The standard shipping container spans 20 feet or, in metric terms, almost 6m x 2,5m x 2,5m. Brutally honest and functional, it might not win any beauty contests, but then again that is not its prime task. Practical concerns determine the standard container’s design – and also make it what it is: an eminently usable box. Always on the look-out for novel perspectives, Kate Hofman of GrowUp decided to take a peek behind the utilitarian façade of the ubiquitous shipping container. Together with her partner Tom she identified the contraption’s broader potential and decided to set up shop, and a farm, right in the heart of London within the confines of a compact container. “The idea behind the container was to create a farm that could go anywhere and demonstrate how much food you could grow in such a small space,“ Kate explains, moving on to show how an ordinary shipping container can serve as a fish farm nursery and – on a second level – even a full-blown hothouse. Situated in the center of town, the experiment even moonlights as a bistro and experience lab occasionally, dishing up freshly harvested delicacies from the container’s compressed farming scheme. When managed just right, the set-up can yield up to 100 kg of fish and 400 kg of lettuce a year. But why did GrowUp decide to use a container for their agricultural experiments? “We liked the challenge of working with the container and people do love their industrial form,“ Kate adds. “The container isn’t 100% necessary for the growing side of things, but it means that you can take any location and turn it into a food growing space.“ So, mobility enters the equation – a must in today’s society.

Most of us love urban life and its cosmopolitan amenities. At the same time, and as part of a generation that has coined terms like urban gardening, farmers’ market or rooftop gardening, we also flirt with country living and ecological concerns, seeking out all that is fresh, green and low impact. And why not? Driven by this need and spirit, projects like the new – and still growing – container-based student village EBA51 in the Berlin district of Treptow enjoy rising popularity. Spread out over 11,000 square meters, and starting this winter, 311 repurposed shipping containers will offer students accommodation in 1-, 2-, and 3-room apartments. “The containers are fully functional, just like conventional living spaces. At the same time, their architecture is unique and reveals a lot of potential,” states Jana Schuh of EBA51. “While the containers follow a standard apartment blueprint with their own kitchen and bathroom, there are also several communal spaces and facilities on site.” Rents will not exceed local averages and offer students a 349 euro “all-inclusive package” with heating, power, waste disposal and high-speed internet in the mix to compete with the going rates of dorm rooms or shared houses. At the same time, the project also encompasses the site’s surroundings because green thinking has become “a civic duty” (Jana). The entire container city is planned and constructed according to holistic and environmental standards to offer plenty of plants, nature, and fresh air within the urban landscape.

Those who prefer a shorter stay or lease, are no longer students and maybe even Belgium-bound should definitely check out Antwerp’s stunning Sleeping Around container hotel. Just the right mix of pragmatic concept and luxurious trimmings, the compact “pop-up” structure takes the temporary spiel to the extreme and asks you to take its name literally: To find the “room,” overnight guests need to wait for smartphone or e-mail instructions and then power up their GPS to discover the mobile hotel’s current location. A trend that will soon cross city boundaries thanks to the three business partners behind the scheme. In order to spread the word and excitement, Geoffrey Stampaert, Didier Opdebeeck, and Ellen Wezenbeek plan to drop their “flying hotel” in different spots across the planet – and they welcome location suggestions as well as sponsors willing to ship this compact capsule to our next dream destination. Let’s be honest: Who among us wouldn’t want to wake up on top of Sugarloaf Mountain or within sight of the Eiffel Tower, but tucked away safely in our own box?

Pursuing a more subtle and pragmatic approach, the art world has discovered the display qualities of these versatile containers. Platoon Kunsthalle, for example, who champion art in Berlin and Seoul, have stacked up a bunch of shipping containers to house their own galleries and HQs – and give their art an unassuming, non-statement framework that does not distract from the work on display and underscores to the founders’ avowed credo: Platoon does not entertain. Platoon communicates. In this angular, pared-down environment Platoon’s exhibitions, film nights, concerts, multimedia performances, workshops, forums and other events truly come into their own – without any added distractions.

Versatile to the max, the infatuation with containers is bound to continue with new ideas that make the most out of this compact and utilitarian template – or with implementations that transcend pragmatic projects by highlighting the box’s inherent beauty. After all, many designers find themselves drawn to the stark geometry and Lego-like appeal of container-based architecture. From Tetris dream to real-life application, these building blocks are well-suited to varied and wild juxtapositions, from same-level extensions to precarious, towering constructions that reach new heights by levelling up. So, beyond their novel or conscious appeal, these shipping containers are a timely design and architecture challenge, potentially profitable and a boon to city planners in sprawling metropolises faced with an acute lack of space. Let’s see what the future brings!

Text: Agi Habryka
Header image by Holzer Kobler Architekturen