Great hulking aluminium boxes that zip around the world on the back of ships, trains and trucks, shipping containers might seem unlikely symbols of anything much. And yet, their very colossal emptiness is perhaps what makes them so receptive to being read as emblematic. By their nature, shipping containers are hollow, ready to be filled with whatever it is we want to make them carry, including cultural associations. For some, such as the economist Marc Levinson, they are revolutionary objects that have contributed to the global economy by taking a place “at the core of a highly automated system for moving goods from anywhere, to anywhere, with a minimum of cost and complication on the way.” For others, they are symptomatic of the systematic globalisation by which the world is becoming ever more in thrall to an unfair and exploitative form of capitalism.
In recent years, there has been a more literal repurposing of shipping containers, with architects and designers around the world using them as a construction material. In the USA in particular, where the amount of imported goods far outweighs the amount of goods that are exported, the shipping container has become a kind of relic, with many remaining in the USA after being shipped there. This surplus has led to the inexpensive availability of containers for architectural projects and an opportunity for architects to explore them as a material and method. While perhaps the majority of shipping container homes are currently in the USA, there are examples from countries as diverse as Brazil, Chile, the UK, Italy, Israel, Slovenia and many more. Their modular structure, perceived affordability and ability to withstand fire and flooding have made them a much in-demand building material. The industrial aesthetic of their design is also part of the attraction, with designers and clients alike drawn to the history of these industrial objects and the resonance of Lego-block modular building they suggest.
Aesthetically, shipping container houses are remarkably diverse and adaptable. While the basis of the building material is a metal box, the way this has been handled by architects varies enormously. Some projects such as Tomecek Studio’s Container Cabin in Cañon City, Colorado, make the visual aesthetics and associations of the container fundamental to the design, with the aluminium ridges of the building and modular structure of the construction echoing the original uses of the containers, combined with a sensitive and responsive approach to the open landscape of southern Colorado in which the home is situated. Conversely, their Shipping Container House in Nederland Colorado, arranges two containers in a wedge shape which sits within a rocky outcrop of the landscape and whose form takes attention away from the presence of the containers themselves. As Brad Tomecek explains: “With all design-led architectural projects, we based the project on the concept of the site, which included a rock outcropping and a distant rock ridge. The containers became simply how we were constructing it.”
For architect Peter DeMaria of DeMaria Design, this comes down to the client’s specifications: “There are two ends of the spectrum. At one end, the client wants the container in all its glory: in its raw state with stickers from the shipping and rust and whatever else is on it. Then there are clients who don’t want to see the container every day. They want it under the walls where they know it’s there but not to the forefront.”
DeMaria, who won the American Institute of Architects Award for his Redondo Beach House in 2007, has a fascinating take on the future of shipping container architecture, believing its durability and affordability could see it form the basis of an affordable housing movement across the USA and beyond. However, he believes that it was crucial to first of all prove the material in high-end and luxury projects to ensure it had positive associations. Redondo Beach House exudes both luxury and modesty, combining traditional construction materials with shipping containers. Making use of eight in all, the house combines different size containers with clever effect, making room for a large living room with a 20-foot ceiling, artist’s studio and even a swimming pool. This house was the inspiration for Logical Homes, which DeMaria is currently developing, to look at providing high quality, affordable prefabricated container architecture for the future.