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How to Build a Plastic Beach

A giant, minimalist ball pit has landed at Navy Pier. Here’s how it all come together

Photo: Noah Kalina, courtesy of Navy Pier

Earlier this week, I watched a man hard at work, raking. Not leaves (duh, it’s winter) but balls. Many, many, many clear plastic balls, rolling around in a giant pit.

This pit of many balls is the centerpiece of The Beach Chicago, a temporary installation at Navy Pier’s Aon Grand Ballroom that’s available for you to jump and clumsily noodle around in starting tomorrow, January 19. The white sea of baubles is paired with a faux shore, where you’ll find deck chairs, umbrellas, and even lifeguards waiting to yell at anyone who tries to dive in headfirst. Good news: It’s free to attend.

Responsible for this indoor seaside is the New York-based design studio Snarkitecture, who brought a scaled-down version of The Beach to Expo Chicago last year. Maybe you’ve seen it before, at least on social media: It’s been on tour since 2015, most recently landing in Sydney, Australia. 

So, how exactly did the first Midwest iteration of The Beach get built? 

“It’s like putting together a very large theater set,” says Ralph Concepcion, owner of Ravenswood Event Services, which Navy Pier hired to produce the complex affair.

photo: claire voon

Let’s look at some numbers. It takes a whopping 1.1 million plastic balls to fill 12,840 cubic feet of pit space, with the deepest end measuring three feet. The balls traveled straight from Sydney, where they were placed in 2,200 cardboard boxes (each labeled “BALL PIT BALLS"). The boxes were then loaded into seven shipping containers that were ferried over the equator to their frigid destination.

In Chicago, a crew of 12 unloaded the 2,200 boxes at Navy Pier, whose 50 employees dropped their day’s tasks to help unpack 1.1 million balls. That’s where my man with the rake comes in: To level out the rising mountain of plastic, employees wielded garden implements to sweep and toss the balls around. 

Concepcion’s goal was to unload one shipping container an hour, and the team, impressively, met it, resulting in a literal ballroom and “about 65 sore backs,” says Michelle Boone, a Navy Pier representative.

Organizers expect to welcome as many as 25,000 visitors over the next three weekends.

Photo: noah kalina, courtesy of navy pier

Of course, this isn’t just an Instagram trap, although you can 100 percent expect plastic balls and pool floaties to imminently populate your social media feeds. Snarkitecture’s goal is to frame public art as an invitation to understand and see architecture in new or different ways. And the Aon Ballroom, with its 80-foot domed ceiling and early 20th–century elegance, is certainly worth pausing to admire.

“People come to the ballroom for weddings, graduations, and galas, but this will be a unique opportunity,” Boone says. “If you’re laying on your back on The Beach, you really get a chance to look at how majestic the architecture of this space is.”

Germaphobes, by the way, can relax. The balls are antimicrobial (and recyclable), and the pit will be treated daily with a disinfectant. This isn’t your average McDonald’s ball pit.

The Beach runs through February 3.

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