In Conversation With
Calvin Seibert builds striking modernist structures out of the most capricious of materials: sand. He’ll arrive at a beach at dawn, spend hours building these architectural triumphs, take a photo, and leave it to nature to undo his exacting work. Having studied at the School of Visual Arts, the Colorado-born sculptor gained attention for his work through social media.
He’s since received global publicity, worked on extraordinary yet fleeting commissions for companies such as Hermès, and was the subject of the documentary short A Train to Rockaway. Calvin’s favourite creations were built in Tulum, Mexico, where “the sand is lovely and the food’s great too.”
You’ve created some of the most extraordinary sandcastles in the world. Where did it all begin?
Oddly enough my first sandcastles were built in the mountains of Colorado. I grew up in the ski resort of Vail, where in the 60’s every other lot was a construction site with piles of sand. It wasn’t until I moved to New York to attend art school in the late 70’s that I really started making castles on a beach. The earliest boyhood castles were swooping affairs influenced by Chuck Jones’ rock formations as well as Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal, which I had seen in 1965. By 1980 I was building castles on the beaches of Long Island and the castles had become boxy, symmetrical, fascist tombs.
Sculptor Anthony Caro with his work, After Olympia by Jack Manning, NY Times (1988)
What aspect of sandcastle-building brings you the most joy?
I like working outdoors and that’s pretty much it. Sand is free and it’s a material in which I can complete a solid looking thing in just a day. Plaster, concrete, bronze and so on would all require more time and cost and as I am not looking for permanence, but rather a chance to create, it really is perfect. I enjoy the arc of my day on the beach, arriving early, struggling with the elements, the tides, the wind, the midday sun, then finally waiting for just the right raking, defused, light at the end of the day to take a picture
Who are your architecture heroes?
While I admire buildings such as Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel and Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum, I would say my real heroes are sculptors like Anthony Caro and Alice Aycock, artists whose language often includes architectural elements not tied to a function.
Sculptor Anthony Caro with his work
After Olympia by Jack Manning, NY Times (1988)
The Angels Continue Turning the Wheels of the Universe Part II (1978),
by Alice Aycock
For most people, building such beautiful and precise structures out of a material as difficult as sand is unfathomable. What are the most important practical considerations?
It’s very much akin to the history of Gothic cathedrals. Over hundreds of years builders learned what was possible, each new structure advanced the rules of what they could get away with. All of my sandcastles are essentially pyramidal and face away from the sun and wind as much as possible. The backsides are worked on only towards the end of the day and are generally less detailed. They are built using thoroughly packed wet sand that has been piled up in brick like layers. Once I have a pile in place I start shaping the sand from the top. Experience tells me when I am taking risks and I either hold my breath or devise a fix. I kinda know when a castle is pushing its limits and I start taking pictures as I continue building so that If it does collapse I will still have something.
How did your creations start to receive attention?
For many years I rarely took pictures of my castles. It was something I did that existed in its own world. Castles got built on remote beaches that were rarely seen by anyone else. Then the internet arrived along with digital photography and I started posting on Flickr. Soon images began showing up on Reddit followed by all sorts of websites around the world. Requests for interviews came as well as queries about various projects.
Is there anything you’re chasing with your work?
Every day is a chance to make something different and so I think about what I’ve done and where in the long line of castles there exists a gap to be filled. That becomes a starting point, but it rarely goes the way I expect. What I aim for often gets lost in a thousand little decisions and I end up with a pile of familiar solutions. When I am lucky on the other hand it can turn out to be something surprising and new.