf to maze to beach. Creative though they are, none of these exhibits asks much imagination of children. Mini-golf is a known fun quantity. There’s not much bizarre or peculiar or formalist about it. Each show has its qualities, but taken together, these playful installations read as playpens.

Now, it’d be easy for the museum to get right with summer: Pipe in some surf rock, mix up some summer-themed adult beverages, find a way to string up some party lights in that cavernous interior—instant vibes. (Last year, the museum did throw an outdoor summer block party with music and catering; this year they’re doing “adult swim” events on Wednesday nights.) But the National Building Museum’s problem is a little larger than that. It’s harder to picture the museum mounting an academic show of (say) Henri Labrouste or a sweeping show like the Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A. seminar. (UPDATE: Note that one of the Pacific Standard Time shows, “Overdrive,” did travel to the National Building Museum.)

One of the problems with spectacle art is that splashy shows register as wins even when they’re unearned. Far less substantive shows than the ones put on by BIG and Snarkitecture would draw the same tourists and strollers to the National Building Museum. (Think MoMA’s Rain Room, or, God help us, the Rubber Duck.) The museum can be forgiven—applauded, even!—for doing fun, easy shows with stellar architects, but that can’t be the whole curriculum. This isn’t summer school.

Officials at the National Building Museum note that Bjarke Ingels convinced them to do the show with Snarkitecture. I doubt it took a hard sell. Plainly it took a lot of planning: A fraction of the hundreds of thousands of balls have names printed on them, like prizes, indicating that they’re sponsored. Still, there is something immature, incomplete, about this summer series. The museum’s framework could be a little more formal—and no less fun for it.

The Beach, as seen from the area with the pools chairs and cafe.

This post has been updated to include more information about programming.

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