As shipping containers begin to break out of Red Hook, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the outer-borough rail yards that are their natural habitat, and show up on the Upper East Side’s museum row, it is fair to ask: Why containers, and why now? The architectural zeitgeist has settled — at least for the summer — on the container as the building material of moment. In New York City, two projects are on display: Sean Godsell’s Future Shack is currently in the garden of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and LOT-EK’s Mobile Dwelling Unit will open on July 1 in the Sculpture Court at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Another container-based project, Adam Kalkin’s Quik House, was installed this spring at Deitch Projects in SoHo as a part of the gallery’s exhibition, Suburban House Kit. It closed on March 27.)
LOT-EK’s Mobile Dwelling Unit (MDU) is the prototype of what the firm imagines could be a moveable living space that would plug into a purpose-made vertical infrastructure dock in cities around the world. The 40-foot container is fitted out with zones for sleeping, living, bathing, cooking, and working. Once it is lifted into place and attached to the hypothetical dock, each zone could slide out, creating a useable series of rooms. When the occupants want to go elsewhere, they could undock or replace individual zone modules so that the MDU’s profile is once again that of a standard container, and move on.
Godsell’s Future Shack represents a more Spartan approach to refitting a container for domestic uses than the MDU, but since it was conceived as a potential solution for housing refugees around the world, its rough and ready quality makes sense. The interior is clad with plywood sheets, and skylights provide interior light. A shed roof above the container is fitted with solar panels to provide electricity. Godsell had been working on the idea for several years, but since entering the Future Shack in the nonprofit group Architecture for Humanity’s competition for housing refugees in Kosovo, the project has garnered notice and credibility.
Kalkin’s first container project was actually a performance piece, but since then, he has moved closer to the unglamorous concerns of cheap housing. The tongue-in-cheek order form that accompanied his Deitch installation may have been the last gasp for the performative elements of his projects, because he says he is now developing ideas about containers as housing in Afghanistan.
These contemporaries clearly have some superficial similarities, but each seems to have used the shipping container as a vessel for decidedly different ideas. While Godsell’s no-nonsense approach uses an abundant and inexpensive resource for its possibilities for speedy assembly and reasonably low cost to house people in need, Kalkin coyly references everything from Duschamp’s multiples to 1950s ideas of modern living. Meanwhile, LOT-EK’s Ada Tolla explained part of her and partner Giuseppe Lignano’s fascination with shipping containers stems from the fact that they embody a much larger global system. "It is not just an object that sits," she said. "It has connotations of Asia and Africa, and the infrastructure behind this network. We try to transport that network and its systems into architecture."
The abundance of shipping containers is a byproduct of a trade imbalance that means that many more arrive in the United States than leaves. In and around New York, shipping containers are as numerous and unwanted as pigeons, with thousands arriving every year. The costs for their shippers to have them return, empty, runs up to $9000which is not much less than the cost of buying them. From the windows of the PATH train to Newark, one can see yards with countless multi-colored containers stacked high, waiting for freight that may never arrive. This glut has made them fairly cheap to buy: Depending on condition, a basic model begins at about $2,000.
People have been using shipping containers for things other than storage for a long time now — without the help of architects, thank you very much. The yard on the outskirts of Newark periodically doubles as an unofficial homeless shelter. An auto body shop in Williamsburg uses several containers to house everything from spare parts and offices to a pair of understandably irritable Rottweilers who guard the lot at night. Seabox.com, the website of a container manufacturing and outfitting firm in East Riverton, New Jersey, shows pictures of containers tricked out as a shed with aluminum siding and Palladian windows, and in one truly impressive case, a mobile home for an elephant.
Circus animals, guard dogs, and monkey wrenches are no longer the only ones to enjoy such accommodations though. Beyond LOT-EK, Godsell, and Kalkin, firms including Jones, Partners: Architects, Jennifer Siegal’s Office of Mobile Design, and even typically mild-mannered Fox & Fowle have developed proposalssand in Siegal’s case, actually builttfor projects ranging from single-family houses to large-scale, multi-unit developments. While Jones and Siegal have both used the boxes as the basis for prefabricated houses, Fox & Fowle’s award-winning entry to a Boston Society of Architects ideas competition sketches out a development of 351 live/work units on a 18.5 acre brownfield site in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The plan is still more of a conceptual exercise than anything at this point, according to lead architect Mark Strauss. Strauss says that he chose containers as the building block because of their structural qualities and the chance to address the problem of their abundance.
From a material standpoint, it is easy to see why the homely shipping container has seduced so many architects. They have a steel framework that is not compromised when several are stacked up, and steel or aluminum cladding that can be modified or stripped away fairly easily. Containers are often insulated and waterproof, and come with wooden floors. There are international size standards, with the most typical modules being 8 feet wide, 8 feet and 6 inches high, and 20 feet long.
The London-based real estate development and management firm Urban Space Management has demonstrated the practical and urbanistic potential of container-based buildings in Container City on Trinity Wharf in the Docklands. In creating artists’ live/work spaces, they found the cost to construct a new building would have amounted to 120 per square foottabout three times what artists typically pay for studio space. Containers were an affordable and structurally efficient alternative. The first Container City, completed in 2000, was so successful that two others have followed.
According to both Ada Tolla and Mark Strauss, the short answer to the question of shipping container’s sudden appearance in the spotlight is a straightforward one: Because they are there, and there are so many of them. Their long answers are more complex (and very different) but also suggest that shipping containers, because of the variety of ways architects (and people) approach them, may not always be relegated to their rusty piles along the waterfront.