What even is Navy Pier? For many Chicagoans it’s the epitome of tourist hell; like San Francisco’s Pier 39 but with fewer bread bowls and more mold issues, the carnivalesque combo children’s museum-Shakespeare Theater-fun house-yacht dock-pirate ship confusion has always been more a “something else that’s not for us.” Navy Pier saw this as a problem and, starting in 2016, undertook a $278 million dollar renovation of the lakeshore attraction, looking to improve its repellant reputation among Chicagoans. Since the renovation began, elements that will bring in locals year-round have been revealed in incremental phases: better food, cleaner design, and more activities. This is where the new interactive art-architecture exhibit The Beach comes in. But like its setting, which seems to be caught in an existential identity crisis, The Beach is less of an art or architecture experience and more of the same hellishness one can expect from Navy Pier, washed in Instagrammable cuteness.
Designed by the Brooklyn-based architecture-design firm Snarkitecture, The Beach is a massive indoor ball pit. It’s filled with white balls and inner tubes. There are lounge chairs on the “shore” (the place where there aren’t balls). Snarkitecture became somewhat famous in the architecture field with its first installation of The Beach at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Since then, The Beach has traveled across the country to much fanfare as a pop-up exhibition, drawing in huge crowds and launching the firm’s reputation as not just designers but funmakers.
Its arrival in Chicago was inaugurated with a public lecture at the Graham Foundation by Alex Mustonen and Ben Porto, two of the three Snarkitecture principals. Noting that their firm was once categorized by a client as “not architects but not artists,” Mustonen explained that much of their work sits on a spectrum of “not art to not architecture.” The guys (yes, they seemed less like architects and more like guys) walked the audience through a history of their design practice: their work in the private sector for high-end retail companies like sneaker giant Kith were elegant and modern. In this commercial realm, the firm acted as conventional architects and interior designers, using design to improve the guests’ experience and heighten the clients’ brands. Some of their public work, however, read as accessible, playful public space that showed an ability to transcend the cute and the commercial.
The 2017 Exhibit Columbus in Columbus, Indiana (a site of major modernist architecture in the United States), included a small, site-specific structure by Snarkitecture called Playhouse, a house-shaped pavilion that sat between two existing buildings and toyed with viewers’ perspectives, growing smaller as one entered the long, gabled-roof structure and proceeded toward the rear. The firm describes it as “designed to highlight the discrepancy between how adults and children experience and respond to scale and proportion.” It was a good place to sit, mostly, and a welcome respite for visitors—kids and adults alike—who spent the day walking about town.
Playhouse, like The Beach, was an all-white installation meant to create a simple yet imaginative experience for visitors. “We transformed the experience into a monochromatic environment where people become the color, and people animate the space,” Mustonen explained at the Chicago lecture. (White has become something of a trademark for Snarkitecture; they’ve used it in dozens of other pieces for commercial retail spaces and museums alike).
It’s a successful idea, certainly, especially in Navy Pier’s massive Aon Grand Ballroom, where the white ball pit sits in stark contrast to the oversize dome above. Small specks of color—mostly sweater-clad visitors lounging atop the thousands of pristine balls—offer some visual relief from the sea of white. It’s startling, but visual appeal is where the exhibit’s success ends and the disappointment begins.
“Our goals are making architecture accessible and engaging . . . invit[ing] [visitors] into this environment to be playful and interactive, transforming the familiar and making them think, ‘What does it mean for everyday surroundings?'” Mostonen noted in his talk. Despite his claim, though, the notion that The Beach might inspire us to consider our everyday, familiar spaces in more imaginative or extraordinary perspectives is precisely what is lacking in this installation. Though the firm contended in the lecture that The Beach was meant to re-create the familiar beach sensations of floating and bobbing up and down in the water, the ball pit is far too reminiscent of a McDonald’s PlayPlace, a sea of germ-ridden balls and discarded Band-Aids, where children romp unsupervised while their parents get a well-deserved breather.
Visitors like me aren’t heading to The Beach for a transformative architectural experience. In the same way, we did not head to 29Rooms—Refinery29’s traveling fun house that stopped in Chicago in 2018—to experience art installations. We went there for a good night out and a few selfies with the giant neon IUD. Nor are we leaving The Beach asking ourselves, “How can we make ordinary places more extraordinary?” Instead, the experience of the Chicago iteration of this installation is much the same as it would be in any other city: we wade in, snap a few Instagram photos and Boomerangs, and then head back into our lives of toxic open-floor-plan offices and lightless two-flat apartments. The Beach isn’t architecture or an art “installation”—it’s hardly even design. It’s a curated ephemeral spectacle, sinking into the realm of consumable social-media fodder disguised as conceptual architecture. Not a wolf in sheep’s clothing—it’s harmless, but a sheep in glittering sheep’s clothing is still just a sheep.
The Beach is a lovely place to take your kids on a cold winter day, hot dog in hand, to enjoy a disposable experience that will live on only through your Instagram feed. It thrives perfectly at Navy Pier, where spectacles are expected and the charm only penetrates skin-deep. v
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the city of Chicago paid for the Navy Pier renovations. Navy Pier has been an independent nonprofit since 2011. Navy Pier also does not serve corn dogs as previously stated.