Thursday, March 19, 2015

Little Boxes Stacked Neatly in Piles

Mission Rock, San Francisco
If there is one thing the world is not short of these days is shipping containers. I even wrote a thriller about them a few years back. They are the most ubiquitous “thing” of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Originally it was an idea of Malcom McLean to use standardized boxes to carry goods from one port to another (first ship was his Ideal X) 

The idea wasn’t exactly new but it was McLean and his personal drive that made it change the world. Everything that has to deal with international cargo changed that day—April 26, 1956—when the Ideal X sailed from New York to Houston, everything. Ship designs grew to incredible sizes and demands. Whole railroad systems were redesigned to handle the containers (they would be stacked higher if existing railroad tunnels were taller). Los Angeles built a below grade railroad “river” from Long Beach out of the LA basin. Freeways are now being widened to handle the influx at ports and at gateways around port cities (Altamont Pass in eastern SF/Oakland Bay Area). Shipping channels are dug deeper every ten years to accommodate these massive ships. Even the Panama Canal is being widened to allow for better east-west trade by the bigger ships (with very significant changes to international trade as a result). There are 5-6 millions of these boxes moving around the world at any one time (probably more). As many as 10,000 fall in to the oceans every year (yes, the rumors of running shoes on the beaches of Oregon are true).

So, what about architecture? These boxes are designed to be stacked up to 12 high on board a container ship (with appropriate rail supports), on land they are usually maxed out a 7 boxes high. These boxes normally come in three basic sizes, but the variations seem to be endless. The basic unit is 8-foot wide by 8’-6” high and 20 feet long. They can also be 40 feet long and 56 feet long (and a world of other sizes as well). They are steel frames with corrugated panel sides. They are dry, refrigerated, some air tight and sealed, others barely hold themselves together after few years of use. Guesses are there are maybe 17 million plus around the world on ships, rails, stacked in piles, and in backyards. Who would have thought of all this in 1956?

Now back to architecture. Wikipedia lists at least 40 things you can do with these structures, everything from housing foundations to Starbucks stores.   Their use is only limited by imagination—even cost of rehab is not an issue. Remember, we are saving the planet. Back in the 1960s Moshe Safdie designed his famous Habitat 67 in Montreal; while that was all precast bocks of concrete, one can easily see the transition to shipping containers. 
Habitat 67 - Montreal
The latest idea is what the San Francisco Giants are doing in the Mission Rock area of the city – a pop-up shipping container village with restaurants, bars, and shops in one of the city’s most exciting revitalized neighborhoods. And it is also directly across McCovy Cove from AT&T Ballpark (the home to our World Series champs). It is also an opportunity to tune up the city for the Giants long-term development project on this same piece of land.

Last week I wrote about shopping malls, here is an example of a temporary mall built after the tragic Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake in 2011.
Christchurch, New Zealand
Temporary Mall, Christchurch, New Zealand
This is not the first nor will it be the last container town. I imagine in some third world cities there are whole villages of these boxes. Even refugee camps (this one in Turkey for Syrians). 
Konteynir Refugee Camp, Turkey
They are trying to survive; we are just trying to be chic.

Stay tuned . . . . . . . .

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