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The Function of Architecture

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Shipping containers have a simple structure that encloses space yet is strong enough for fully-loaded ones to be stacked eight to ten high. They have structural redundancy because any one container may have to bear the load of eight to ten others above. They have no aesthetic redundancy. They are not algorithmic, parametric or programmatic.

What they are is easily connected and stabilized vertically and horizontally by what’s called a twist lock. Special fittings fix base containers to decks of ships. Maximum staking is determined by the structural integrity of the lower containers and the bearing capacity of the ship’s deck.

Ports handling a greater volume of imports than exports tend to have a surfeit of shipping containers, and vice-versa. American and Chinese ports regularly have shortages. Wikipedia tells me there are 17 million shipping containers in the world but only a third in use at any one time. Many are unused because they’re not in the right place at the right time. A used shipping container costs US$2,000–4,500 and, because of their human-compatible dimensions, their potential to create building space has long been recognized.

An entire industry exists to customize shipping containers for storage or site offices.

Shipping containers can also make architectural statements with very little customization. The Zurich headquarters of the Freitag company was perhaps the first to use shipping containers this way. It’s a misfits’ classic.

With many other buildings however, the amount of customization and contrivance must negate most if not all of the cost advantages of these readymade and relatively inexpensive spatial enclosures. The dominant architectural driver seems to be to show how much one can ignore the inherent qualities of the resource to make it into something it isn’t. It’s as if the highest compliment is “OMG I can’t believe it’s made from shipping containers!”


Shipping containers aren’t trying to be beautiful or attractive. As long as their coating protects them from harsh marine environments it makes no difference what colour they are. They are of course painted various colours and some have logos but these are incidental to their identifiers.
  • The owner prefix (BIC code): three capital letters of the Latin alphabet to indicate the owner or principal operator of the container,
  • The equipment category identifier: one capital letter as follows:
    • U for all freight containers,
    • J for detachable freight container-related equipment,
    • Z for trailers and chassis,
  • The serial number: six Arabic numerals, left at owner‘s or operator‘s option,
  • The check digit: one Arabic numeral providing a means of validating the recording and transmission accuracies of the owner code and serial number.

This image shows a typical dockyard pile. If similar colors are adjacent it’s just because they were unloaded that way.

In the world of shipping container architecture however, kindergarten colors such as yellow and red are popular choices to jolly them up.

Shipping containers have no set colour and any steel other than Corten™ has to be coated with something that’s going to have some colour but I like that both these next two projects are grey. It makes me think of steel. In passing, the house on the left below has stairs, balustrades and air-conditioner compressors that appear almost ornamental. Both remind me of Danish Modernism.


Cladding shipping containers in anything but corrugated steel plate makes them look less like shipping containers. Timber is good at doing this but it also tends to make them look like bad architecture.

This next project is not desperate like the two above but it does lead us to the next point.


Shipping containers are designed to be stacked one on top of the other in rows

and so partially unstacking them is a common way of making them appear something other than what they are. Extreme cantilevery is celebrated.

But even the Freitag Headquarters is an unusual shape for shipping containers. The unlikeliness of a single stack of nine shipping containers is what makes us think this is architecture, as well as that eye-catching stack being visually stabilized by balancing blocks of a 3×2 and a vertical stack of four. Both tell us something’s up.

Freitag Turm, Zurich, Switzerland


Part of the architectural effect of this project also derives from the containers not being at a container port. (This is an idea of Position to SEPARATE but it only works if you know what a shipping container is and what it does. Similarly, the repurposing of the shipping containers with their original Colour and Pattern has meaning if you are familiar with Freitag merchandise.) As far as Position goes, buildings like this that make use of the inherent structural properties of shipping containers are the exception.

Instead, supported containers and containers reinforced by secondary structures that carry loadings in unexpected places proliferate. These next two examples have an independent structural frame shipping containers were designed to do without. 2010 Cité a Docks by Cattani Architects does all the right things as far as Colour and Pattern are concerned but its containers are supported by an independent structural frame producing an arrangement that allows some syncopated displacement.

Whether concealed or not, a secondary structure allows an openness – or, if you will, a transparency – of stacking and this is also something we don’t associate with shipping containers that bear loads at their corners.

If shipping containers are designed to bear loads at their corners, then it’s important to show as many unsupported and unsupporting corners as possible. Kengo Kuma is not above such weightlessness and transparency hijinks. The uniform and pristine white screams that this is about architecture and not shipping containers.

And even then, shipping containers can still be connected in conventional ways yet stacked in unconventional ways such as Shigeru Ban’s Nomadic Museum. At first glance it looks uncustomized yet 10-foot containers like those at the ends of the wall don’t exist – they’ve been specially made. We’re now in the realm of representations of the clever repurposing of shipping containers.


Shipping containers are designed to be stacked and used horizontally and so we get vertical containers!

“These buildings also reflect the image of freight containers: internationality, standardisation, multi-functionality, and the transport of goods.” (Not My Words)

We also get containers at anything but right angles.

Design for Hechingen Studio, 2010. Credit: James Whitaker
“The elaborate supporting structure is varying widely from the normal load of freight containers. The inside allows for different views in all directions and promises an extraordinary spatial experience – inside and outside. The contrast between nature and the building at this container project strengthens this effect.” (Not My Words)


Size-wise, this one takes some beating – hat’s off to CRG Architects! “I can’t believe it’s shipping containers!” I’m assuming a secondary structure.

“Columns of vertically stacked containers in the core of the towers would house an elevator, while empty containers could be used for circulation and vertical gardens as well as medical services, schools, entertainment areas and small markets.

“Service pipes and cabling would be threaded through the existing cavities in the base designed for to allow the lifting of the containers with forklift trucks. Gaps between the structures would provide natural ventilation.”

In passing, and separately from all of the above, many people opt to create the appearance of a large space that hasn’t been constructed from modules. This is an entirely separate dimension of container denial.

What hope authenticity? It’s not all bad. There’s the The Wenckehof container village in Amsterdam. It’s student housing, as is often the case.

The Brighton Housing Trust has had these low-cost apartments built. Each apartment looks like three x 20-foot containers.

There’s this project for 140 affordable housing units in Johannesburg by LOT-EK architects. Despite the surface patterning, there’s no doubting what it’s made of.

The most exuberant student and low-cost container housing gets is this project in Johannesburg by Citiq and which, despite the Hundertwasser overtones, is a straightforward stack of containers that happens to rest on some repurposed silos.


Like decorative seashells or amusing pets, container architecture is one those terms one must think twice about before entering it into a search engine. This last project runs the full gamut of container denial yet still includes every other media architecture trope bar 3D printing. The caption makes no promises.

Repurposed Shipping Containers May Be Building Blocks for Modular Vertical Urban Farms

It’s not all hopeless but, on the whole, the bad guys are winning. I’m forever trying to convince myself the function of architecture isn’t to neuter good ideas before they multiply. I’m not surprised this particular project was chosen to front this book that encourages us to regard it as an atlas, no less. It is a practical guide to container architecture. It is not a guide to practical container architecture.

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