On the Fourth of July, more than 2,000 people visited a white house in Washington, D.C.—but it wasn’t 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It was an exhibit 10 blocks away, at the National Building Museum.
Inside the monochromatic house, toddlers hurled handfuls of black glass marbles into the air. Kids scaled the foam walls and built forts out of square cushions. People of all ages struck their most photogenic poses in a full-length mirror beneath a canopy of cement casts of Air Jordan sneakers. They got lost in a maze of ribbons suspended from the ceiling and meandered through abstractions of a kitchen, bathroom, and office. Selfies abounded. In the backyard, a kidney-shaped pool brimmed with hundreds of thousands of translucent balls.
“I want to do a backflip into it,” said one intrepid visitor from Arlington, Virginia.
Once you jump into the pit, the balls swallow you nearly beyond sight.
Opening day at “Fun House,” the first major museum exhibition dedicated to Snarkitecture, a 10-year-old architecture studio, was all about, well, fun. The installation was an invitation to explore, discover, and enjoy different architectural experiences. It was also a spatial manifesto for the New York-based studio: The entire structure was a 3D collage of the studio’s greatest hits from the past decade.
Snarkitecture has grown into one of today’s most exciting studios despite having relatively few extant projects. It has found its niche in the ephemeral, including temporary installations—like the Building Museum’s “Fun House”—and pop-up retail, where high rents have led store owners to focus on short-term, precisely designed retail experiences that match well with Snarkitecture’s approach. Still considered a young studio in a field where mid-career practitioners are usually in their 50s, Snarkitecture has become a recognizable brand worldwide, a crowd pleaser, and a go-to collaborator for creative companies. And it’s done it all by exploiting a familiar concept: play.
Founders Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen met at the Cooper Union, an art and design school in Manhattan, where Mustonen studied architecture and Arsham art. After graduation, Arsham opened his art practice in Miami. Soon he began to explore architectural scale projects. He called Mustonen, who became a consultant after working in New York City architecture offices, to help. The commissions kept coming, so they decided to start a business in 2008.
They wanted to explore play, in a way that wasn’t situated in academia or conceptual theory—in other words, architecture not just for architects but for everyone, adults especially.
“We’re from a generation coming away from the old guard,” Mustonen told Curbed during a walk through “Fun House.” “When we started Snarkitecture, we were thinking about architecture post-serious, weighty subject with intensity, and looking for a more playful space around that.”
Though architecture has a reputation for austerity, Mustonen and Arsham join a line of modern practitioners who’ve found that emphasizing play makes for more engaging design. Charles and Ray Eames famously designed toys with as much rigor as they did furniture, architecture, and installations, each category informing the others. In 1938, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published the influential text Homo Ludens—which roughly translates to “man at play”—and championed the importance of games, sports, and fun in culture. The Situationist International, a group of artists and cultural theorists active from the late 1950s to the ’70s, riffed on Huizinga’s writings to propose walking through lively cities for amusement. In the 1970s, the visual artist Constant Nieuwenhuys built on these concepts to imagine New Babylon, a utopian, anti-capitalist network of cities composed entirely of leisure spaces. Architect Aldo van Eyck applied Constant’s theories (the two were friends) to the playground-rich postwar reconstruction in the Netherlands, a country now celebrated for its quality of life.
Today’s architects are rediscovering play. In designing the Shed, a forthcoming arts center in New York City’s Hudson Yards mega-development, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rockwell Group reinterpreted experimental British architect Cedric Price’s never-built Fun Palace, a transformable structure that invited visitors to wander and explore whatever looked interesting to them. A few steps away is “The Vessel,” a soon-to-open $200 million sculpture composed of staircases. Thomas Heatherwick compares it to a jungle gym and muses about the spectacle created by people moving through it. (No word on whether or not visitors will think ascending 154 flights of stairs amounts to “fun.”)
Snarkitecture’s name riffs on the “The Hunting of the Snark,” an 1876 Lewis Carroll poem about a people banding together to hunt a fabled creature called the Snark. The catch was they didn’t know what the Snark was, what it looked like, or how to find it. Some interpret the story as a parable for the pursuit of happiness, but the journey into the unknown is what resonated with Arsham and Mustonen. The “impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature”—as the firm describes itself—is also an allegory for what the practice is doing. It’s not quite architecture, not quite art, but an amorphous middle ground. The only concrete theme throughout their work—in all degrees of scale and permanence—is twisting the familiar into something surprising and delightful. And it’s all to make people pay attention to how their environments are designed.
“The larger goal of the practice is this idea of making architecture accessible and engaging, and not something you look at on a pedestal,” Mustonen says. “For the vast majority of people in the world, and in the U.S., architecture is not a thing that’s important or part of their everyday lives. If we can change that conversation and invite people to understand how art, design, architecture, and really any creative discipline shape our environment around us, how important that is, and how it allows us to reconsider our relationship with our everyday environments, it’s better for all of us. Not just architects and designers, but everybody.”
Retail, an environment that attracts a wide audience, is Snarkitecture’s specialty. Because of rising commercial rents and e-commerce, more companies are using their stores to communicate their brand through unique experiences, not to move merchandise. The studio’s ability to quickly create commanding spaces that leave lasting impressions has helped it become a repeat collaborator for the streetwear company Kith and the British clothing brand COS. Snarkitecture has also designed for Calvin Klein, Richard Chai, and Public School NY.
Snarkitecture approaches play in a more direct way than its predecessors and peers. The associations can be explicit, like reinterpreting toy marble runs—maze-like ramps for rolling marbles—for an installation at the Delano Hotel during the 2014 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (reprised for “Fun House”) and for a collaboration with COS in Seoul in 2017. Arsham once kitted out his own apartment with 25,000 ping pong balls.
The studio’s play explorations are often performative and involve active bodies, like “Stack,” a 2013 public art project for Ideas City, an urbanism festival hosted by the New Museum, in which the studio paraded 7-foot-wide vinyl spheres down a Soho street until they piled up and blocked the road. (The street was closed for a block party.)
Sometimes play is the result of our senses tricking us. One of the studio’s best-known projects is “Pillow,” an iPhone holder that looks like a soft cradle, but is really cast from hard gypsum cement. Originally designed in 2013, “Pillow” was picked up in 2014 for a limited-edition set of headphones from Beats by Dre. A lesson in materiality became a luxury good.
Like “Pillow,” Snarkitecture’s work is often paradoxical. It exploits tensions between positive and negative space, finely machined and raw textures, fragility and robustness, familiar and unfamiliar spaces and things, large and small scales. It is minimalist, frequently involves repetition, and is almost always white—a Snarkitecture signature that invites further tactile investigation, since the absence of color makes the object look foreign, like a glitch in the system. Once you do touch it, Snarkitecture hopes it evokes childlike discovery and wonder.
“The most basic way of interacting with something is touching it,” says Benjamin Porto, an architect who joined Snarkitecture as a partner in 2014. “There’s the reduction of the palette, but by doing that, it makes you want to figure out what that thing is. Then you touch it; that’s a whole other thing. It’s play, yes, but it’s really about interaction. That’s how you engage adults. Kids will go do anything; you don’t have to give them a lot to have a lot of fun. But you have to give adults something: I can touch this? I can jump into this? I can dive into it?”
The first artwork visitors to “Fun House” encounter is “Dig,” an installation that originally appeared at the Storefront for Art and Architecture for two months in 2011. Arsham filled the gallery with EPS foam blocks—an architectural Styrofoam—that looked like stone slabs from the outside. Then he took a hammer to the material, gradually burrowing into the space. The foam—one of the firm’s favorite materials due to its strength, manipulability, affordability, and recyclability—looked like an arctic cavern. “Dig” drew comparisons to the Star Wars ice planet Hoth and snow forts. In the Building Museum’s reinterpretation, the foam was molded to look like a traditional house facade with a section broken out where the door would’ve been.
“So many adults who visited Dig had a kind of childlike reaction,” Arsham said about the 2011 project in a monograph Phaidon published this year. “That is something that we have tried to build on in terms of introducing ideas about play and exploration in subsequent projects.”
Snarkitecture’s most prolific—and highly Instagrammable—project to date is “The Beach,” an installation that began as a National Building Museum summer exhibition in 2015. Now it’s traveling around the world. (It’s been to Tampa, Sydney, Paris, and Bangkok.) The museum’s only constraint was that the exhibition should be experiential and appeal to people of all ages. They thought about using the plastic balls found in children’s ball pits—round things are a studio favorite for their associations with positive, playful objects—and filling the museum’s Great Hall—a 300-foot-tall atrium—with them and calling it a beach.
But Snarkitecture wanted to more closely evoke a beach experience. So it built a 10,000-square-foot room with a slightly sloping floor, filled it with hundreds of thousands of translucent balls, and furnished it with deck chairs.
“When we first met Snarkitecture, Alex talked about how the installation would change people’s behaviors so they would behave like they’re at the beach,” says Cathy Frankel, vice president of exhibitions at the National Building Museum. “We sort of went, ‘Okay, maybe?’ I didn’t really buy it, to be honest. Our offices are on the fourth floor and the first day I look down and there are moms wading with their kids, there are teenagers at the end of the dock. People sitting in the lounge chairs with their coffee, and i said, ‘Oh my god, he was right!’ That’s what good architecture and design does—it changes people’s behavior.”
Snarkitecture’s all-white, monumental, and unexpected environments have become Instagram darlings, particularly “The Beach.” The firm grew up alongside the rise of social media, and its work exists in the same cultural moment as environments specifically designed for social media. People interacting with Snarkitecture works often turn them into photogenic backdrops. One hundred and eighty thousand people visited “The Beach” in the eight weeks it was open, but countless others have a “digital vicarious experience” with the piece through the photographs circulating on social media. (The studio has received criticism for being nothing more than selfie bait.)
“Phones are on all the time, and generally open all the time, so I like to think that if it’s a cool space and you’re having fun, you’re going to take a picture,” Porto says. “People are taking photos all the time anyways. We’re not driven by, ‘Let’s make something for that’; it’s what people are doing anyways. To me that’s a success, that people are having so much fun they want to remember.”
At “Fun House,” museumgoers were indeed taking pictures, but they were also playing ping-pong on a table Snarkitecture designed, discovering forced perspective in a playhouse that gradually becomes smaller the deeper you go, uncovering a confetti show in a closet, and generally letting loose.
Brooke, a woman from Bethesda, Maryland, was watching her 9-year-old daughter jump around “Pillow Fort,” an installation originally designed for Complex. She loved how much stuff there was to do. “It’s difficult to fully appreciate with the crowd,” she told me. “But my daughter loves art and building things with paper. She was in a foul mood before [we got here], but now she’s so happy.”
“It’s so interactive,” said Andrew Teoh, a student from Hawai‘i in D.C. for a summer program. “Most exhibits are passive. I like that this is an active form of art and it’s a space where families, young adults, and seniors can participate.”
When I visited “Fun House,” I spent most of my time at the pool observing how people were using the space. Some sat on the edge dangling their feet in the pit; some were standing next to it kicking a ball around. Parents were gingerly helping their infants into the smaller “kiddie pool.” A sign asked visitors to “resist the temptation to dive or jump off the edge” and told them that “the balls are for swimming only, not for throwing.” But visitors were doing all that and more—they were having too much fun to notice the pool rules.
“I always say I’m unapologetic that what we’re going for is a combination of design and something fun, and that’s what we ask every designer to do,” Frankel says. “It takes down people’s defenses and makes them look at the space differently….Adults don’t always let themselves do that.”
Editor: Sara Polsky