Container Architecture = Pop Up Architecture ? or Cargotecture ?

Container Architecture = Pop Up Architecture ? or Cargotecture ?

The NRW-Forum Duesseldorf (Germany) invited renowned architects, designers, and artists from around the world to submit designs for container architecture.

The ‘Container Architecture’ exhibition offers a fascinating overview of what is possible. Submissions included not only existing container buildings, but also new designs that were created especially for the exhibition.

24 of these designs have been reconstructed as models on a scale of 1:5 for the ‘Container Architecture’ exhibition.

Over 100 designs were submitted for consideration and they are all included in a frieze of pictures running around the walls of the exhibition space.

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”


(video above is in German)

Shipping container architecture is a form of architecture using steel intermodal containers (shipping containers) as structural element, because of their inherent strength, wide availability and relatively low cost.

Containers tell the world how well or how poorly the global economy is doing. Empty container ships indicate a downturn; fully loaded container ships—or orders for new, even bigger ships—are euphoriant symbols of better times.

areaware ceramic cargo containers

The container itself, which is 2.44 metres wide, 2.59 metres high, and either 6.06 or 12.192 meters long, has been the globally standardized transportation module since 1956.

the nrw-forum building dusseldorf


Why organize an exhibition about containers?

‘Containers are a symbol of the way we live and dwell in our globalized, mobile, nomadic age,’ says exhibition organizer Werner Lippert when asked to explain what gave him the idea for the exhibition. He also quotes ethnologist Hartmut Boehme, who described the container as a ‘fetish of the modern age’ that stands for cataclysm, mobility, and change.

The exhibition highlights the container as the pictogram for a new, urban way of life and/or simultaneously as an object of modern architecture.

The interesting thing about architecture is that it provides answers, that it responds to situations. – David Chippefield. 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.

Standardized, robust, stackable, and available all over the world, inexpensive, easy to erect and dismantle, cheap and sustainable—containers are all this and more: they are symbolic of our era.

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.

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”.

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?

“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.

Due to strict schedules and complex parameters, fairs and exhibitions are always extremely stressful situations. The main goal of the designer was very simple: no more construction on the trade fair ground – only 1 push on the button to install, operate and remove the exhibition stand… thus raised the idea of this ultimate marketing tool.

The fully pre-wired mobile exhibition container was successfully introduced at Euroluce 2005.

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.

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.

Volvo Goteborg, Sweden 2006

Similarly the creative quality of what is conceived as mobile offices – say by In the Box e.V. or Raumwerk Architekten (below)  – still hinges on the setting.

Lutz Frisch has set up 150 Containers to be used as the Indian polar station, and one is being used as a ‘library in the ice’, a reading room and sanctuary to which scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute in the Antarctic can withdraw

Another proposal is for an expansive Interstate church by Walter Gebhardt for the A 38 Interstate near Friedland.

St. Pauli Football Club, Hamburg built the “Counterpole”: box consisting of three container boxes that sit on a steel scaffold between the north stand and the back straight in the old part of the stadium.

On the outside of the upper container was  installed a terrace with 26 seats offering fans the best view over the pitch. The interior of the containers is an hommage to the club and the district.

In 14 games “Counterpole” provided match day hospitality in the current season and also stuck out as a true commitment to the club and its culture and as a reminder to stick to those values.

Temporäres Museum, FC St. Pauli by Komma4

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.


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.


Its modular nature, universal shippability, ready availability, and sustainability means that the container is predestined to be used for emergency accommodation or welfare housing.

future shack by sean godsell

(NB second half of the video below covers the Future Shack with Sean)


Examples of such housing are the ‘Future Shack’ or ’1 Unit’, a high-tech design using a mobile emergency container with everything needed for self-sufficient operation, or the ‘Katrina House’, a hypothetical design for the Pink Project, whose patron is Brad Pitt and which is fostering the swift reconstruction of residential areas in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

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

Ingenhoven Architects’ 1 Unit is a design for a mobile emergency container with all the equipment for autonomous operation

Architect Christoph Ingenhoven in front of the Unit1 model at the exhibition

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. ( due for completion end 2011)


Or the plans for a container city by the Rotterdam company MVRDV, which assembles 3,500 boxes into a wall resembling stacked beer crates

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.

Quick House



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 weeks after being ordered.

adriance house maine usa by adam kalkins


The container is being used as a micro-house, as a building that can provide accommodation at short notice when homes are in short supply or during catastrophes, as a temporary building, as a travelling brand store … in short, the container is an idea with a promising future.

In particular it is artists who refute the claim that while containers do indeed symbolize mobility in our age, they are—once they are used as a home—as stationary a building as any other.

illy House

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.


The ‘Push Button Mobile Museum’, which was developed for UNESCO, will tour Africa with an exhibition of artworks in ‘child format’ by artists such as Paul McCarthy, James Turrell, Carsten Höller, and others.

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!”

Container architecture definitely is hip and happening at the moment, there’s even one in London’s Shoreditch, but working with containers and other related building systems also requires architectural input and expertise.


A’ Dock from Cattani Architecture



28 cargo containers became a multi-function exhibition hall. Well, this is what you will see in Seoul, South Korea. Called the “Platoon Kunsthalle”, the unique structure combines ingenious architecture with green aspects.

The structure that was commercially opened on 11th April 2009 houses commercial galleries and luxury brand stores.


Keetwonen, is a student housing project in Amsterdam, which turned 1000 shipping containers into student accommodation units and provides all the amenities a student could ever want.

Aside from the obvious green usage of surplus shipping containers, Keetwonen has integrated a rooftop to accommodate efficient rainwater drainage while providing heat dispersal and insulation for the containers beneath.

Designed by TempoHousing this is a great example of large-scale shipping containers serving as functional and comfortable space.

Containers are home to not only the 1000 units that each have a private balcony, but a cafe, supermarket, office space, and even a sports area. Units are arranged in “blocks,” each block containing a service unit with centralized electricity, internet, and networking systems

Modular home

Box Office

The “Container Atlas”, published by Gestalten collects the best container projects from all over the world and provides us with the necessary information to build our own semi-instant houses.

The atlas is edited by Prof. Han Slawik, head of the “Experimental Design and Construction” department within the Faculty of Architecture and Landscape Sciences at Leibniz University Hanover.

Slawik wanted to create an overview of the state of container architecture and worked together with a group of experts to come up with a practical and instructional guide that not only shows what you can make out of containers, but also tells us how to do it.

To help architects, planners, and cultural activists in creating their own container projects, experts in the field share their own experiences and explain what type of container is best used for what kind of purpose.


Strength and durability

Shipping containers are in many ways an ideal building material.

They are designed to carry heavy loads and to be stacked in high columns.

They are also designed to resist harsh environments – such as on ocean-going vessels or sprayed with road salt while transported on roads.


All shipping containers are made to standard measurements and as such they provide modular elements that can be combined into larger structures. This simplifies design, planning and transport. As they are already designed to interlock for ease of mobility during transportation, structural construction is completed by simply emplacing them.

Due to the containers’ modular design additional construction is as easy as stacking more containers. They can be stacked up to 12 high when empty.


Pre-fabricated modules can also be easily transported by ship, truck or rail, because they already conform to standard shipping sizes.


Used shipping containers are available across the globe.


Many used containers are available at a cost that is low compared to a finished structure built by other labour-intensive means such as bricks and mortar — which also require larger more expensive foundations.

Construction involves very little labour and used shipping containers requiring only simple modification can be purchased from major transport companies for as little as US$1,200 each.

Even when purchased brand new they seldom cost more than US$6000.



Steel conducts heat very well; containers used for human occupancy in an environment with extreme temperature variations will normally have to be better insulated than most brick, block or wood structures.


The welding and cutting of steel is considered to be specialized labour and can increase construction costs, yet overall the costs are still lower than conventional construction.

Construction site

The size and weight of the containers will, in most cases, require them to be placed by a crane or forklift.

Traditional brick, block and lumber construction materials can often be moved by hand, even to upper stories.

Building permits

The use of steel for construction, while prevalent in industrial construction, is not widely used for residential structures.

Obtaining building permits may be troublesome in some regions due to municipalities not having seen this application before.

Treatment of timber floors To meet Australian Government quarantine requirements most container floors when manufactured are treated with insecticides containing Copper (23-25%) Chromium (38-45%) and Arsenic (30-37%)

Before human habitation floors should be removed and safely disposed of.

Cargo spillages

A container can carry a wide variety of cargo during its working life.

Spillages or contamination may have occurred on the inside surfaces and may have to be cleaned before habitable. Ideally all internal surfaces should be abrasive blasted to bare metal, and re-painted with a non toxic paint system.


Solvents released from paint and sealants used in manufacture might be harmful.

NW-Forum Exhibition References

[ CHK™ Container Home Kit / LOT-EK / Ada Tolla, Giuseppe Lignano & Keisuke Nibe – ]

[ Container City / USM / London – ]

[ Freitag Flagship Store / Spillmann Echsle Architects / Zurich – ]

[ Container Corridor / Rotterdam, The Netherlands – ]

[ Wijn Of Water Restaurant / Caroline Bijvoet Architect / Rotterdam, The Netherlands – ]

[ The Skinners Playground / Phooey Architects / Melbourne, Australia – ]

[ Shipping Container Home / Ross Stevens / Wellington, New Zealand – ]

[ The Skinners Playground / Adam Kalkins / New Jersey, EEUU – ]

[ Push Button House / Adam Kalkins / New York – ]

[ Keetwonen: student housing / Tempo Houising / Amsterdam – ]

[ The Nomadic Museum / Shigeru Ban / Los Angeles, EEUU – ]

[ Redondo Beach House / DeMaria Design / California, EEUU – ]

[ The Skinners Playground / Punto ese Projektentwicklung GmbH / Salzburg, Austria – ]

[ Daltonschool de Kleine Kapitein / Bjarne Mastenbroek / Amsterdam, The Netherlands – ]

[ Future Shack / Sean Godsell / Australia – ]

[ Shipping Container Home / Far North Queensland, Australia ]

[ Sauna Box / Castor Design / Ontario, Canada – ]

[ Seventh-Kilometer Bazaar / Odessa – Ukraine – ]

[ Fhiltex-x / mmw architects / Oslo, Norway – ]

[ Holyoke cabin / Paul Stankey & Sarah Nordby / Minessotta, EEUU – ]

[ Silodam / MVRDV Architects / Amsterdam – ]

[ Proyecto Containers Tocopilla / Emilio Ugarte / Colombia – ]

[ Global Peace Containers / Global Peace Containers /I Atlanta, EEUU – ]

[ Ideas: ]

[ platFORM : ]

[ Zigloo Domestique : ]

[ Ten Year Hotel : ]

[ “Baldakin” Modular Accommodation System (BMAS) : ]

[ Cargotecture: ]

[ Addis Containers (New Zealand) : ]

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