Despite being home to major rivers, creeks, a man-made inlet and a handful of large reflecting pools, Washington, D.C., isn’t exactly known for having swimmable bodies of water, let alone public beaches. (Side note: Once upon a time, swimmers were allowed in the Tidal Basin).
When the District starts to sizzle during the summer months, residents decamp en masse to Maryland’s Eastern Shore; Assateague Island; the beach towns of Sussex County, Delaware; Cape May and Wildwood, New Jersey; and, of course, the salty grand dame of Mid-Atlantic summer resorts, Ocean City. It can be a bit of a traffic-ridden hike to reach these destinations, but there’s no other alternative, unless you’re willing to risk infectious disease — and arrest — by cooling off in the Potomac.
This summer, however, there's an alternative for beach-craving D.C. residents. And they needn’t leave town — or don a two-piece — to enjoy it.
Opened to the public on Fourth of July at the National Building Museum, The BEACH offers visitors a cheeky facsimile of a day at the beach: there’s canvas deck chairs for relaxing with a good paperback; beach umbrellas to duck under; a well-stocked snack bar; a pier (no diving!); and the requisite crowds. And urban beachgoers can even kick off their shoes (pants should stay on) and take a dip in the ocean — an ocean that just happens to be composed of nearly 1 million recyclable translucent polyethylene balls.
Eat your heart out, Chuck E. Cheese.
As for sand, there isn’t any. But there is a whole lot of spongy artificial turf that, if you close your eyes and think hard enough, will start to feel a little bit like sand underfoot.
While there’s ample natural light, just don’t expect to get any color as The BEACH is completely confined to a 10,000-square-foot exhibition space within the main floor of the National Building Museum’s Great Hall, a soaring atrium that was home last summer to a massive plywood labyrinth (and for two consecutive summers before that, a mini-golf course).
And on the topic of color, you can probably see that monochrome rules at this not-so-tropical paradise flanked on one side by a 50-foot-wide “shoreline” and a mirrored wall that “creates a seemingly infinite reflected expanse” on the other.
Financed in part through a successful crowdfunding campaign, The BEACH was conceived and designed by white-obsessed experimental design studio par excellence, Snarkitecture. "Operating in territories between art and architecture," the Brooklyn-based studio is best known for its minimalist holiday window displays, retail pop-up environments, sad Christmas ornaments, Dr. Dre-approved marble headphone pillows and high-concept (“The break between the architectural volume of the rectangular bar and the irregular topography of its interior continues Snarkitecture's exploration of the space between the familiar and unexpected”) chocolate bar collaborations.
“We started with different concepts of quintessential summertime activities then thought about what D.C. lacks," Snarkitecture senior associate Benjamin Porto recently told Co.Design. "It's a big city on the water, but it doesn't have a beach."
He adds: "We were looking to make something very familiar and extraordinary at the same time. The beach is familiar, but with a few tweaks and changes it takes you to a whole new place and makes you think about that transformation. There's a really contemplative moment about it. You can kind of zone out on the beach, and we hoped that would happen here."
Says Chase W. Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum, in a press statement issued by the museum:
This exclusive transformation of the Museum’s historic Great Hall will inspire a sense of wonder and imagination. Although it is bound to be an entertaining retreat from the summer heat for our visitors, it also turns our understanding of the natural environment on its head and offers us the opportunity to question our own expectations of the built environment and see where pushing the boundaries can take us.
As for the all-important concessions, there are no beach-y Mid-Atlantic staples like Thrasher’s boardwalk-style fries or Fisher’s ungodly addictive caramel popcorn at The BEACH. Acclaimed D.C. food incubator Union Kitchen is handling the grub. The menu looks appropriately tasty and urbanite-friendly: there’s locally produced ice cream sandwiches, popcorn, cookies, candy, cheese boards (!) and an array of refreshing specialty beverages including handcrafted Thunderbeast root beer and hibiscus and aloe tea from Gnarley. And because it just wouldn’t be a day at the beach without locally brewed kombucha and a bag of baked chickpea crisps, these are offered, too.
Terrors normally associated with spending a summer day at the seaside such as jellyfish, sharks and excessive back hair are a non-issue at The BEACH while the smaller — and by smaller, we mean microscopic — concerns with ball pits are also addressed as the balls themselves are anti-microbial, according to the Washington Post. To help further ease the worries of germaphobes, the exhibition is also treated to a daily cleaning by museum staffers.
Like the ginormous mazes and mini-golf courses of summers past, The BEACH is an attempt by the National Building Museum to entice visitors during the normally sluggish summer months with a short-lived and unabashedly stunt-y exhibition worth writing home about: Something kooky, something interactive, something fun, something fluffy with a bit of substance to back it up. Something big. Appealing to adults and kids, tourists and locals alike, The BEACH would seem to hit all of those marks.Access to D.C.’s hottest/only beach for (non-museum member) adults is $16 and includes access to other NBM exhibitions including the superbly staged Bjarke Ingels Group retrospective “HOT TO COLD: An Odyssey of Architectural Adaptation”
(it ends Aug. 30, so see it while you can) and the sobering “Designing for Disaster,” which concludes in mid-September. As for the BEACH, museumgoers can frolic in sea of plastic balls and scarf artisanal ice pops in air-conditioned comfort until Sept. 7. After all, any self-respecting architecture museum wouldn’t be caught dead wearing white after Labor Day. National Building Museum: The BEACH Time-Lapse
Time-lapse video: Work Zone Cam
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