Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
“Fun House,” an installation by Snarkitecture at the National Building Museum, shows that the craze for crowd-friendly museum spectacles is still going strong.
Pinkeye struck the National Building Museum in 2015, just two weeks into the run of “The Beach.” At least one visitor said that she caught the bug at the D.C. museum’s summer spectacular. Hard to prove, but easy to believe, given that the attraction was a magnet for germs: a ginormous, roiling ball pit, filled with 750,000 plastic balls.
The risk was worth it, plenty of visitors decided. “The Beach”—designed by New York’s three-man design collective, Snarkitecture—drew more 183,000 visitors over its two-month run. That puts the exhibit in a category all by itself in the museum’s history. “The Beach” cemented the Building Museum’s annual architectural folly series as a rite of summer.
Since then, the museum brought “Icebergs” by James Corner Field Operations and “Hive” by Studio Gang, smaller shows that weren’t so laser-targeted at the K–5 demographic. This year, the beach is back—and there’s an entire beach house to go with it.
A whole retrospective of Snarkitecture’s work since 2010 opened at the Building Museum on July 4. “Fun House” is a whole lot bigger than “The Beach.” The massive house structure features 40 different objects and installations, from a Rube Goldberg machine–like palace that runs on marbles to an awesome mountain of pillows for building forts. For kids, this show must be nirvana in built form, a crystallization of dreams they maybe never knew they had. For adults, though, “Fun House” might feel more like a summer bummer: a repeat, a retread, and even a missed opportunity.
Home is the superstructure for “Fun House.” The show subdivides into exhibition areas that correspond to the parts of the home, each one highlighting a different example of Snarkitecture’s work. So the “foyer” of the home is a recreation of “Dig,” the firm’s 2011 project for the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. For that show, Snarkitecture filled the space with EPS architectural foam, turning a void into a solid, then excavated a way through it using simple tools. Just as with “The Beach,” Snarkitecture’s “Dig” has been copied and pasted into “Fun House” (in a slightly smaller format). “Fun House” is a carnival tour through the many clever—and occasionally brilliant—ideas that Snarkitecture has brought to life over the past decade.
The conceit will be lost on children, of course, who aren’t going to ask questions about “Marble Run,” a sculpture that Snarkitecture debuted at the Delano South Beach Hotel as part of Design Miami in 2015. A tower of snaking chutes, it’s a simple (but large) play toy rendered in Snarkitecture’s signature all-white aesthetic. Kids deposit black glass marbles and watch them go. Then it’s off to the next thing, whether that’s war over couch cushions in the living room (“Pillow Fort,” 2012) or wandering through a maze of hanging fabric strips in the bedroom (“Light Cavern,” 2015).
Maria Cristina Didero, an independent curator based in Milan, is the architect behind this meta-architectural showcase. “Fun House” is as much her show as it is Snarkitecture’s; some of the most graceful touches in the show come in the places where she has organized the company’s products. “Cast Light” (2011) and “Broken Ornament” (2012)—both sculptures made of cast gypsum cement that appear in the “Fun House” kitchen—illuminate how the designers use trompe-l’œil, obstructions, and fractures to rethink everyday things.
Snarkitecture has the air of a Silicon Valley startup, a trio that likes to move fast and break things. For “Eames Chair” (2014), a project for Design Within Reach, the firm wrapped the iconic Eames lounge chair and ottoman in shrink-wrap plastic and set a torch to it. “Tilt Coaster” (2014) and “Slip Chair” (2017) are manufactured just so to be unusable. Its work is design for an era that prioritizes experiences over things: all-white-everything objects that represent a kind of negation of the object. Snarkitecture is the Marie Kondo of the architecture world.
The problem with “Fun House,” then, is that Building Museum viewers already know all about Snarkitecture. Visitors got a thorough-going look at the company’s monochromatic vision with “The Beach” just three years ago. While the survey is as fun as the work—no small feat—what’s it doing here?
Washington, D.C., seems especially prey to a category of art that might be called spectacle. “Wonder,” a series of over-the-top installations at the Renwick Gallery—ostensibly the Smithsonian Institution’s craft museum—drew some 732,000 visitors to the museum over eight months after its 2015 reopening. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden clocked 1 million visitors in 2017 thanks to Infinity Mirrors, its honey-trap assembly of Yayoi Kusama’s delightful (and socially shareable) mirror environments.
Snarkitecture’s second appearance at the museum in almost as many years raises the question: Is the Building Museum taking architecture seriously? There are programs in other cities that feature follies, too, namely the Serpentine Gallery’s annual pavilion series in London. This year’s edition is a somber structure designed by Mexico City’s Frida Escobedo. It wouldn’t work nearly as well as a place to dump the kids for a couple of hours.
Running concurrently with “Fun House” is “Evicted,” an exhibit based on Matthew Desmond’s award-winning and haunting look at the justice and housing crisis facing America’s most vulnerable families. It’s hard to imagine a higher contrast in museum shows, between entertainment and education. And of course, museums need to do both. But the rush to capture crowds has generated serious inflation in D.C.—and elsewhere—that’s measurable in ever-escalating spectacles.
At the very least, there are lots and lots of designers who deserve the platform, and the Building Museum isn’t doing viewers a service by going back to the well. It isn’t even doing wonders for Snarkitecture, whose provocations look like a safe bet this second time around. Real risk might look different. There’s always next summer.