It’s become a mark of hipster modernity everywhere from Amsterdam to Beijing. It’s also utterly ill-suited for human life.
Today’s containers, for the politically woke architect, indicate, among other things, a skeptical attitude toward capital. An important source here is the fascinating book and exhibition “Fish Story” by the American artist Allan Sekula, an exploration through photographs of the power of global capital, in which the shipping container is perhaps the key image. To invoke the shipping container here is to somehow reveal the truth about capital: it’s tough and unforgiving, and to use its imagery is to say that you get it.
But too often, invoking the container ends up just reiterating that brutality. To see what I mean, take a trip to what is probably the world capital of repurposed containers — Amsterdam. A 20-minute ferry ride on the IJ river, downstream from Central Station, takes you to the derelict shipyard of the former Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij, where there is an entire city of repurposed containers serving as bars, clubs, work spaces, any number of artists’ studios. It’s a dystopia, though it can be a sublime one, and half a dozen beers into your evening it is great fun. But then you’re forced to imagine it as home: There’s a student housing complex here made of stacked containers, so unremittingly bleak in its aspect that it makes you wonder whether the architects had humans in mind.
Or live humans anyway. Everyone remembers the episode in Season 2 of “The Wire” when Beadie Russell, a Port Authority police officer, discovers 13 female corpses in the Baltimore docklands. Perhaps the series’ most horrifying image, it makes the shipping container a literal tomb, showing up one of their key limitations: no air. It wasn’t artistic license on the part of the creators of “The Wire” either.