Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Calvin Seibert’s astounding sandcastles are made to be destroyed.
Vail, Colorado, is one of America’s most popular ski resort towns. It is also known for being built for skiing alone. Vail didn’t exist until the mid-1960s, when ski champion Pete Seibert helped lead its rapid construction.
Calvin Seibert, Pete’s son, was a kid at the time. Fascinated by Vail’s buildings in progress, he played in the shadows of their foundations and framings. And in piles of sand around the construction sites, he began to build his own unfinished castles. He never stopped.
Now 57, Seibert is a trained artist living in New York City. He has exhibited drawings in various galleries, and during winter, creates sculptures out of discarded cardboard. But in the summertime, his medium is sand. Seibert spends eight to 10 hours per day, four to five days per week, building astoundingly complex castles on and out of the beach.
Sometimes it’s the sand at Fort Tilden, in the Rockaways. Other times it’s at Jones Beach on Long Island. Occasionally, he’ll hit Coney Island.
“I get a different reaction with different groups of people,” he says. “At Fort Tilden, hipsters will take an Instagram and keep on walking. On Coney, I recently had a group of kids who came up and wanted to jump on it. I said, ‘Hold on! Let me get my camera first!’”
Though passers-by don’t often ask to destroy Seibert’s work, he is at peace with the ephemeral nature of sandcastles. “Sometimes they’ll last a week if it’s overcast,” says Seibert. “Other times, they’re gone instantly”—licked by a wave or tumbled over by a toddler.
Judging by his castles, Seibert would seem to have a studied architectural background. Some of his works are blunt and Brutalist. Others have a curvy Zaha Hadid-iness about them. Many of his recent castles are pyramid-like, recalling Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan revivalism.
But Seibert doesn’t build with blueprints, nor does he aim to evoke any one style or another. In fact, he cringes at comparisons.
“Lots of people say ‘Mayan’ or ‘Frank Gehry’ when they look at them,” he says. “But that tells me that I haven’t been focused enough. I’m not thinking ‘Mayan,’ I’m just doing it from the weird, unconscious place I’m at.”
He’s also using a technique finessed by years of practice. Using a trusty 5-gallon paint bucket, Seibert starts by mounding up a high pile of sand. He fills the bucket with seawater, and dumps that onto the pile—five times. Then he digs and mixes a small trough of more wet sand, which he’ll spread on top of the pile. As the pile hardens, Seibert begins to sculpt, at first with his hands, and then with carefully selected tools: plastic spackling blades and trowels made specially of Plexiglas (metal rusts, after all). To create those ultra-smooth surfaces, he wipes off his blades between every cut, “like you would with a cake,” he says. Hours later, and often shivering cold, he’ll have a final—though never totally finished—sandcastle.
“They look very complete in the pictures,” he says, “but they’re not always smooth all the way around. That doesn’t really matter, in terms of how they look. The roughness around the castle”—the rest of the beach, he means—“always unifies it.”
Seibert says he’d never show his work in a white-walled gallery—it just wouldn’t mean the same thing. “It’s important that they’re at the beach,” he says. “A sandcastle is ephemeral. There is a thing on the horizon that’s going to destroy it. That’s what makes it powerful and interesting.”
So it’s the shores of New York City for Seibert and his castles. Unless, of course, the Venice Biennale calls: “If somebody offered me a palazzo and a pile of sand, I’d do it.”
All images courtesy of Calvin Seibert.