Washington, D.C.’s cultural institutions can feel a bit stuffy and buttoned-down, but a newly opened exhibition at the National Building Museum (NBM) encourages something wholly unexpected: Fun. For the fifth iteration of its series of “Summer Block Party” exhibitions, the NBM brought back New York-based firm Snarkitecture to build an immersive installation within its football field-sized (and, crucially, air-conditioned) Great Hall.
The first go-round was a tentative toe into the large-scale exhibition water, with Bjarke Ingels Group’s self-referential BIG Maze occupying just one end of the Great Hall in 2014. Icebergs, in 2016, went full speed ahead into the cooling metaphor, serving up partially submerged polycarbonate “bergy bits” (as well as ice cream) in James Corner Field Operations’ blue-netted seascape. 2015’s edition, The Beach, also by Snarkitecture, remains one of the museum’s most popular exhibitions ever, receiving over 180,000 visitors during its eight-week run.
Fun House keeps a kidney-shaped, kiddie-pool-sized version of The Beach’s main attraction: A ball-pit filled with thousands of translucent plastic balls that made for oh-so-many slow-motion backdives and Instagram pictures. And it adds an encapsulated retrospective look at Snarkitecture’s other work through a gabled, roughly 24-foot-tall house at the center of the Great Hall.
“Usually with art and architecture, you go and you stand—and you don’t touch it. You just kind of feel the space around you,” says Snarkitecture partner Benjamin Porto. “But part of our work, in the removing of color, is that you start to focus on the material and the textures. People let their guard down, and then they start touching everything, and that’s how you let adults be kids. I think kids will have fun with anything; it’s more about how you get adults to engage.”
Engagement starts just inside a white picket fence, where visitors enter through an excavated foam doorway that recreates Dig, a piece commissioned by New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2011. The ceiling of the central hallway pays homage to the firm’s partnership with apparel retailer Kith, with dozens of all-white Air Jordans suspended from the ceiling. Off the hallway, typical residential features are reimagined to fit the playful Snarkitecture ethos, displaying various pieces from the firm’s last decade of production. In the bathroom, the hexagonal penny tile floor repeats as a camouflage print on clothing—a 2015 collaboration with Print All Over Me—hanging from the walls; an all-white wooden crate filled with more of the translucent balls of The Beach stands in for the bathtub. In the study, explorations into furniture—a broken cabinet, a cracked marble record crate, and a bifurcated bench—dive into Snarkitecture’s fascination with creating a sense of erosion.
“There’s a type of Japanese pottery, kintsugi, which is broken and then reassembled, and the crack shows the imperfection in it,” says Snarkitecture co-founder Daniel Arsham. “So much of our work is about this area between construction and demolition. You could look at this house and say, ‘O.K., the house is actually falling apart,’—it’s being peeled away. But you could also look at it as being in the process of construction. It’s either decaying or being built. And that middle place where the work sits is often where we try to situate a viewer.”
The museum will also have to contend with folks wandering up to upper levels to attempt aerial views of oversized letters—which double as seating—that spell out FUN HOUSE on what the artists call its front lawn. But that’s part of the goal of the Summer Block Parties, to encourage visitors to explore everything else the museum has to offer, including exhibitions such as Evicted, Making Room, and Secret Cities. That’s if visitors can pull themselves out of the ball pits and away from such interactive features as the seven-foot-tall Marble Run, an over-scaled, all-white accumulation of tracks assembled out of the basic children’s toy.
“There’s this game of change of perspective, change of scale, change of familiar and unfamiliar. It’s all a double-take of the world where we live,” exhibition curator Maria Cristina Didero says. “What’s very peculiar of Snarkitecture is that they have a different approach, not only towards creativity, but they have a different way of looking at the world: This way of working with very simple and familiar things—the basketball or the shoe—it’s all things that are very normal and simple, yet they have the capacity to twist them and elevate them to a different level.”
Fun House is the fifth Summer Block Party installation at the National Building Museum, expanding upon the previous triumphs of The BIG Maze, by Bjarke Ingels Group, in 2014; The Beach, by Snarkitecture, in 2015; Icebergs, by James Corner Field Operations, in 2016, and last year’s Hive, by Studio Gang Architects.
Snarkitecture’s Fun House will be on view at the National Building Museum through September 3, 2018.