The hamburger of architecture
von Rossmann Andreas | Jun 30, 2011

"Containers are the medium of globalization," says Alexander Klose. "The container is the building type of the immediate future," says Hartmut Böhme. "Cities in crisis are ones empowered to have small units and independent players, and the container the measure of the smallest fixed unit," says Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm. "The container is a hybrid of architecture and technology. The container and the cargo ship are the ultimate in everything architects seek to achieve," says Aaron Betsky. "The visual qualities of the container are so very dominant that you often no longer need a real container," says Konrad Köstlin. "The container is the pictogrammatic house," says Gesa Müller von der Haegen.

One definition after another. And one sentence after another, where there could be theories that would be worth debating and arguing over. In the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf these sentences and a few other are projected onto the wall of the Container Architecture exhibition, but such that that visitors have to look up to them. And in the hardly theory-heavy catalog, in which the articles, including the foreword, do not even account for twenty of the 330 pages the container is not only declared to be the "symbol for life and living in our globalized, eventful and nomadic era" but is also claimed to be "an awareness of life, a vision", indeed, Gesa Müller von der Haegen, "architect, scenographer and specialist for temporary architecture and urban economics" even elevates the container to "a solitaire of a certain perfection": "Container cult – the standard box as the darling of architecture and avant-garde" claims the title of her introductory essay.

Can we not have things a little less grandiose? And somewhat more critical and less affirmative? Must there be immediate talk of "a symbol for the myth of distance" or "20 feet of poetry" in order to legitimize the container as the subject of an exhibition, although it would be more obvious to first look at exactly what containers (can) do the city of Düsseldorf, given that in the center at least they are currently standing around everywhere in the way: containers as the side effects of the building site for the new development known as Kö-Bogen and the new subway line, which have caused disruptions for years, driven businesses into bankruptcy, been a blight on the landscape memorial "Hofgarten", brought down the "Tausendfüßler" bridge and cut deep, insurmountable ramps into the urban fabric. Temporary and foreseeable the container almost becomes a "quantité négligable". A demonstration object was not even placed on the lawn in front of the entrance to the Ehrenhof, even though they would have had the high-gloss chrome-plated version that Düsseldorf artist Stefan Sous refined for Versailles (and featured in the catalog as a photomontage).

Twenty x eight x 8.5 feet or 6.06 x 2.44 x 2.09 meters are the measurements of "the global logistics formula". American Malcolm McLean was the first person to use one. On April 26, 1956, he had a converted tanker carrying 58 truck bodies transported from Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas. Since then the shipping container has become the world's standardized freight module. Unitized, sturdy, cost-effective, stackable. Currently, some thirty million containers are en route in all six continents: Symbolic of international freight traffic and universal transportation by ship. But is it also a shell, an element, a building unit, even a building type? Architects, designers and artists were asked to submit designs and projects, and several hundred sent their proposals to Düsseldorf: the NRW-Forum lines up 144 of them to form a picture frieze, it had twenty-two built as models on a scale of one to five. Though the objects might gain in appearance, they also appear cute and suggest a playful quality they largely lack in reality. In an urban setting (an historical one at that) containers inevitably result in brachial "solutions": The Belgian Luc Deleu from T.O.P. Office, who installed two of them, at a slight angle and painted red, as a temporary bridge across a canal in the Dutch town of Hoorn in West Friesia provides a striking example of this – quite literally.

"Temporary" is the claim the container most often makes: Whether it acts as a museum or exhibition pavilion, restaurant or salesroom, stadium (for street football) or tower, cruise terminal or hotel ship, living or office unit – all the options are (only) temporary. But temporary can become really long, as is proven not only by the stacked classrooms docked onto school buildings and which are seldom air-conditioned. "C'est le provisoire, qui dure". The provisional lasts longest. It is not the container itself that is the problem (or its solution) but how it is dealt with. A stationary showroom in the manner Lot/Ek assembled it from twenty-four containers for the athletics shoe brand Puma and which in 2008 accompanied the Volvo Ocean Race on all its stops, loses its originality when moved to a different place; and similarly the creative quality of what is conceived as mobile offices – say by In the Box e.V. or Raumwerk Architekten –still hinges on the setting.

As David Chipperfield commented in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, the interesting thing about architecture is that it provides answers, that it responds to situations. The container, however, reacts at best to emergency situations and is, if you take Chipperfield's dictum seriously, the opposite of architecture. After all, always identical in its dimensions it does not gear itself to the genius loci, but to the standardized needs of use. In the process it unites everything with which architecture gains a bad reputation: globalization, uniformization, the loss of individualization, anonymization. The fact that it can replace (almost) everything and can be employed everywhere makes it the hamburger of architecture, fast food, which, cheap and insipid, always looks the same, has the same nutritional value and the same number of calories. Although it can be seasoned differently, given a splash of sauce, decorated with cheese, onions – bean sprouts are not such a great idea right now – and packed. But the underlying item is always the same. Just what you can or could do with it is demonstrated by the Düsseldorf exhibition.

There is no lack of variety: completed and as yet uncompleted projects, crazy ideas (like the "library in ice", which Lutz Frisch installed in the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research) and weird things (like the Interstate church by Walter Gebhardt for the A 38 Interstate near Friedland), original things and others desperate to be original and – yes, practical things, too. As temporary showrooms and exhibition cubes, as information boxes and makeshift objects containers, including the museum by the Cologne company "Komm4" to mark the centenary of the St. Pauli soccer club have stood the test of time, and the twenty-five meter high Freitag Flagship Store, which Spillmann/Echsle erected from 25 recycled shipping containers on the Zürich freight station even received the German Design Award.

Containers make convincing solutions indeed are often the only option in emergency situations: For example the "Katrina House" by Graft, which was designed in 2011 as part of the "Pink Project Program" for those areas of New Orleans destroyed by the hurricane in 2005, or the self-sufficient, combinable Rotes-Kreuz-Box "1-Unit", which Ingenhoven Architects developed for use in catastrophes. The container is also ideal for intermediate use in building gaps, and in situations where ownership issues have still to be resolved.

At the other end of the scale stands the fourteen floor high West Melbourne Residential Tower, which Phooey Architects are currently building on the inner-city periphery of the Australian metropolis, or the plans for a container city by the Rotterdam company MVRDV, which assembles 3,500 boxes into a wall resembling stacked beer crates: It is not just at this point that container architecture comes across as a continuation (and making banal) of the box architecture and "wandering city", envisioned since the 1950s not only by Le Corbusier with his "modulor", but above all also by Constant (Anton Nieuwenhuys) in the Netherlands, Yona Friedman in France, and the Archigram group in Great Britain – as a utopian Babylon.

Legoland is far from over. The container allows the architect to take up his childish professional dreams, and it would be ridiculous if he did not feel capable armed with his qualifications not only to do up the box comfortably – with parquet flooring, mahogany sliding doors, open fire, stainless steel kitchen and photovoltaic system – but also so cut it up, disguise and configure it such that its origins are not immediately apparent: By way of example, Carsten Happel has nestled a café onto the beach in Warnemünde, which, with its pale brown lattice façade, blends chameleon-like with the sand, and Pasato Building Solutions designed the Vila Do Condo in Portugal, which in its white, signet-like elegance seeks to compete with Richard Meier. However, these tend to be the exceptions. The norm is not like this but rather slams down container buildings into urban settings and landscapes as cudgels of ruthlessness.

Take the Mountainside Residence Concept by Dustin Rowland. As an elevated house made of containers set on a lake or sea shore it seems to hover above an abyss – "for people brave enough to live where others won't go!" This slogan can be read as programmatic, the ego of the (daring) owner is all that counts, while respect for the environment counts for nothing. Indeed, container architecture seems to have a different standing and enjoy a different level of acceptance in the land of unlimited opportunities (as it once was!). With the Quik House Adam Kalkin, one of the protagonists of the trend (?),offers a prefabricated house of ship containers, which costs US$ 76,000 in the basic version, but in the luxury version can cost more than double that and is delivered eight weights after being ordered.

America, you are better off? Or maybe it comes from the fact that other building regulations, industrial standards, heat insulation and noise absorption specifications apply here? The exhibition leaves the question open. Possibly container architecture is nothing more than experimentation in a dead-end street. But there would be a good side to this, too: its horror scenarios would not pass the paper stage.

Container Architecture
From June 8 to September 4, 2011
NRW-Forum, Düsseldorf

Rendering for the motorway church by Walter Gebhardt
Rendering for the motorway church by Walter Gebhardt
Graft, Katrina House/New Orleans, 2011, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Luc Deleu / t.o.p. office „hoorn bridge“ 1990, in Hoorn, Niederlande, © Luc Deleu, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011, Foto © Wim Riemens
MVRDV Architekten Rotterdam, Container City, 2001, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Rheinflügel, Kunsthaus Zug mobil, 2002, © Guido Baselgia, Baar (Schweiz)
sculp(it) architects „studenthousingship“ 2005, Belgie, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Exhibition view in NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Jason Welty / SEABIN design „eco 540-dwelling“ 2009, in Tampa/Florida, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Model of the Freitag Flagship Stores, Zürich, in the exhibition "Container Architektur" in NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Model of the Freitag Flagship Stores
Sean Godsell „future shack“, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Phooey Architects, West Melbourne Residential Tower, 2011, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Ingenhoven Architects, 1 Unit, 2011 Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Luc Deleu / t.o.p. office „kunstlab orbino“, 2002 © Luc Deleu, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011, Foto © Steven van den Bergh
A stationary showroom in the manner Lot/Ek assembled it from twenty-four containers for the athletics shoe brand Puma
Temporäres Museum, FC St. Pauli by Komma4
Stefan Sous, Versailles, 2011, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Uwe Harzer, Wohnbogen 2010, Foto: Katalog NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
"library in ice" by Lutz Frisch