First published as ‘Opinion: The Sinister Brutality of Shipping Container Architecture’, New York Times (14 August 2019)
EDINBURGH — It is late summer here, and what is still the world’s largest arts festival is at its zenith. This means one thing: shipping containers.
They’re everywhere. In some cases, they are here serving their intended purpose: They arrive on trucks, disgorge stage scenery, musical instruments, cables, lighting. But they also increasingly form an architectural landscape, serving as box offices, pizza joints, upscale fish-and-chip shops, pubs and noodle bars. More grandly, a sort of triumphal arch made up of shipping containers marks the entrance to one of the main Fringe Festival sites. They’re increasingly becoming a year-round sight: a fashionable restaurant, Checkpoint, near Fringe H.Q., has a container at its center, framing one of its biggest tables, and plans were recently announced for a building made of 30 containers marking the entrance to Edinburgh Park, a signature development near the city’s airport. This isn’t a meaningless choice of materials; this is an ancient city proclaiming “we are modern” and using shipping containers to do it.
Edinburgh’s just one tiny example, though: Every world city, from Amsterdam to Beijing, now has shipping containers. You can find them turned into upscale retail malls, like London’s various Boxparks. A stack of them form the flagship Zurich store of Freitag, the hip messenger bag company. The German automaker Audi’s 2014 World Cup scoreboard in Brooklyn — the world’s largest scoreboard — was made of 45 containers. They are the basis of an office complex in newly fashionable Dundee, Scotland, and any number of Californian beach houses. Visit any architectural school and there will be a dozen student projects on shipping containers at any given time.
I hate them. They’re great for doing what they were designed to do, which is transporting stuff. A simple technology, they have helped facilitate global trade like no other. But they’re designed for things, not people. Dark, damp and airless, boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, they’re hopeless living and working spaces. They’re not even particularly cheap. It is often said that they are sustainable, as they adapt an abundant, readily available form. But you have to do an awful lot to them to make them habitable; insulation is just the start. To use them for architecture is rarely the convenience their proponents make it out to be. So let’s call it what it is: a matter of aesthetics.
Containers might be hip now, but the architectural fascination with them dates back at least 50 years. The English critic and historian Reyner Banham wrote a polemical article in 1967 (“Flatscape With Containers”) about the emergent landscape of the container port, which he argued was simultaneously monumental and in flux. The container port was for him an analogue for the technologically advanced city, in which all pretense at stasis would be abolished. Around the same time, the futurologist and visionary Stewart Brand, founder of the countercultural magazine Whole Earth Catalog, rented a container for his personal library. He wrote about it in the 1994 cult book “How Buildings Learn,” praising its adaptability and simplicity. For Brand it was the perfect form — a mass-produced, ready-made building open to interpretation by anyone with the nerve to do it. Banham and Brand helped make the container cool, plugging the shipping container into architecture’s enduring but never-quite-realized fascination with modularity: architecture as a giant game of Jenga.
Today’s containers, for the politically woke architect, indicate, among other things, a skeptical attitude toward capital. An important source here is the fascinating book and exhibition “Fish Story” by the American artist Allan Sekula, an exploration through photographs of the power of global capital, in which the shipping container is perhaps the key image. To invoke the shipping container here is to somehow reveal the truth about capital: it’s tough and unforgiving, and to use its imagery is to say that you get it.
But too often, invoking the container ends up just reiterating that brutality. To see what I mean, take a trip to what is probably the world capital of repurposed containers — Amsterdam. A 20-minute ferry ride on the IJ river, downstream from Central Station, takes you to the derelict shipyard of the former Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij, where there is an entire city of repurposed containers serving as bars, clubs, work spaces, any number of artists’ studios. It’s a dystopia, though it can be a sublime one, and half a dozen beers into your evening it is great fun. But then you’re forced to imagine it as home: There’s a student housing complex here made of stacked containers, so unremittingly bleak in its aspect that it makes you wonder whether the architects had humans in mind.
Or live humans anyway. Everyone remembers the episode in Season 2 of “The Wire” when Beadie Russell, a Port Authority police officer, discovers 13 female corpses in the Baltimore docklands. Perhaps the series’ most horrifying image, it makes the shipping container a literal tomb, showing up one of their key limitations: no air. It wasn’t artistic license on the part of the creators of “The Wire” either, as the countless human trafficking episodes of recent decades, especially in Europe, demonstrate. At the port of Calais, France, one of the main tasks of immigration officials for years has been checking containers for bodies, dead or alive. Perversely, responses to the migrant crises in Europe have involved more containers: Calais’s notorious “Jungle” housed migrants in containers before its demolition in 2016. Hungary’s government established a container camp in 2017, the choice of shelter clearly meant to deter rather than welcome.
And that is the problem. These container environments inadvertently perpetuate a sense of a Darwinian world in which only the tough survive. That brutality can be fun if it’s about creating a landscape for weekend partying; at Amsterdam’s shipyard, you can live out your “Mad Max” fantasies for 24 hours before heading back to the suburbs.
But the harsh landscape of the shipping container is a terrible shorthand for modernity. It’s not just the now-inescapable connotations of the migrant crisis. It’s that the people who’ve most celebrated the container form are precisely not the ones who’ve ever had to live in one: they can always go home, to a proper building somewhere else. And it’s that the shipping container suggests a world in which everything is contingent and temporary, and humans are doing little more than camping. That’s not the way to produce good offices, or housing, or cities.