Container Architecture

A peek at three iconic examples of the various forms of container architecure from leading European designers.

Freight containers are the jetsam of full throttle globalization. To wit, there are approximately 30,000 of them floating just under the surface of the oceans, like tipless icebergs. 

Since their standardization in the 1970s and the ensuing  “container revolution” in freight transport, the shores of post-industrialized countries with growing trade deficits are now also increasingly awash in a surplus of these 12-meter-long by 2.4-meter-wide by 2.9-meter-high shipping containers. For the most avant garde designers, these marooned, inexpensive and readymade modules of trapezoidal sheeting and rolled profiles of steel alloy, represent a unique opportunity– upcycling them for architecture.

Freight Containers 

“Container architecture plays off of ‘rough luxury.’ You are a pioneering sort of spirit if you live in one,” explains Wolfram Putz, a founding partner of GRAFT, the Berlin-based architects behind Seoul’s Platoon Kunsthalle, a three-story, 905 squaremeter “artist hall,” exhibition space, nightlife venue and residence made out of twenty eight shipping containers.

Circa 1998, as a recent Master’s graduate, Putz first heard of container architecture as the stuff of Los Angeles urban legend: “On outskirts, people were using shipping containers for storage sheds on empty lots, so the idea of making rudimentary human shelter out of them wasn’t that far-flung. Why not buy a cheap desert property, put up a couple of containers and call it the next Arcosanti or creative village?”

On paper, containers seem best suited for building cost-effective, short- to mid-term structures, making them the darlings of the growing “pop-up” trend in consumer culture (restaurants, museums, hotels, retail, etc). Yet, in practice, they sometimes act like Trojan horses. Once in place, they take on lives of their own and often outlive their planned life cycle.

Building Containers

Rotterdam-based MVRDV’s VUmc Cancer Centre Amsterdam is an example of a second type of container architecture, made from a system of building containers. The elevated, 5-storey cuboid of rectangular pixels in a riot of blue and red represent oxygenated and unoxygenated blood cells. The windowed ends of the building container modules also allude to cells structure.

“In 2005, the cancer institute’s head researcher needed a facility as soon as possible to continue his critical research,” explains MVRDV partner Jacob van Rijs, “The planning authorities were much more relaxed and easy with the building so that it could be completed as quickly as possible, but stipulated that it could only be there for five years. And it has already been there longer.” MVRDV planned the VUmc Cancer Centre Amsterdam in three months, completed it in six. Today, it is still a hive of cancer-research. A recently completed university hospital now houses a permanent cancer research centre but it took several years to finish and was delivered behind schedule.

“The fact that the building was there quickly and that it’s been there longer than the five years shows that the professor had a point,” van Rijs muses, “It may last another five.”


Public outcry from NIMBYists and overly-cautious urban planners remain the biggest challenges to architects hoping to design permanent structures with reused shipping containers. Some might opt instead for a third type of container architecture, called “container-look,” a structure built with traditional construction methods but finished to look like shipping containers.

Live/Work Space is an apt example. “We are in the middle of Antwerp, and the building regulations make it very difficult,” says Sculp(it)’s co-founder Pieter Peerlings, “If you propose a building made of actual containers, it’s a no go.”

The dramatic townhouse facade has four identical floor-to-ceiling openings of unmistakeable proportions. At first glance, they seem to be a stack of freight containers on an impossibly narrow plot of land. “In photos, people think so but it’s actually a steel skeleton with wood floors. We scaled and spaced the wooden support beams to look like a shipping container’s corrugated ceiling,” Peerlings explains.

Along with his wife and Sculp(it) co-founder, Silvia Mertens, Live/Work Space was the duo’s first project, completed in 2007. Since then it has been the couple’s “dream house” and includes a groundfloor office and a rooftop hot tub.

Peerlings believes that the origins of container architecture are elemental. “I think it’s a bit like Lego blocks. Containers have the perfect dimensions, the smallest room volume that you can think of. And when architects design most of them, I believe, they think in volumes. It’s a design block,” he offers.

As for container architecture’s longevity, GRAFT’s Putz remains sanguine about the future. “I think we’re still at the peak of it but in the last couple of years, the secret’s out.”

Urban Capital Magazine, 2013


About mmcontentatlarge journalist | copywriter | producer/editor

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