The Shipping Container


It may be a tool of globalisation and a key factor in the rise of the Asian economies but the shipping container is also the all-star, eco-friendly, recyclable Lego brick of 21st-century architecture.

You’d be lucky to turn up to a graduate architecture show these days without seeing half a dozen shipping container projects. And there’s every chance one of those students is living in one, complete with customised Crittal windows and pared-down black cladding. The shipping container has become an off-the-shelf solution to so-called eco-architecture and even – often inappropriately – disaster relief projects. In fact, this modular classic is in danger of becoming a thoughtless cliche.

It was 1956 when American Malcom McLean standardised the shipping industry with his metal containers, transforming the expensive, labour-intensive process of transporting goods from one country to another into a swift, mechanised and profitable business. He began by sailing to Houston from Newark with 58 containers on a converted tanker ship. The sealed, stackable metal boxes were moved by cranes, replacing the thousands of dockers employed to stack hand-made wooden crates. Within 20 years the might of London, Rotterdam and New York was fading and smaller ports were staking a claim to this new standardised form of global trade.

The clean, secure shipping container reduced spoilage, theft, insurance costs and delays. The sheer volume of them arriving from China (there are now 22 million in circulation) meant that there was often a surplus sitting around on the docks. It didn’t take long for the containers to take on informal uses as temporary storage areas, studios and shelters.

Image by Chris Gordon

Naturally, designers saw the potential. There are few things architects love more than a good module. But it took Australian architect Sean Godsell to come up with Future Shack in 1988 before the container building came into its own. The idea was that 6m-long units, with parasol roofs packed inside, could be stockpiled for use as relief and emergency housing by aid agencies.

Since then a plethora of designers have inserted windows, wooden floors, insulation, roofs, cladding and electricity. American practice LOT/EK created the Mobile Dwelling Unit housing project in 1999, and Container city, produced by Urban Space Management, currently offers affordable flats in London for artists, musicians and key workers. Last month, Architecture & Hygeine produced Push Button House, a rusty brown container whose panels fold out to become a clean minimalist home.

But it’s not just about housing. The shipping container’s appealing, functional aesthetic lends itself to a variety of projects. Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s Nomadic Museum, designed in 2005, was a vast travelling art gallery made up of 148 containers, made for an exhibition by artist Gregory Colbert. Dutch practice Neutelings Riedijk used the same chequerboard aesthetic for the facade of its Shipping and Transport College in Rotterdam, and the Freitag shop in Zurich, designed by Annette Spillmann and Harald Echsle, is made from 17 stacked freight containers, a beacon for the Frietag brand of recycled bags.

The joy of architects playing with these Tetris blocks is clear – to use capitalism’s surplus to provide affordable homes, emergency aid and, well, storage. But now that we have estabilished how useful they are, surely we can stop seeing them as a novelty material and start being a bit more original with them. Time to bring on Shipping Container 2.0.