Friday, 2 March 2012



A few months ago, we heard about urban regeneration in Christchurch, New Zealand. After last year's devastating earthquake it's regrettably necessary that a good deal of the city centre be demolished. What caught our attention in particular was news that, to accommodate retailers displaced from the "red-zone" where the demolition crews are working - a "pop up" mall was being installed, constructed from "upcycled" shipping containers. We'd heard about this sort of innovative approach to construction before, and we found it intriguing - full of possibilities. 

Double-deck containers in Biskek market
Throughout former-Soviet central asia (a major overland trade-route corresponding more-or-less to the trans-historic silk road) shipping containers are re-tasked - turned into domestic and retail accommodation, offices and storage, clinics and workshops, military emplacements and so forth. Any use you can think of for a cheap, readily available, robust, secure, resilient, transportable, modular, stackable, standardised box. Notably, shipping containers form the greater part of two of the largest organised regular markets in the world, located like bookends at either terminus of the silk road. The Seventh Kilometre Market in Odessa, Ukraine covers some 70 hectares (170 acres) and the Dordoy Bazaar in Biskek, Kyrgyzstan is about the same size.  

Similarly, but more darkly, you can see shipping containers regularly on the TV news, being used by NATO military as the modular components of blast shelters and barracks, and as detention centres for enemy combatants.

On a brighter note, we're heartened by NGO's use of shipping containers to provide humanitarian aid, most notably the work of Containers2Clinics in creating fully-equipped clinics which are sent to disaster zones and deprived areas all round the world. The C2C units are marvels of modularity -  full-service health clinics with examination and treatment rooms and labs - all within the ISO-standard 8ft x 20ft shipping container, ready to be deployed via the existing global freight network and infrastructure. 

The two things which link all these re-tasked uses of the ISO shipping container are necessity and availability. The necessity to provide a 'building' and the availability of a suitably cheap and fit solution. This is why we find it intriguing that this sort of cargotecture is now popping up in places which are not obviously subject to disaster or depravation. London's Boxpark shopping centre in Shoreditch, which opened last  Christmas is the site which first springs to mind. We can't help but think that there's a bit of posturing metropolitan post-apocalyptic chic going on there. But, on second thoughts and after a bit of research we find that you can buy a newly-built 8ft x 20ft ISO shipping container for USD $4000. Second hand - $1000 or less all the way down to free. These containers are piling up in the Anglosphere West (where we have trade deficits) for it is cheaper to obtain new-built containers for the shipping of goods from the far-east than it is to send empty containers back to the far-east. The result is that we now have a growing glut of cheap, available, transportable and demountable building materials, which already come in the shape of a room, or a shop unit, or a small workshop or lab or office orwhatever. We think it's a great pity that Buckminster Fuller did not live to see this day, for we're sure he would have felt vindicated by this proliferation of "livingry" (as he would have had it, notwithstanding the military stuff we mentioned). But we do feel that cargotecture is, in some way, indicative of disaster or liminal status, conflict or collapse. Perhaps, looking around Aberdeen, and seeing the proliferation of semi-permanent cargotecture deployments even here we might feel that there is some sort of slow-motion crisis going on, some kind of shift in status from permanency to flexibility - a frog-boiling, Zeno-paradox long emergency.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century and this early part of the 21st, in the developed west we largely used breeze-block units as the primary architectural element of our (non-prestige) buildings - commercial, domestic and military, all made from the same standard concrete masonry unit. Artificial stone, as it were, made from the ashy residue of coal-fired electricity generation. It's convenient that, as we necessarily come to the end of the hydrocarbon era, an alternate building system presents itself.

And all that is solid melts into air...


A man in a small van pulls over to the nearside of the road and winds down the window - it looks as if he's about to ask me for directions. It's a painter and decorator's van, but the driver is wearing office clothes. Frowning, he leans over the passenger seat and shouts out of the open window:

>>Excuse me! Hey there!
>>Yes. What is it? Can I help you at all?
>>Why are you photographing that?
>>That's an interesting question. What's interesting about it is that you feel empowered to ask, and that you expect me to answer. So let me answer your question with another question: Why do you ask?
>>Look, I've asked you a question first, I want to know why you're photographing that.
>>OK, I'll ask you again: Why do you want to know? 
>>'Cos you're photographing it.
>>And how does that affect you? What concern is it of yours? Who are you to ask me about my actions? Again - why do you want to know?
>>Look, I want to know why you're photographing that. I'm being civil.
>>No you're not being civil at all - you're being weird. What I do in a public place is none of your business, and it's kind of bizarre that you should think it is. You're being intrusive and you are harassing me. Eff off.

1 comment:

Joe D said...

"We can't help but think that there's a bit of posturing metropolitan post-apocalyptic chic going on there."

There is a bit, it being trendy Shoreditch. But the boxpark is really there simply because it's a prime vacant plot on which the recession has halted construction of the "permanent" structure that was planned. Far preferable to the similar sites across the city that have just sat boarded up and locked up for four years because the developers have faith in the demand and financing for their planned developments returning one day.

I think the same is being planned for a similarly vacant plot of recession-halted development next to Bristol Temple Meads, in Osborne's new "Enterprise Zone". Better a boxpark next to the central station than more corrugated sheds on the bypass.