The Emergence of Container Urbanism

A timely essay by  MITCHELL SCHWARZER in Places  on the history of container architecture and urbanism – In South Africa various uses have been made using the ubiquitous shipping container – emblem of the consumer society to shape something different – however they still cost more the what eh local populations of the South can afford so shack-land is unlikely to give way to container-land – but heir use as Spaza shops etc is common in South African shanty towns


Top: Envelope A+D, Proxy, San Francisco. [Photo by Envelope A+D] Bottom four: Proxy tenants facing Linden Alley. [Photo by Trevor Dykstra] Smitten Ice Cream. [Photo by Christopher Bowns] Ritual Coffee. [Photo by Trevor Dykstra] “Off the Grid” food carts. [Photo by Niall Kennedy]
In San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, the traffic on Octavia Boulevard almost smacks into a small park before being routed west onto Fell Street. In 2005, the tree-lined, four-block-long boulevard opened as a replacement for the double-decker Central Freeway, mortally wounded by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake; the freeway was a remnant of the San Francisco Trafficways Plan (1948, 1951, 1955), a proposal by transportation planners to ram numerous limited-access highways through the dense 49-square-mile city. Although a citizen-led protest — the Freeway Revolt, begun in 1959 — halted most of the offending expressways, the Central Freeway had just blasted its way a mile or so through this section of the city, in the Western Addition neighborhood, leading to the mass demolition of older buildings. [1] But nowadays, instead of gusting above the neighborhood, vehicles inch along the surface, and contend with narrowed lanes, traffic lights and forced turns. And, since 2010, they may spy a curious new development. On two short blocks north of Fell Street, land where the freeway once ran, an architectural counterpart to the boulevard’s recalibration of transportation infrastructure has risen.
Proxy, designed and developed by Douglas Burnham’s firm, Envelope A+D, repurposes about a dozen shipping containers to house a smaller number of outdoor businesses. With openings selectively punched into their sides, canopies sprouting from the furrows and ridges of their corrugated steel surfaces, and ornaments organically growing as handles, latches and locking bars, the eight-by-twenty-foot containers host a clothing boutique, beer garden, espresso café, ice-cream parlor and bicycle rental business, as well as cooking, cleaning and storage facilities and set of restrooms. Facing each other or juxtaposed at right angles, the boxes carve intimate outdoor spaces that appear as handcrafted as the products sold by Proxy’s businesses. Painted battleship gray, they also evoke the warships that once followed the sea-lanes of the Pacific from their harbor in San Francisco. That’s ironic, because the very idea of container urbanism would seem to be counterposed against monuments of any sort, whether military-industrial or architectural. In Burnham’s words, Proxy has aimed at a “volumetric ghosting of what a real building would be.” [2]

Along with the park and its revolving art exhibits (many from the Burning Man Festival), along with the gentrified storefronts and renovated and surrogate Victorians, Proxy seems at first glance guided by the pastiche urbanism associated with postmodernity. More than elsewhere in the city, the area around it feels layered with time. The mix of locals and tourists, the foreign languages wafting across the playground and beer garden, reinforce this cosmopolitan dimension. More to the point, a thick sense of urbanity emerges fromProxy’s staging of activities in liminal zones: amid transport boxes initially manufactured to move goods and now reworked to sell them; astride the intimacy of a residential neighborhood and the circuitry of metropolitan transportation. At Proxy, people swill beer and munch pretzels and pickles atop cracked macadam only steps from an anxious stream of cars and trucks. Akin to the parts of old-world cities rebuilt over pre-modern walls or modern bombing campaigns, Proxy builds atop San Francisco’s former traumas; a row of pollarded fruit trees grows up the blank side walls of an apartment exposed half a century ago by the elevated freeway; the shipping containers themselves both recall the city’s illustrious history as a port and alert us to the innovation that led to the cargo port’s demise.

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About Urban Choreography

Landscape Architect specializing in the experience design of Retail, Leisure, Urban , Landscape Environments Currently researching for a PhD registered at Urban Observatory, University of Cape Town in Integral Urban Dynamics and City Modeling
This entry was posted in Architecture, Events & Gatherings, Landscape & Urban Reaserch, Participation & Engagement, Retail, Urban Design, Urban Facilities Management and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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