Half a mile from bustling Atwells Avenue, in a more industrial district with sparsely located buildings, a vibrant blue, green and yellow structure stands out in a dry, grey streetscape. A dazzling splash of color in a former lumberyard overlooking train tracks, it resembles an assemblage of bright Lego blocks. The Box Office on Harris Avenue, completed in 2010, was built from 37 upcycled shipping containers, and offers an eco-friendly, energy-conserving office space.
Instead of stacking up the shipping containers into one neat rectangular building, the architects at Distill Studio overlapped the shipping containers irregularly, crisscrossing them so that the containers jut out in different directions. The effect is a unique, modular structure that allows stairways and mini outdoor patios that connect the containers, as well as individual front doors into each office; it further allows windows and doors that, along with solar tubes, maximize the daylight illuminating the interior. It also creates a playful and quite frankly, delightful exterior.
The Box Office, currently the only shipping container building in Rhode Island, was also once the largest of its kind in the US. Though shipping container architecture, or “cargotecture,” has not developed into the norm, containers have been used as a building material by modern architects around the world in the past two decades. Shipping containers have the perks of being both affordable and environmental, though critics have pointed out that treating the potentially toxic chemicals in the containers, as well as adapting the malleable steel to support the weight and balance of different structures, ultimately renders the choice far from cost-effective. Yet it is undeniable that shipping containers have inspired and helped build spectacular, inventive architecture around the world.
Visiting the Box Office motivated me to explore the phenomenon of shipping container buildings, which serve a surprising variety of purposes, and come in numerous intriguing designs. Below are some of the most fascinating examples I discovered.
Shigeru Ban’s Shipping Container Museum
Shigeru Ban, an acclaimed Japanese architect, (also well known for his innovative use of unique, recyclable materials, such as cardboard) used shipping containers and paper tubes to build the Nomadic Museum, a mobile shipping container museum now situated in Santa Monica.
Adam Kalkin, a contemporary architect based in New Jersey, designed several projects with shipping containers. The Adriance House is a beautiful work of art with an airy façade of glass; the effect of lightness is particularly remarkable considering that the house was built from 12 stacked shipping containers.
When its steel veneers slide open of Kalkin’s Bunny Lane Container Home, it is suffused in sunlight from entire walls of glass. The house exemplifies the combination of modern design and environmental consciousness.
Container City I + II in London, built by Nick Lacey, is a prime example of shipping container construction, featuring vibrant colors and a modular structure. Much like the Box Office, each end of the shipping containers has been replaced to fit in glass windows or doors, with bridges that connect the containers to assemble the complex. Originally a housing development, now it is also home to various creative studios, offices, and workshops.
LOT-EK, an architectural firm based in New York, has designed several shipping container buildings, Puma City being one of them. 24 bright red shipping containers are stacked unevenly creating open-air terraces and large overhangs. As with many other examples of shipping container buildings, the steel ends of the shipping containers have been replaced with wide windows.
Freitag Flagship Store
The Freitag Store in Zurich is the tallest shipping container building in the world. As Freitag makes a conscious effort to use recycled material to make their messenger bags, it seems fitting that their flagship store was built in the same spirit.
Minimalism and Modern Art
Many shipping container buildings use primary colors that echo their prefab material of multicolored, painted container boxes. There are, however, shipping container structures that echo the minimalist trend in modern architecture, displaying Bauhaus-like simplicity and lack of color that boldly emphasize the raw quality and industrial coarseness of shipping containers.
The GAD, designed by MMW architects based in Oslo, is a mobile art gallery that can be disassembled and assembled to a separate location. The white color scheme and thin pilotis of the GAD remind the viewer of Le Corbusier, yet it detaches from his tradition in its choice of material and resulting corrugated surface and skeletal texture.
Part of the Platoon Network based in Berlin, Platoon Kunsthalle in Seoul, designed by Platoon + Graft architects, identifies as a “creative platform” for artistic, commercial, and communicative efforts of modern subcultures such as fashion, video art, and music. Evenly stacked and monochromatic, Platoon Kunsthalle showcases a more minimalist approach to shipping container architecture.
It is fascinating to see how shipping container architecture has evolved in the modern age. Although it seems unlikely that shipping container architecture will turn mainstream, they certainly make for diverse, dynamic modern buildings, from elegant houses and Lego-colored blocks to industrial towers. In a city that looks back to history in much of its architecture, the Box Office is a refreshing nod to modernism, as well as the industrial past of both Providence and the shipping containers.
By Jane Kim
Site: The Box Office, Address: 460 Harris Ave., Providence, RI, 02909