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Who Are Shipping Containers Really for Now?

In Bristol—a city with a rich maritime history and rising home prices—developers are especially keen on repurposing these utilitarian objects for trendy projects.

Jon Craig

In early 2000, architects Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano went to the United Nations to discuss the possibility of using shipping containers as emergency shelters.

“Right away the response was that there is a stigma connected to the container, to trailers, and to cheap, quick solutions,” Tolla says. “They said that ‘you need to make it happen in the first world before you can propose it seriously.’”

Looking back, it’s safe to say that it has happened in the “first world.” Shipping containers are repurposed as urban farms, coffee houses, work spaces, and just about anything else you can imagine. Once seen as radical, the idea of recycling these utilitarian metal boxes is now an aesthetic phenomenon mired in issues of gentrification, globalization, and pop-up culture.

This aesthetic is now thriving in particular in Bristol, England, a city with a rich maritime history. In this setting, a container might be said to soften the visual impact of gentrification by nodding to the city’s shipping heritage. Or it could be condemned for being complicit in that very process, as patrons sit inside working on laptops and sipping premium coffees.

The former is true of Boxworks, an office space for startups made from a series of customized shipping containers. “The aesthetic of Boxworks definitely lends itself to the site in Bristol, which was formerly part of the goods yard at Temple Meads train station,” says Gavin Eddy, founder and CEO of Forward Space, which created Boxworks.

The containers are all “once-shipped” here. That is to say, they have done exactly one journey with a load from their place of manufacture in China to the U.K.

“In the industry, containers are categorized as new or second-hand,” Eddy says. “Second-hand will have done multiple journeys and had a full and active life and therefore are usually a bit beaten up and may no longer be certified as water tight. What are described as ‘new’ are always in fact ‘once-shipped.’” For that reason, many critics of the container argue that calling them recycled is misleading.

“The container is typically used as a branding device, and not because it makes a good coffee shop or it makes sense from a technical perspective,” says Mark Hogan, architect and principal at OpenScope Studio. “There’s one narrative where you think of it as this scrappy thing, where you’re doing this cheap pop-up that’s going to be made out of recycled materials. In reality it’s a pretty expensive thing to do.”

In fact, there are sound reasons for preferring new containers to truly recycled ones. “Dimensionally, containers are all the same, but some of them have slightly different floor construction, different hinges on them, and so on,” says Rupert Wheeler, principal at Mackenzie Wheeler Architects. His firm recently designed a pub in nearby Portishead, called Hall & Woodhouse, which is flanked by 28 shipping containers that fit together neatly. In order to ensure a precise fit on the project, Wheeler chose to build the project from ‘once-shipped’ containers rather than older ones that had a previous life in the shipping industry.

On Bristol’s waterfront, CARGO houses independent retailers in repurposed shipping containers. Stuart Hatton, director at Umberslade and developer of CARGO, wanted the site to foster a sense of community.

“As soon as we announced CARGO, we were inundated with inquiries,” Hatton says. “It took us no time at all to select a mix of tenants that are all complementary. Because they’re so closely bound together, there’s a great community. They are quite proud of the fact that they are the CARGO retailers.”

For many, though, this new community heralds the gentrification of yet another part of Bristol, a city where house prices have risen in some areas by almost 40 percent in the past five years. The problem is so acute that in his October 2016 State of the City address, Mayor Marvin Rees announced a commission to tackle the adverse effects of gentrification.

The CARGO 1 development along Bristol’s waterfront. (Jon Craig)

The containers themselves were invented in the 1950s by Malcom McLean, whose adage held, “a ship earns money only when she’s at sea.” By accelerating the speed at which he could load and unload a ship via containers, McLean made the whole process more profitable. And what started out as a money-making shipping technology has developed into a congruously lucrative aesthetic.  

“I believe we're drawn to a period in U.S. history when we made things,” Justin Dorset of Dorset Finds, an online store specializing in vintage industrial items, says. “We are drawn to products that were built to last and made with integrity. Workbenches are marked and dinged where hammers struck them. Task lights at a work station developed a patina from decades of handling. Wood stools lost their finish and developed a dense coloring that can't be replicated.”

Shipping containers filled with the warm glow of vintage industrial lighting clearly fit with this ethos. They are ostensibly used, utilitarian, and appeal to Millennials’ preference for brand authenticity—that is, the desire that products have a genuine backstory, and honest marketing.

Bristol’s shipping containers indeed have a rich backstory that appeals to Millennials—though they are forced to qualify what the word ‘recycled’ actually means, and to call into question the sort of community they want to foster in the city. As the container sites continue to trade off of Bristol’s industrial heritage, these questions become more urgent.

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