Shipping containers: Think inside the box

Cheap, fun and easy to move, shipping containers are providing building blocks for everything from pop-up malls to prisons. By Victoria-Anne Bull

A large Corten steel tin lies at a bleak dockside waiting to be stacked alongside other similar corrugated boxes, its cargo safely locked inside. Last month it was bananas from St Lucia, the month before electronics from Japan. Today, layers of cotton underwear, made in China, are stuffed up to container's brim, ready to make their way across the choppy seas to their UK destination, the port of Felixstowe in Suffolk.

Since the inception of the humble shipping container in 1956 – when the US trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean heaped 58 containers aboard a tanker to sail from Newark to Houston – it has been praised for reducing transportation costs, improving the global economy and increasing international trade. And now these reusable steel boxes are finding yet another practical purpose.

A number of creative minds, keen to push the boundaries of the modern industrial skyline, discovered that recycling maritime containers and using them in structural design has made the process of erecting buildings a fun, cheaper (many can be purchased for just £2,500) and greener alternative to more conventional architectural styles. In fact, producing houses, mobile offices, travelling museum exhibitions and, more recently, bigger buildings out of containers has become something of a growing architectural trend.

Step forward the latest shipping container model, Boxpark. Coined by its creators as the world's first pop-up shopping mall, it will drop this summer in the belly of London's East End. The mall will comprise 60 container units, sourced from Felixstowe. The ground floor will hold 40 fashion stores, each in its own container. Above them will be 20 units for food and gallery spaces on a decking area. Because the plot of land involved is embroiled in planning disagreements, the use of shipping containers allowed the property developers Hammerson and Ballymore to agree a five-year lease with Boxpark, after which Boxpark will be able leave as quickly as it arrived.

Roger Wade, the brand consultant in charge of the project says: "We want to take container architecture to the nth degree. We want to control everything with an industrial nature and give it a lovely handwriting. Container architecture is of the moment, there is definitely a movement towards it but it is the practical solution for us that works."

It will take around three weeks to construct Boxpark and Wade is convinced the scheme, which will house smaller, independent brands in return for a £25,000 annual rent, is the first step to addressing the difficulties facing those who want to break into Britain's high-street sector.

"Britain is about innovation," Wade ventures. "If anything, the British high street is killing British fashion so here's an innovative solution which allows smaller brands to reach out on a level playing field. Brands that rely on retail customers are being squeezed out of the market place because there is nowhere for them to sell. Every high street is becoming the same."

Meanwhile Britain's grandfather of shipping-container architecture, Eric Reynolds, is a more self-effacing chap whose fingers appear to be confidently puppeteering a large number of the world's container projects. He is the pace-setter who has steered the company Urban Space Management to be a leader in container architecture after effectively starting the trend with his cultural hub of container cities, known collectively as Trinity Buoy Wharf in London's Docklands, 15 years ago.

A portable Electric Hotel theatre for Sadler's Wells followed as well as an Olympic Park project. He is also in talks with a rail company to build a hotel in Waterloo in time for the 2012 Games and two more in the West Country. He will extend his global reach with further hotels in America's Brooklyn and there are talks of transforming New York's Pier 57 into a partially underwater mall. But probably the most exhilarating design addition this year will be in the UK – a surprise 3D mobile maze made completely out of shipping containers to be unveiled at this year's Glastonbury festival.

"Containers are wonderfully practical," says Reynolds. "They don't answer every question and they don't suit every site, but we had to find economic ways to find space. We thought: 'Why not use what is essentially disposable packing to make a new project?'" Yet he admits: "It is economically driven, but we do try and make them aesthetically pleasing or at least amusing."

One of the big draws for architects is the temporary attributes of shipping containers. The metal trunks can be moved to sites fairly easily by special transportation trucks and then piled on top of each other. And, like a jolly travelling circus, they can be taken away just as easily without any damage to the land they were sitting on.

Dominic Cullinan of Sable Architects, who has already collaborated with Reynolds to build a sports hall for Dunraven School in Lambeth, south London, warms to this sentiment. "Maybe that is a chic that people are particularly interested in," he muses. "You can take your building down, even unscrew the piles out of the ground and then just put it somewhere else. And they are romantic. There is the novelty of the reuse of something that has come all the way from China along with the unconventionality of them being made into a building."

And yet Cullinan wants, philanthropically, to take the wieldy nature of these magical boxes further, by designing an extension for a school with many underprivileged pupils in the North of England, as well as a number of sports and community centres in China and India for a charity called Compassion for Migrant Children.

Yet there are architects who lack the ardour of Reynolds, Cullinan and Wade. Unlike these men, they cannot bring themselves to wax lyrical about the container trend. One leading British architect laments: "It is a bit of an architectural fetish for mass production. Certain people get excited by things that resemble stackable Lego, but the truth is they are actually quite limiting. There is this idea of free-form that suggests loose-assembly architecture, but they still have to go through the same complicated legislature that conventional buildings do."

Reynolds rebuffs this by claiming that some architects are simply too reserved. "It took people an awful long time to move from wattle and daub to bricks and mortar, and now from brick to steel and so on," he said. "Usually people are conservative. Do you buy the same brand of lipstick because you become comfortable with it? It is a habit you repeat."

So whether or not you like the raw, industrial concept that the shipping container represents, there are a growing number of people out there fuelling the trend for this kind of architectural style. It has become an increasingly fashionable, green-minded and economically viable choice. And although several British architects are yet to come round, in America and Brazil, the trend for transforming these containers into stylish mobile homes is already gathering momentum.

As Wade explains: "Architecture, like art, is all about personal taste. I want to divide the world up between lovers and haters and there are always people, no matter what you do, that forget the bigger picture."

Other boxfresh builds

Rimutaka prison, Wellington

Australia is poised to build extra prison space using containers after a successful 60-cell pilot scheme in New Zealand . They are viewed as a cheap and fast way to cope with record prisoner numbers.

Adam Kalkin's Quik Houses

The quirky American architect creates kit-homes designed from shipping containers. He once said: "It really cuts across all types of thinking and starts your imagination."

Travelodge, Uxbridge

Looks like an ugly brick building, but this 120-bedroom west London hotel is made from 88 containers of varying sizes. The company has adopted this new building style as the method has enabled it to cut costs.

The View Tube, London

Bright yellow building includes café, education, arts and information spaces with a panoramic view over the Olympic Park and Stratford City.

Seventh- Kilometre Market, Odessa

A huge market made entirely from shipping containers in the Ukraine

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