Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ship it to Georgetown

I've been reading about the trade balance between nations and how this affects foreign currency reserves, domestic currency valuation, and ultimately power, security, employment, influence and distribution of wealth across the globe. Because, you know, I think this shit affects us in our actual lives and the things we actually do, by defining the limits within which we make choices. Ever since the 70's when we stopped making things here in the US and both parties begun pushing a neo-liberal, free trade agenda, we've been running a trade deficit, which means, we import more stuff than we export. Way, way more, at this point. And you know how that stuff gets here? In giant metal boxes. When you snoop around behind any grocery store in the country, what can you reliably find? A stack of pallets and a stack of milk crates to take home and use for fire wood or furniture. Well, when you snoop around in any port town, you find enormous stacks of steel shipping containers.

On the secondary market, you can pick these babies up for $500-$2500 - cheap for an easily adaptable, structurally impregnable building block. Around the country, astute folks have been noticing this exciting new waste product of the global economy and finding ways to do awesome and useful things with them. You can find a million examples with a Google search, so I'm just going to show one here.

This a building in Georgetown that got some local attention for being "the largest cargo container project on the West Coast." More preciously, it's a pair of buildings on a shared lot, one of which is occupied by an interior design firm. Hybrid Architecture designed the project, which they describe as "cargotecture".

Some of the details are pretty nice. The shipping containers are used very much as what they are, without apology. I like the use of round porthole windows and the dents to reference their nautical past.

Some of the elevations are a little stark, though, especially around back, and the climbing vine that seems to not have fulfilled its obligation on this trellis would certainly be nice to soften the sheer walls and provide a little contrast.

It's really a very very simple design. Two boxes, offset, with an S-curve circulation path through the lot, encouraging interaction between the two buildings, creating common, modified, open courtyard spaces, and allowing each building to have its distinct identity and function while, clearly, existing as one unit.

For one of the assignments in the summer architecture program I took at UW, we had to design 2 live/work spaces for an artist and an artisan on a long, narrow city infill lot with party walls. This layout is exactly what I came up with. That was having zero experience with architecture, barely having even given much thought to the field. I may be wrong, not having studied this yet, but I suspect it's fairly intuitive and not particularly complicated - beyond all the codes and details you have to know. I think the architecture-as-art aspect is going to be the focus of a formal education, but I can also see that there are a whole lot of buildings being built, that are decent, nice and successful, that aren't meticulously executed, that don't carry through a central concept informing their every decision down to the most minute detail.

If the light switch cover doesn't fit with your concept, you should design your own. I anticipate this will be the academic approach to architecture, and I think it will be good for me to experience that, and have to dwell in the conceptual phase, and be able to defend my design decision in reference to something other than feelings, impressions, or practicality, but it will probably also be the most challenging part of grad school for me. I certainly resisted it all the way through that summer class.

This shipping container building is nice, simple and well done. We should be building everything out of these things. A. Given our inept fiscal governance, they're a readily available waste product, B. They're cheaper, stronger, easier to prefabricate and ship, and require less labor to put up than a conventional stick building, and C. They're a no-brainer to recycle 20 or 30 or 50 years from now when someone tears that building down.

I think we need to move away from wood frame construction in residential buildings and start using lighter, stronger, recyclable steel wall framing. Or just shipping containers. The exciting challenge with using shipping containers would be to not allow yourself to be limited by the form and build something that doesn't look like you just craned a pile of boxes over from the port and cut a door in the front. It seems like we're pretty much willing to put up with any awful, impersonal structure in our work buildings, but maintain very traditional aesthetics for our homes. There would have to be a certain openness to using metal in the home, accepting its colder, somewhat industrial nature, and in finding ways to create great spaces with shipping containers that people feel comfortable in, sitting on the couch in their tighty-whities watching Cops. Who knows what the future will hold? It could happen.

* * *

The most interesting thing about this elegant, storied building is its immediate context, which, if you know Georgetown, well, it's Georgetown. Here's the neighbor to the north, 20 feet across the alley:

There's something about this obvious tension that I love. You almost feel embarrassed, although I couldn't say for whom.

1 comment:

jumpfightgo said...

Nice. I really enjoyed seeing this in person. I also really agree with your interest in the challenge of using materials that provide constraints to push against, definitely a good artistic process. has some interesting designs. I couldn't find a picture of this but there's also a hotel in europe where the rooms are made from septic tanks. the bathroom is shared but each room is an independent sleeping quarters near a park. my grandfather also had a raised garden in a septic tank.

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