How to Have a Beach Day This Winter: Snarkitecture’s The Beach Chicago Opens in Navy Pier

By: Vasia Rigou

One vast open space. One million translucent balls. “As far as inspiration, we look to the actual beach experience,” says Benjamin Porto of New York-based collaborative design practice, Snarkitecture, who along with partners, Alex Mustonen and Daniel Arsham, brings the quintessential summer experience to a city known for harsh winters.Transforming Navy Pier’s Aon Grand Ballroom into a massive beach-themed ball pit for two weeks this winter, The Beach Chicago is a fully interactive and definitely Instagram-worthy experience: Imagine more than a million antimicrobial and recyclable plastic balls creating a perfect version of the sea, complete with a shoreline of sunbeds, umbrellas, lifeguard chairs and a snack bar for all your beach-day needs.

Bringing the outside in, the installation effectively reimagines the sensation of a day at the beach while providing a very different version—partly because of Snarkitecture’s clean, bright white aesthetic. “Everything is monochromatic, and while there’s no water or sand, there are visual cues that recall specific elements of the beach, from the lifeguard uniforms, to visitor rules or the furniture,” says Porto. “I was born and raised in Chicago, so bringing The Beach to this city is already pretty exciting. However, having the opportunity to stage the project inside Navy Pier is especially great—it is such an iconic site in Chicago, and the unique interior architecture definitely contributes to the overall aesthetic of the project,” he adds: “A trip to the beach is a pretty universal experience and I’ve found  that guests at each location of The Beach relate their experience to an actual beach that is familiar to them. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the Midwest, specifically Chicago, where the connection to lake culture is so strong.”

Navy Pier chief program and civic engagement officer, Michelle T. Boone, agrees: “We think Chicago—and specifically Navy Pier—is a great fit for this installation, given that the city is known for its many beaches and iconic lakefront. And what better setting for The Beach Chicago than on the water, surrounded by 360-degree views of Lake Michigan from the Pier’s historic Aon Grand Ballroom?” she says. “We felt that the contrast between the contemporary look of the installation and the historical background of the space is especially interesting as the Aon Grand Ballroom is an accredited landmark, originally designed by architect Charles Sumner Frost and constructed in 1916 as part of Navy Pier’s original structure. We look forward to bringing modern-day elements into this century-old venue!”

But bringing The Beach to life didn’t come without its set of challenges: one was the one-million recyclable plastic spheres: “Boxes and boxes were loaded onto shipping containers and have traveled across oceans—all the way from Sydney!—to get here, and it will require lots of time and hands to empty them all in time for the opening,” Boone says. “But it will also be a fun and exciting process that will ultimately result in a truly unique experience for Chicago in the wintertime—we hope our guests are able to feel a sense of escape from the winter weather and a creative outlet through this installation.” After making its debut in Washington D.C. in 2015, as well as various national and international stops—Tampa, Sydney, Paris and Bangkok—the installation comes to Navy Pier in alignment with EXPO Chicago, which provided a sneak-peek and endless selfie opportunities when they invited last year’s art fair visitors to jump into a ball-filled bathtub. But this is the first time it will be taking place in the middle of the winter. Porto is intrigued: “As far as Midwest winters, we’ve never staged The Beach when it was cold outdoors—I think the installation will definitely offer an escape for those wanting to avoid the frigid temperatures outside.”

Besides its playful approach to public art and design that provides a fun-time activity for people of all ages—whether they choose to pretend-swim in an ocean of plastic balls, pretend-sunbathe on a lounge chair, pretend-play in the sand or simply enjoy a cold beverage while people-watching—The Beach works on multiple levels. As the experience has emerged as among the defining fads of our generation—from immersive exhibitions, to Instagram-friendly museums—aiming to offer, more than just photo ops, high-quality, thought-provoking, somehow transformative art environments, the highly interactive architectural playground can certainly give visitors more than an opportunity to experience the Navy Pier space like never before: It could inspire contemplation about architecture at-large. So it’s only natural that Snarkitecture hopes that visitors will feel compelled to interact with the work in exciting creative ways, beyond curating their outfits to seamlessly become a part of the experience and directing the perfect social media photo. “For us, it’s about designing environments or experiences that are most rewarding for visitors who take the time to engage in a very tactile and direct way,” Porto says.

Snarkitecture takes its name from Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of The Snark,” a poem that describes the “impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature.” Similarly, in its search for their own version of the unknown, as they put it, the studio’s interdisciplinary practice spans large-scale projects, installations and objects with a conceptual approach that’s centered on the importance of experience: Creating unexpected and memorable moments that invite people to explore and engage with their surroundings. “Sure, people will document their experience inside the installation—this is especially true with a project like The Beach,” Porto says, “but we want them to have a meaningful physical experience while they’re there… Be present!”