Andre Langenus

Shipping container designs have become so ubiquitous they've merited their own exhibition

Perhaps UK developer Roger Wade is due for a visit to Seattle. For legions of prefab fans and practitioners, the world’s first exhibit devoted solely to container architecture was long overdue. The Container Architecture Expo opened in Ljubljana in 2010, and last month, after a stop in Paris, made its North American debut at the American Institute of Architects gallery in Seattle. Made of steel or aluminum, shipping containers are an ideal building block: their resistance to hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes makes them well suited to such humanitarian projects as post-disaster housing, schools, health- and community. But their versatility, easy availability, and low cost have also captured the imaginations of countless designers and architects worldwide. 

In 1968, architect Paul Rudolph predicted that, "The mobile home is the 20th century brick"; The shipping container may well be taking its place in the 21st. They've been used for for high-concept retail stores (like Freitag messenger bag’s 17 container-high retail store (above) in Zurich, Switzerland, cozy cabins by Seattle’s Hybrid Architecture, everything from housing to art galleries by the likes of LOT/EK and Shigeru Ban, and frankly, not-so-hot but environmentally responsible Travelodges in the UK.

Hybrid Architecture's "Cargotecture"

But, like anything, container architecture has its hits and misses. You won't find the latter at this comprehensive exhibit curated by Czech architect Jure Kotnik and featuring work by 22 international firms, most of whom have been obsessing about the possibilities of prefab, and containers in particular for years. Works exhibited include those by Adam Kalkin (USA), AFF Architekten (Germany), DeMaria Design Associates (USA), HVDN Architecten (Netherlands), Hybrid (USA), Knock.Se (Sweden), Lot-Ek (USA), Luc Deleu (Belgium), MMW Architects (Norway), Nicholas Lacey & Partners (UK), Phooey Architects (Australia), Pierre Morency Architecten (Canada), Platoon + Graft (Germany), Shigeru Ban Architects (Japan), Spillmann-Echsle (Swiss), Spillmann-Felser (Swiss), Will Alsop Design Ltd. (UK) and Jure Kotnik (Slovenia).

PUMA City by LOT-EK

Though a crowded shelf of books have been published on portable, mobile architecture--check out the extensive work of Robert Kronenburg for some of the best work on the subject—the Container House exhibition catalog is described as "The Bible of Container Architecture." A compendium of 46 global projects, it just might be.

About the Author

Allison Arieff

Allison Arieff writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR.

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