The well-trodden intersection of art and architecture is where Snarkitecture practices, but the New York–based studio’s uncanny spaces exist in a place “adjacent to real life.” Firm founders Alex Mustonen, who studied architecture at the Cooper Union, and Daniel Arsham, an artist, have developed a portfolio of high-end retail installations, furniture, and products that relentlessly subvert visual and material expectations. An encounter with Snarkitecture goes like this: Surprise, recognition, then self-satisfaction at solving the riddle. Then you take a photo, follow their Instagram account (as more than 130,000 already have), and maybe buy a custom key chain.
Just about all of Snarkitecture’s projects are meditations on sharp, digital replication or messy, organic excavation and subtraction. The firm’s “Drift” pavilion at Design Miami in 2012 created a reverse-topographical ceiling made out of hundreds of white inflatable tubes. Their “Dig” installation at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture bored a series of holes with hammers and chisels through walls made of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. “Dig” is probably Snarkitecture’s most direct distillation of their studio’s name, which comes from a Lewis Carroll story about a band of misfits’ quixotic hunt for a mysterious quarry, the Snark. “’Into the white,’ is how we often think of these things, says Mustonen. “Not exactly knowing where you’re going to end up, but hopefully having fun along the way.”
With its latest and largest installation, Snarkitecture combined its sharp digital and messy organic approaches into a single installation at the National Building Museum that opened earlier this month. “The Beach” sees Snarkitecture assembling a 10,000-square-foot beachside stage set that will fill the museum’s Great Hall from July 4 through Labor Day with a shifting ocean of 1 million translucent plastic balls. Here, Mustonen discusses the firm’s philosophy and upcoming work.
We’re very interested in the idea of reduction—of taking a concept, space, or program and really distilling it down to the bare minimum. Oftentimes, that means taking out color. It’s a level of abstraction that brings you into a space that doesn’t have all the things normally around us in our everyday environment.
We do use digital modeling and drafting programs, but at the end of the day, we use a more analog sort of approach. We start every project by drawing by hand.
We just did this project in Milan with [fashion brand] COS that was a kind of fabric cavern. We had a computer model of the entire project. We used that model as a guide, but physically sculpted the space by literally cutting fabric ribbons. It was really more about this sort of intuitive process of physically being in the space and feeling it around you, and altering it accordingly. At the end of the day, it could have been pretty easy to build with a pencil, paper, and scissors.
For “Dig,” the space was made up of a grid, so you could track your progress within it. But it was like going into a snowstorm, operating blindly, so you would use these grid lines as demarcations to figure out where you were.
Obviously, there’ve been tons of precedents for one-off artist-architect collaborations, but [we wanted] to see what would happen over a sustained period. When we started this, we were interested in creating something that could discover what this conversation [between art and architecture] could be on a long-term basis. I don’t think we have the answer to that just yet.
Watch the video below for more on "The Beach," installed at the National Building Museum through Labor Day 2015.