The Emergence of Container Urbanism

The repurposed shipping container, now a fixture of urban architecture, is part of a movement that began with Archigram and the Metabolists in the 1960s.

Left: Paul Rudolph, Oriental Masonic Gardens, New Haven, Connecticut, 1968-71. [Photo via Claire T. Carney Library, University of Massachusetts] Right: Biergarten at Proxy, designed by Envelope A+D, San Francisco, 2012. [Photo by Scott Beale, Laughing Squid]

In San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, the traffic on Octavia Boulevard almost smacks into a small park before being routed west onto Fell Street. In 2005, the tree-lined, four-block-long boulevard opened as a replacement for the double-decker Central Freeway, mortally wounded by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake; the freeway was a remnant of the San Francisco Trafficways Plan (1948, 1951, 1955), a proposal by transportation planners to ram numerous limited-access highways through the dense 49-square-mile city. Although a citizen-led protest — the Freeway Revolt, begun in 1959 — halted most of the offending expressways, the Central Freeway had just blasted its way a mile or so through this section of the city, in the Western Addition neighborhood, leading to the mass demolition of older buildings. 1 But nowadays, instead of gusting above the neighborhood, vehicles inch along the surface, and contend with narrowed lanes, traffic lights and forced turns. And, since 2010, they may spy a curious new development. On two short blocks north of Fell Street, land where the freeway once ran, an architectural counterpart to the boulevard’s recalibration of transportation infrastructure has risen.

Proxy, designed and developed by Douglas Burnham’s firm, Envelope A+D, repurposes about a dozen shipping containers to house a smaller number of outdoor businesses. With openings selectively punched into their sides, canopies sprouting from the furrows and ridges of their corrugated steel surfaces, and ornaments organically growing as handles, latches and locking bars, the eight-by-twenty-foot containers host a clothing boutique, beer garden, espresso café, ice-cream parlor and bicycle rental business, as well as cooking, cleaning and storage facilities and set of restrooms. Facing each other or juxtaposed at right angles, the boxes carve intimate outdoor spaces that appear as handcrafted as the products sold by Proxy’s businesses. Painted battleship gray, they also evoke the warships that once followed the sea-lanes of the Pacific from their harbor in San Francisco. That’s ironic, because the very idea of container urbanism would seem to be counterposed against monuments of any sort, whether military-industrial or architectural. In Burnham’s words, Proxy has aimed at a “volumetric ghosting of what a real building would be.” 2

Along with the park and its revolving art exhibits (many from the Burning Man Festival), along with the gentrified storefronts and renovated and surrogate Victorians, Proxy seems at first glance guided by the pastiche urbanism associated with postmodernity. More than elsewhere in the city, the area around it feels layered with time. The mix of locals and tourists, the foreign languages wafting across the playground and beer garden, reinforce this cosmopolitan dimension. More to the point, a thick sense of urbanity emerges from Proxy’s staging of activities in liminal zones: amid transport boxes initially manufactured to move goods and now reworked to sell them; astride the intimacy of a residential neighborhood and the circuitry of metropolitan transportation. At Proxy, people swill beer and munch pretzels and pickles atop cracked macadam only steps from an anxious stream of cars and trucks. Akin to the parts of old-world cities rebuilt over pre-modern walls or modern bombing campaigns, Proxy builds atop San Francisco’s former traumas; a row of pollarded fruit trees grows up the blank side walls of an apartment exposed half a century ago by the elevated freeway; the shipping containers themselves both recall the city’s illustrious history as a port and alert us to the innovation that led to the cargo port’s demise.

Top: Envelope A+D, Proxy, San Francisco. [Photo by Envelope A+D] Bottom four: Proxy tenants facing Linden Alley. [Photo by Trevor Dykstra] Smitten Ice Cream. [Photo by Christopher Bowns] Ritual Coffee. [Photo by Trevor Dykstra] “Off the Grid” food carts. [Photo by Niall Kennedy]

In a larger sense, Proxy is an exemplar of today’s burgeoning DIY — do-it-yourself — urbanism movement. Gathering steam over the past half decade, DIY projects tend to be small, temporary and portable. They occupy unused or underutilized terrain. Their physical plants reuse elements from older building or infrastructures or consumer products. Their instigators take in a wider cast of community players than the usual architects, builders and investors. 3 It would be unfair to characterize them, though, as antitheses to grand urban planning. Seemingly serendipitous, they require considerable foresight. Positioned as the architectural partner of the locavore food movement, especially given their stock-in-trade of culinary startups and food trucks, they feed off an international wave of pop-up, click-into sensibilities. Posed as the quirky, everyday opposite to high-minded architecture, they owe a great deal to the utopian visions of architecture’s modern movement.

Here I would like to contrast two moments of container urbanism. The first arose within late modernism, from around 1960 to the early 1970s, when a nascent container urbanism movement, epitomized by the Japanese Metabolists and the British group Archigram, sought to break up the mass and method of those vast and monotonous building ensembles which were then reengineering urban existence. Proliferating technological systems — from elevators to electric wiring — were amalgamated into gigantic fixed infrastructures that supported individual (and presumably mobile) containerized units. Then, around the new millennium, a second phase of container urbanism, including the DIY phenomenon, veered to a design stance more in tune with our age of citizen participation, global commerce and miniaturized technology. Instead of attempting to construct an ideal and self-contained urban ensemble , container urbanisms are learning to make use of existing infrastructure and disused industrial artifacts, like the shipping box — fostering a vision of the city as fresh as the latest tweet and as august as a caravan marketplace.

Arata Isozaki, Cities in the Air, model, 1960.

Late Modern Utopias

Container urbanism has historic roots: It’s no exaggeration to say that by the start of the 20th century, steamships and railroads had become cities unto themselves, cruising ocean waters, rolling over the land, boxcar by boxcar, on beds of steel. Manufactured goods, too, had burgeoned into enterprises of an urban scale and structure, epitomized by the Ford Motor Company’s turn to an assembly line production in place of the fixed work station. It was inevitable to wonder: Could buildings follow transportation and industrial innovations and transcend their fixity? Might the architectural dream of conquering the sky, exemplified at the time by the office skyscraper, branch out and liberate building, with respect to both construction and use, from the constraints of site?

Over the following decades, architects and builders experimented with early versions of “containerized building” — schemes to industrialize construction in which buildings would be pieced together from elemental parts in assembly lines stretching from quarries to factories to building sites. With his Maison Dom-ino of 1914, Le Corbusier proposed that house design begin with a standard, structural unit of reinforced concrete slabs that would accommodate diverse options for cladding, fenestration and interior arrangement. A couple of decades later, Buckminster Fuller, starting with a framework borrowed from a grain bin, came up with an aluminum housing prototype, the Dymaxion, similarly intended for mass production and consumption. 4 More prosaic approaches yielded far greater results, at least quantitatively. Beginning in 1947, at Levittown on Long Island, the Levitt Brothers built over 17,000 largely identical salt-boxes on the basis of a constructional algorithm encouraging increasing prefabrication, on the production side, and enlargement and personalization, when it came to household consumption.

In those decades, manufactured containers also supported mobile lifestyles. As Fuller knew, millions of mobile homes were being built in the United States for a real or fantasized life on the road; most were beached in mobile home parks or driven across the land to campgrounds and serviced by fixed plumbing, electrical and waste disposal infrastructures. Like today’s DIY inventions, the early mobile home-trailers were often homemade — easy to assemble and alter with standard tools and salvaged parts. 5

Yona Friedman, Vue d’une Ville Spatiale, aerial perspective, 1958.

Despite these tendencies toward mechanized construction and mobile habitation, the bulk of the architectural profession remained fixed on the construction of lasting edifices on specific sites. In 1956, at the tenth meeting of C.I.A.M. (Congress of International Modern Architecture) in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, Yona Friedman suggested a way out. Might the troubling tension between architectural permanence, on the one hand, and urban change, on the other, be overcome by erecting a comprehensive city infrastructure, in the guise of narrow piloti, which would provide a collective skeleton supporting individual, cellular units that were added and subtracted over time? 6 In visionary projects that followed, other architects cleaved design into two phases: first, the assembly of different technologies into massive, coordinated infrastructures; next, the provision of containerized, individual comfort and choice from that infrastructure. Between 1960 and 1962, for example, Arata Isozaki’s Clusters in the Air drew from Friedman’s ideas, as well as from Louis Kahn’s division between served and server spaces and from Kenzo Tange’s Metabolist proposal for a city-as-platform reaching across Tokyo Bay. Isozaki placed 40-foot thick infrastructural towers approximately 275 feet apart, raising his utopia above the congested existing city. 7 The towers supported service and circulation tubes leading to diamond-shaped voids where mass-produced dwelling units were attached. The gigantic vertical elements, like architectural tree trunks joined horizontally by truss-like branches, would have accommodated expressive and potentially mobile lifestyles — containerized units flapping like leaves in the winds of change. In a 1967 essay entitled “Invisible City,” Isozaki acknowledged his debt to the mobile homes of U.S. highways and campgrounds as well as to the random flux of the consumer city itself: the “constant movement, diffusion, rejection of fixed images and infinite increases of advertising and noise that are part of daily life in Tokyo and other cities.” 8

In 1964, Peter Cook of Archigram came up with the Plug-In City, where he posed the cellular unit, again tethered to a centralized fixed infrastructure, as the architectural extension in space of human society. Container trays hang off the sides of a massive outcrop that, as in Isozaki’s sky city, provides structural support, circulatory access and essential services. But Plug-In City went further: it emerged on a tabula rasa ground plain that was left indistinct in most drawings: no historical city underneath; urban memories transmogrified utterly into urban aspirations. In an interesting variant, recalling Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation (1952) in Marseilles, Cook envisioned a network of cranes that would maneuver new and obsolescent units in and out of place. 9 The future city would be a perpetual construction site: architecture forging a new role for itself as expert house mover; household dwelling decisions taking the lead in shaping city form.

Building from C.I.A.M. ideology, and especially from the contemporaneous capital city project of Brasilia, planned by Lucio Costa and begun in 1957, Cook and Isozaki’s utopias were divided into functional zones and designated transit corridors. Only now those transit corridors were greatly expanded as to function and location: accommodating vehicles, pedestrians, water and sewage, heating and cooling, electricity and other services; and, similarly, ascending into every space of the building-cities. Thus was born a new prototype of urbanism: from its traditional, grounded understanding as the grouping of masses in space to a vision of aerial city life pulsating with service flows and human movements. If, in the 1920s, modernists envisioned the joy of dwelling amid our perambulations from leafy landscapes to the lofty, airy cells of highrise buildings, then by the 1960s, it mattered much more that those skyward cells be energized to the point of takeoff.

Moshe Safdie, Habitat 67, Montreal, 1967. [Photos by sabel, top, and Nora Vass, bottom]

But realizing a containerized city meant coming down to earth; and at Expo 67, in Montreal, Moshe Safdie built Habitat. Safdie piled 354 modular units up to 12 stories high, and grouped them into 15 different configurations. 10 The precast concrete units serve as the infrastructure; each unit supports other units, and their roofs function as gardens, terraces and corridors for movement. Habitat’s complex shape emerges from the piling and interlocking of units that, like stone blocks or bricks, articulate how an urban whole may be configured from diverse parts into a collective of individual perspectives and guises. Five years later, Paul Rudolph’s take on a mobile home park, the Oriental Masonic Gardens, located in New Haven, Connecticut, similarly accepted grounded fixity, utilizing motion solely during its construction phase, when the 148 wooden containers were transported on trucks to the site from a factory in Maryland; although lengths vary between 27 and 51 feet (to accommodate a range of bedrooms options) the width is a standard 12 feet, determined by what would fit on a truck and highway lane. On site, the units cluster in groups of four around a central utility core. Their repetitive pinwheel scheme (accomplished by raising some second-story units on steel columns) is relieved only somewhat by vaulted ceilings of curved plywood panels.

At Habitat, architecture’s longstanding preoccupation with uniform façades yielded a gallery of faces looking this way and that — the individual stripped from the collective forest. Rudolph’s low-income housing project ended up as a classically symmetric take on the trailer park; stiffly composed and immobile, the cellular units hardly expressed individual choice or expression. In each case, earlier aims of mobile dwelling were sacrificed. Over the years, the complexes would remain essentially as they were constructed — aside from additions, in the case of Habitat, and serious deterioration at the Oriental Masonic Gardens.

Worldwide, the incipient container urbanism movement stalled. Proposals for Habitats across the globe came to naught. Kisho Kurokawa’s single Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) in Tokyo was one of the few built realizations of numerous plug-in proposals. By the mid 1970s, especially in the West, large-scale public housing projects and inner-city freeways had fallen out of favor. In an era trending toward historic preservation and stylistic appropriation, containers were too stark and abstract to capture the popular imagination.

Kisho Kurokawa, Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo, 1972. [Photo by Travis Henderson]

Shipping Container Heterotopias

Just as containers were going dormant within architectural circles, they were developing into the lynchpin for reconfigured global shipping, rail and trucking networks. In the 1950s, Malcolm Purcell McLean experimented with shipping containers that would carry goods for his fleet of trucks, transferring the act of loading freight from the seaside docks to inland warehouses closer to the point of wholesale and retail transaction. Shipping containers are generally eight feet wide, eight to nine-and-a-half feet tall, and between 20 and 40 feet long. They are made of slow-rusting, corrugated Corten steel, accessed via large doors at one or both ends, and possessed of load-bearing walls that allow them to be efficiently stacked. 11 Compared to wooden crates or burlap sacks, the factory-produced containers are large, sturdy, unvarying and intermodal; they are quickly off-loaded from ships, placed atop rail cars or attached to trucks, and can be docked most anywhere. From the late 1960s onward, McLean’s insight came to fruition. Cargo ships grew into massive container ships measuring over 1,000 feet in length and sometimes lugging over 4,000 product-filled steel boxes. By reducing transport and labor costs, containerization contributed to great increases in shipping volume and international commerce, boosting a globalizing marketplace where goods are cheaply manufactured in one part of the world and inexpensively loaded, transported and off-loaded to consumers across the seas. 12

By the 1990s, hundreds of millions of shipping containers were circulating the globe and, each year, tens of thousands of them, having lost their seaworthiness, were being abandoned. 13 Artists, who had earlier gravitated to the wide-open spaces of industrial lofts and storefronts, started to take notice of how scavengers were using discarded shipping containers as cheap, un-permitted additions to their living space; one of them, Andrea Zittel, went on to construct A-Z West in the California desert from a collection of such used containers. 14 Those same years, the steel modules also wound up in the hands of architects — raw components for a second take on container urbanism.

In 1995, Wes Jones cobbled together several 20-foot shipping containers into a proposal for several California mountain getaways — the Technological Cabins. With the containers used not only as enclosure but also as support, and with selective infill added for circulation, the resulting houses looked like space stations — corridors twisting into right-angled loops — perched on Sierra Nevada meadows and cliffs. Jones conceived of these industrial readymades as platforms to be filled in selectively, project by project, with scavenged logs, boards or panels. 15 Although fascinated with advanced industrial fabrication, Jones, in a nod to the retro-futurism expressed in films like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), saw great potential in the re-purposing of seemingly mundane technological artifacts.

Top left and right: LOT-EK, Mobile Dwelling Unit, 2003. Bottom left: MVRDV, Container City, 2001. Bottom right: Adam Kalkin and George Cooper, single family modular home, Califon, New Jersey.

Nor were shipping containers appropriated only for escapist or itinerant approaches to design. At the turn of the millennium, Adam Kalkin used the industrial boxes for houses in upscale suburban New Jersey neighborhoods. Kalkin was enamored by the shipping container’s constructional pragmatism as well as its potential for importing “industrial chic” to an unlikely locale; his container houses hover on a tenuous boundary between social critique and consumption. 16 Sometimes, shipping containers embodied the spirit of Stewart Brand’s highly influential compilation of late 1960s DIY spirit, The Whole Earth Catalog, where technological artifacts of all sorts were discussed, dissected and recombined as a form of bricolage. Other times, they injected a tried and true design strategy with fresh symbols and provocative associations.

Both approaches are apparent in the work of LOT-EK, which in 2002 unveiled the Mobile Dwelling Unit. Here the architects saw the potential for the repetitive transport box to function as a variable architectural box. Hacking out some holes for windows, sawing some seams so that surfaces could be pulled apart, the MDU could be selectively opened, indeed extruded, into whatever site it was placed into. Collapsed to the original, standard container size, the MDU could also turn into a nomad, in this way according with the nature of the shipping container as well as the needs of an increasing number of people who spend huge portions of their lives on the go; LOT-EK subsequently extended the concept into a building block vision for urban megastructures. Transported on ships, MDUs could dock into ports throughout the world. 17 Recalling the utopian container projects of the 1960s, cranes would jack them up to independent, vertical steel racks, supplied with services and circulation. 18 Like the colorful containers stacked on ships or at ports, the appearance of such colonies would change depending upon the presence or absence of units. 19

Seaside vistas of stacked or plugged containers evoke the picturesque aspect of contemporary container urbanism. Consider Nicholas Lacey & Partners’ Container City I and II (1999-2000, 2005), an influential complex of artist studios located at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London; constructed in only three months on the site of a former cargo dock — which, in a familiar irony, had been displaced by container shipping — the architects utilized two sets of 40-foot containers — 45 boxes in all — grouped around a common vertical core and connected by bridges. 20 Arrayed four and even five atop one another, painted red, yellow, light blue and brown, opened via porthole windows as well as balconies with sliding glass doors, spaced unevenly and supported by thin steel pillars, the resulting assemblage, recalling Safdie’s Habitat, looks like the kind of city a child might create out of colored blocks — despite the fact that the complex is welded together, and thus neither malleable nor transportable.

Left: Shigeru Ban, Nomadic Museum, as exhibited in New York, 2005. [Photo by informedmindstravel] Top right: Nicholas Lacey & Partners, Container City II, London, 2005. [Photo by Fin Fahey] Bottom right: Tokyo Designers Week, 2012. [Photo by Trevor Dykstra]

For Container City (2002), MVRDV created a videogame-style visual of what it would be like to be enveloped, literally on all sides, by over 3,500 brightly painted shipping containers. A year later, with Silodam, at Amsterdam’s harbor, they built an apartment complex of 157 units, and designed its exterior facades to be differentiated into stacked sections that appear at a distance to look like the stacked containers on a moving ship. 21 In these harbor works by LOT-EK, Nicholas Lacey, and MVRDV, and in other notable maritime container projects like Shigeru Ban’s Nomadic Museum (2005), the shipping container functions primarily as metaphor for a specific type of individual freedom: mobility. Infrastructure — the development of complex routes, supports and hook-ups — appears not at all, or merely as an afterthought. Clearly mentalities have changed since mid-century. The idea of living atop a vast, articulated city appears less compelling nowadays than does habitation at the edge of a city, whose other features go unmentioned because they are beside the point. Today what dominates more is a photogenic attitude, the possibility of actual (or surrogate) containers to evoke an individual’s existence as a global flaneur, with lifestyle recast from being embedded within a given place to a restless rhythm of departures and arrivals.

As the aughts progressed, shipping containers entered the popular imagination; they also entered into a more forthright relationship to the city. The startling turn of consumer society from industrial standardization to artisanal customization was finally being matched by a similarly nuanced and segmented approach to shaping urban space and form. Decades of opposition to top-down, large-scale planning efforts led to a flowering of small, bottom-up, neighborhood-instigated DIY projects: dumpster diving for grub and garb; guerilla landscaping on vacant lots and fences; linear parklets in place of barren concrete sidewalks or streets; flash-mob, smart-phone enabled gatherings of bicycles or food trucks; pop-up restaurants or businesses. Containers are part of this movement toward a practice of urban design as flexible, responsive and electric as the currents that feed it. Thus while stiffly rigid and highly sensitive to temperature variations, which can make them uncomfortable in the summer, containers function in a larger sense as seeds recycled from worldwide manufacturing and commerce, cellular catalysts that may be replanted anywhere to stimulate the growth of other agents of vitality in their vicinity. Their urban use resembles those scientific experiments in which containers are dropped off coastlines onto the ocean floor in order to create fractal surfaces where coral reefs might attach themselves and flourish.

Proxy is but one of a worldwide proliferation of DIY projects. Beginning in 2007 and continuing through 2012, the annual Tokyo Design Week has deployed shipping containers to exhibit the work of designers, companies and design schools. In 2010, in a temporary happening staged by the developer Macro-Sea, parts of New York’s Park Avenue were temporarily closed to cars, and three former containers became a set of pop-up swimming pools that, in turn, led to adjacent picnics on the concrete and a bicycle slalom course. A year later, in Cholula, Mexico, a semi-permanent urban neighborhood, Los Containers, was erected by developers out of approximately 50 recycled, brightly repainted shipping containers adorned with other used materials like plastic tubing and bottle caps; the complex includes apartments, restaurants, retail businesses and outdoor courtyards, and has become a gathering place for performances and festivals. In 2012, in Gifu, Japan, Daiken-Met assembled Container Pop-Up as an office building. On an extra-thin lot shunned by real estate developers, they erected a building that will presumably be dismantled, moved and rebuilt elsewhere. Utilizing shipping containers as well as plywood packing containers, and even orange-colored plastic construction safety fencing, Container Pop-Up appears in a state of perpetual construction. Jutting indiscreetly into sidewalk space, it disturbs the customary division of space and built form, the building sharing more morphological characteristics with passing vehicles than with nearby large buildings. From the street, the small three-story project presents the unpainted, insignia-laden sides of the shipping containers to public view, as if some bizarre raft was floating through the city. On the sidewalk, experienced on its narrow side, container doors open to confuse the public space of the pedestrian with the corridors of a private office.

Macro-Sea, pop-up swimming pool, New York, 2010. [Photo by Alan Miles]

Vehicular Buildings

Whether stacked, suspended, plugged, or turned on their side, whether used singly or aggregated into multiples, whether left bare with the dents and scrapes of their past visible or painted, paneled, and covered by other materials, whether keeping their original shape or augmented by corridors, decks, awnings or lighting, containers express a desire on the part of certain late-modern and contemporary architects to design the city on the basis of individual and mobile cellular units. This stance represents a landmark change for the architectural discipline. Until modern times, cities were bifurcated between a few monumental architectural complexes — centered on rule and worship — and a mass of undistinguished, non-architectural places of work and residence. The more regular and monolithic a building, with respect to decoration, mass and height, the more it symbolized the lofty aspirations of its patron and architect. Even as cities become dominated by the commercial middle classes during the 19th century, architects simply replicated these monolithic compositions to create a larger array of building types that usually merged and harmonized part with whole: individually owned townhouses designed, say, with common contextual features to given off an impression of collective monumentality akin to a palace.

Modernist urbanism may have shed the ornamentalism that epitomized the social role of architecture — that is, the representation of social hierarchies in urban spaces — but in its initial stages, it held firm to the disciplinary predisposition toward monolithic composition. Through the 1960s, in cities worldwide, huge and identical slab buildings were erected to house all manner of occupant and use. Yet with the emergence of a socio-economic regime premised upon freedom of action and movement, a few architects began to recognize that subsuming individuality and technology within the monolith was problematic. If the city was designed to facilitate efficient traffic and salubrious lifestyle, why then weren’t the industrial causes and user effects visibly expressed?

Both versions of container urbanism, the 1960s mega-projects and their diminutive successors in the 2000s, have tackled this problem by adapting transportation containers — the railcar, mobile home, and later shipping box — into expressive units of urban design. Such containers choreograph the city’s physical and social dynamics from small-scale actions: late modern containers were to be “craned off” to other sites within a mega-infrastructure so as to imbue urban living with the adventure of travel; used shipping containers have been trucked to urban sites as global ambassadors of unusual products, ideas and forms. Built into container urbanism, then, are the gyrations of technological progress and psychological restiveness.

Spillmann Echsle, Freitag Tower, Zurich, 2006. [Photo by Simon Aughton]

Given that they are interrupted by the postmodern decades of the 1970s and ’80s, it should not be surprising that the two phases of container urbanism diverge in important ways. Late modern container cities favored infrastructure over the container unit. Nowadays, shipping containers have become the centerpiece for design. Just compare the early undifferentiated and hard-to-see generic containers with contemporary used shipping containers curated into art and cultural installations. Recent projects employ piecemeal, collective strategies that saturate design aesthetics with politics and commerce. Indeed, the embedding of projects within existing networks is what distinguishes contemporary container urbanism from the de novo design approach of its predecessor. As recycled entities, shipping containers encourage sustainable building and living practices. As industrial readymades, they are encrusted with histories and associations. As narrow boxes, they demand refinements, enlargements and outdoor connections. Situated at unconventional sites, shipping container urbanism questions the divide between private and public property as well as that separating building interior, landscape and infrastructure.

The two moments of container urbanism, finally, conceive differently the city’s functional and geographic boundaries. Late modern container urbanism was given to massive projects that would replace or overshadow the existing city, and yet was restricted by a notion of the city as a discrete geographical entity. Contemporary projects propose minimally invasive surgical procedures, but explode our understanding of the city’s scale and operations to correspond with global economic and information flows. Once, architects equated urban design primarily with physical manufacture. Of late, they have had to adapt to a networked world where hard-to-detect energy flows reorient our sense of the city through images of information clouds and self-organizing ecosystems.

Many questions confront container urbanism as it moves into the future. In relying on the shipping container as the foundational element of structural integrity and volumetric occupancy, are design aesthetics unduly restricted? While sharing a great many qualities with the kind of informal, everyday urbanism practiced especially in developing countries, does the emphasis of container projects on “event spaces” limit their relevance for the kind of massive and lasting urban redevelopment needed throughout the world?

Los Containers, Cholula, Mexico, 2009. [Photo by vladimix]

Repurposing shipping containers has demanded a meaningful design transition from plans drawn on blank paper toward interventions positioned within dynamic systems — a move from the utopian to heterotopian, from a city conceived as a unitary, static ideal to one regarded as an aggregate work in progress whose dimensions are varied and not all apparent. Look at the broader implications of the transport box that architects have worked with. Container shipping extended the efficiencies of the factory assembly line far beyond a factory’s walls. Today’s conveyor belts track across vast distances, as goods move from factories to trucks to distribution centers, ships, ports, businesses, homes and landfills. Works by architects and developers continue this momentum. Containers need not die, ending up themselves in landfills or melted down for steel in recycling facilities. They enjoy a second life beyond shipping and storage: re-purposed, re-designed and re-located as old pieces for new creation.

As transport, the genius of the shipping container has been its ability to minimize interference, and hence maximize the coherence of its product load during long journeys on waterways and land corridors. Reused, divested of packed goods, the structurally integral containers propose a like minimization of the design process: from site preparation and laying of foundations to the erection of supports and walls to choices of form. By facilitating an almost instant building complex, the containers put architectural production more in sync with the speed and transitoriness of contemporary life, forcing it to respond to a city’s many complex, adaptive systems. In fact, both phases of container urbanism recommend that the city be developed for, and by, the itinerant actions of its most irreducible individual agents, on the one hand, and its continuously developing and branching technological systems, on the other.

The mass-produced, standard-dimensioned container may appear an odd architectural element to facilitate the unpredictable actions of millions of individuals. Yet containment has an especially long history with the promotion of individuality — as understood through inner life. The noun “container” derives from the verb “to contain,” which defines the action of holding or enclosing. Containment explains how an organism or organized system sustains itself by dividing off from the world around it, selectively controlling its means of exchange and communication: the condition of homeostasis. Like a cell membrane, the selectively permeable perimeter of a container affords distinct internal functions, modulates relations with the outside, and regulates opportunities for growth, regeneration and multiplication. For billions of years, life on earth has survived by such tactics of containing evolving inner worlds — cells to bodies — from the nurturing, yet oftentimes threatening circumstances around them.

Dekalb Market, New York, 2011. [Photo by Leonel Lima Ponce]

Likewise, for thousand of years, urban design and architecture have deepened human life by erecting containers that act as second bodies. Walls, akin to cell membranes and skeletal/muscular/skin systems, once enabled the separate and unique cultures of cities. Buildings, to this day, support the development of a richer interior world by helping to screen our interactions with external natural and social forces. Yet beginning with gunpowder artillery in the late 15th century, and continuing with expansive suburbanization brought about by mechanized transportation after the 19th century, cities have adapted to an existence without walls. Do recent technological and societal transformations portend a similarly boundary-less future for many buildings? Is container urbanism a stab in that direction?

In its most far-reaching aspects, container urbanism proposes to take the fundamental organic/architectural condition of containment further by exploring how a boundary might be better coordinated, even merged with the flow of material/ideas. Can containment equate more closely with transmission and, in so doing, position architecture and urbanism more in line with societal mobility and change?

In many of the projects discussed here, the building wall has been partially relocated within both observable and invisible technological infrastructures. Transit corridors, communication flows, and cycles of material generation, consumption and reuse facilitate the physical passage of people and goods as well as the electrical movement of light, power and ideas. City space outside a building is interiorized, so to speak, via fences, outdoor lighting, heat lamps, wall projection, surveillance cameras and wi-fi coverage. Individuals may nurture their inner worlds in the great outdoors, moving through technologically enhanced (and protected) urban spaces. Concurrently, built space is exteriorized, more seamlessly connected to the flow of life. What is emerging is a manner of design homeostasis wherein energized buildings will play the vibrations of inside and outside, locale and globe, mind and matter as a new kind of architectural music.

  1. William Issel, “Land Values, Human Values, and the Preservation of the City’s Treasured Appearance: Environmentalism, Politics, and the San Francisco Freeway Revolt,” Pacific Historical Review 68 (November 1999), 611-646.
  2. Quoted in Cathy Lang Ho, “Hold this Site,” Architect 99 (June 2010), 36.
  3. On some of the aims and actors involved in DIY or flexible urbanism, see Allison Arieff, “It’s Time to Rethink `Temporary,’The New York Times (December 19, 2011); Mimi Zeiger, “The Interventionist’s Toolkit: Our Cities, Ourselves,” Places (September 12, 2011).
  4. J. Baldwin, Bucky Works: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996) 41-48.
  5. Allan D. Wallis, Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 34-38.
  6. Michel Ragon, “Mobile Architecture,” Landscape 13 (April 1964), 20-21.
  7. Zhongjie Lin, Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan (Oxon: Routledge, 2010), 45-46.
  8. Ken Tadashi Oshima, Arata Isozaki (London: Phaidon, 2009), 192-194.
  9. Peter Cook, editor, Archigram (New York: Praeger, 1973), 36-39.
  10. Nilda Valentin, Moshe Safdie (Rome: Edizioni Kappa, 2010), 42-47.
  11. Han Slawik, Julia Bergman, Matthias Buchmeier, Sonja Tinney, editors, Container Atlas: A Practical Guide to Container Architecture (Berlin: Gestalten, 2010), 6-8.
  12. Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 11-15.
  13. Levinson, The Box, 277-278.
  14. Levinson, The Box, 277-278.
  15. Ron Broadhurst, editor, Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2008), 170-171.
  16. Barry Bergdoll, “A Vain Attempt to Contain Adam Kalkin” in QUIK BUILD: Adam Kalkin’s ABC of Container Architecture, Will McLean, editor (London: Bibliotheque McLean, 2008), 9-11.
  17. Robert Kronenburg, Portable Architecture (Oxford: Elsevier/Architectural Press, 2003), 12.
  18. Jennifer Johung, Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 68-71.
  19. Robert Kronenburg, Houses in Motion: The Genesis, History and Development of the Portable Building (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Academy, 2002), 53.
  20. Kenneth Powell, “Container Architecture,” Architect’s Journal 223 (May 25, 2006), 31.
  21. Francis Rambert, Architecture Tomorrow (Paris: Tereil, 2005), 131-132.
Mitchell Schwarzer, “The Emergence of Container Urbanism,” Places Journal, February 2013. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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