Future Shack

Sean Godsell refashioned this shipping container into an emergency care facility between 1985 and 1997. His project predates the first patent filed on shipping container architecture, in 1987.

Apartment Building

Uwe Harzer conceived of a design for converting containers into a residential apartment building in 2010.

West Melbourne Residential Tower

A 14-story apartment building made entirely out of freight containers will be constructed in Australia. By Phooey Architects

Hoorn Bridge

This precarious-looking sculpture by t.o.p. office in Hoorn, the Netherlands, is sturdier than it looks. It’s a fully functioning foot bridge. (We still wouldn’t want to be the guy in the canoe.)

Unit 1

Ingenhoven Architects’s concept for a mobile emergency village.

Unit 1

Models of two dozen container buildings were recreated for the exhibit. Here, a replica of a Dutch exhibition pavilion originally designed by t.o.p. office in 2002.

Mobile Exhibition Hall

Peter Kogler designed the exterior.

Self Contained

A sculpture, by Sweden’s Michael Johansson

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Nine Wacky Examples Of Container Architecture

Architects think inside the box at an expansive new exhibit in Düsseldorf.

Turn a corner nowadays, and you'll find a building made out of shipping containers. So it was probably inevitable that architects would take this symbol of a "globalized, mobile, nomadic age," to quote German curator Werner Lippert, to extreme places: to the frosty shores of Antarctica, to high-rise rooftops in Melbourne, to the seven seas as a "container ship hotel," and to Hoorn, The Netherlands, where two shipping containers meet at a corner smack dab in the middle of a canal, forming a bridge that's perched so precariously, it looks like it could collapse if you breathed on it.

These freight hacks — and many more, both quotidian and far-fetched — make up the expansive exhibit Container Architecture on view at NRW-Forum Düsseldorf in Germany through September 4. The show gathers images of more than 100 examples of reconditioned shipping containers, some real, some conceptual, and includes two dozen models constructed on a 1:5 scale (one of which actually breaks through the ceiling of the museum).

Shipping containers represent the best instincts of globalization.

The show argues that for architects, shipping containers represent the best instincts of globalization. They're cheap, strong, standardized, stackable, and available anywhere in the world. They're "the pictogram for a new, urban way of life," the press release says, and '...an object of modern architecture.' The release quotes architecture critic and urban planner Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm describing containers as "the building type of the near future" and ethnologist Hartmut Böhme calling them a "fetish of the modern age."

The exhibit certainly makes a compelling case for the latter. We see shipping containers as emergency shelters, micro-houses, penthouses, mobile museums, shops, polar station shelters, bridges, and as ships themselves. We see shipping containers stacked into high rises, painted in polka dots, and adopting the camouflage of their surroundings, Predator style.

Whether shipping containers are in fact "the building type of the near future" or just a passing fancy — a sort of 21st century Airstream trailer — is a matter for the history books, not the exhibit at hand. (Frankly, it's hard to imagine the Levittowns of the world replacing their comfy Cape Cods with something that used to cart beef over the high seas.) What Container Architecture does best is demonstrate how incredibly creative architects, artists, and designers can get with just a plain-jane box of steel.

[Images courtesy of NRW-Forum Düsseldorf]

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