Night Crawler

Life Can Be a Beach

Life Can Be a Beach
There is one particular photographic memory that sits atop the thousands of others in the colorful box where I keep such things: It is recognizably myself, though I am no more than 6 months of age, according to the purplish script that adorns the back. There, too, are the portentous words "Lake Anza," but, of course, there is no lake in the picture. There is only sand and myself, buried in the sand up to my tiny little chest. I am glaring, really glaring, with baby-lips tight and terse, eyes indignant, brow fiercely furrowed into the distinctive hollows that remain today. "This is the way it is," says the look: "You try to make sand castles, and then someone bigger comes along ...."

The 16th annual Sand Castle Classic is organized to raise money so that LEAP... imagination in learning might set up residencies for artists and architects in grade-school classrooms. During the competition, accomplished architects from major firms work with children to compete against each other in the designing and building of great citadels that will wash away with the first rising tide. It's a challenge. Cooperation, patience, and surrender are required. Preparation takes weeks.

Lydia Wong, a 10-year-old sprite with bright yellow suns painted on her cheeks, says her class was divided into groups that created castle models out of clay. The architects came to class to teach about structural integrity and scale, and when the design had been agreed upon, they came to Ocean Beach for a dry run, where they learned about stability and available materials.

"This is the way it is. You try to make sand castles, and then someone bigger comes along ...."
"This is the way it is. You try to make sand castles, and then someone bigger comes along ...."

This year's theme: animals.

Having thought long and hard, and having raised at least $2,200 for their castle-making teams, the architects come prepared: pump-action sea-water hoses, sprinkler cans, rakes, shovels, caution tape, tents, mortar planes, buckets, and site-specific signs. Some teams, like Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis and Gensler, bring wooden frames, held together by industrial bolts and sealant, which they and the children begin filling with shovelfuls of damp sand. Other teams, like Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaumand Gordon H. Chong, begin, oddly, by digging holes. And still others choose a more traditional approach, using shovels, feet, hands, and sometimes chins to pile up as much sand as possible. Music and barbecue smells waft with the sea breeze. Kites and banners flutter overhead. Good-natured judges, like Pixar Animation Studio's Andrew Stanton and Wavy Gravy (with his clown nose and pet trout on a leash) weave through the growing crowd looking for originality, imagination, sandcraft, and the integration of kids into the team. Integration is, indeed, an issue at some sites -- as one LEAP insider observes, architects like doing things themselves -- but at others, children in matching T-shirts are literally crawling over their castles, carving here, adding there. Slowly, huge, grinning faces begin to emerge: dragons, octopuses, bears, alligators, dogs, dolphins, beavers. Hours pass. Two "archaeology" digs unearth dinosaur remains; a miniature Machu Picchu springs from the belly of a gigantic Pokemon; baby sea turtles break out of huge egg clusters and run for the sea; a gape-mouthed great white chases Snoopy. More hours pass. Skidmore Owings & Merrill architects find themselves filthy, wet, and laughing with their Marina Middle School teammates as the division between professional and student slips away in the mixture of a leering monkey, salt water, and sand.

"We really tried to incorporate the students' ideas every step of the way," says David Strandberg, "but now everyone's really working together. The adults are beginning to act like children."

Raffle numbers are called over the crowd. A chant rises from one team, and the sun begins to break through the clouds. Dancers arrive in the parking lot as finishing touches are put to the "castles": dry ice in the nostrils, scales on the bodies, a twinkle in the eye. Winners are announced: Best of show goes to last year's winner, Robinson Mills & Williams, which, with its William Cobb Elementary partners, created a penguin-bowling polar bear; originality and imagination honors are conferred on Ellerbe Becket/Turner Construction and Alice Fong Yu School for their sunbathing sea turtle; sandcraft is awarded to Architectural Resource Group and Alice Fong Yu Alternative for their bejeweled Chinese dragon; and the integration prize attaches to the Academy of Art College and Interior Architecture for its jubilant collaboration with John Y. Chin Elementary.

Later in the night, I return to watch the dragon heads looming against the whitecaps, waiting for the ocean to make nothing of so much labor. Under the thin moonlight, the details are more lifelike and the bodies appear larger, as if they are floating on a bank of blackness, and another sand castle memory emerges in the damp, dark air: While I was living in Bali, as a child, maybe of 6, two young Australian travelers befriended me on a beach. They gave me psychedelic mushrooms, Psilocybe mexicana,and when my mother discovered me, I was dancing through the surf with the intention of walking over the horizon. It was suggested later that hallucinations might be a horror for one so young, but I believed then, as I do now, that everyone should try to build sand castles in the sky.

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