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This image, captured from digital video footage taken in the year 2015, displays a specimen of what was at the time referred to as "cargotecture"—buildings made from decommissioned shipping containers. Recent expeditions to earth have confirmed that around the turn of the 21st century shipping containers, previously used to transport cargo around the planet, began to be widely mobilized for the production of these architectural forms.
Earlier, in the second half of the 20th century, "containerization" had been crucial to the intensification of international trade and to the "globalized" imaginations and distributions of space-time which accompanied it. Crucially containers produced a sense of mastery over what was at the time called "nature." Designed to be "intermodal" containers could be loaded onto multiple forms of transport to traverse land and sea creating a mobility across space-time that was felt to be seamless.
These new "cargotecture" specimens suggest that containers played an important role in the production of 21st century spatiotemporal imaginaries too. That these objects, still emblematic of the global mobility attained by humans in the 20th century, became so prevalent in the built environment in the early 2000s gives an important insight into how humans imagined their settlements during the Anthropocene. In particular, it illuminates tensions between related imaginaries of flexibility and insecurity in this era.
At the time cargotectures were celebrated as early indications of a utopic future. The cargotecture pictured here, for example, was located in a place named "Paradise Yard" (London, England). The promise of cargotectures lay in their modular design and resultant spatiotemporal flexibility. At a time of global recession containers could be swiftly deployed to make use of "wasted" urban spaces where investment was absent or delayed. However, they could also be easily moved on again if circumstances changed, for example once a more profitable investment in a site was found.
Cargotectures were also the perfect infrastructural counterpart to the "flexible" forms of labor which characterized the period and were often used as studio and office spaces. Workers like the upholsterer who occupied the unit pictured were typically self-employed, so their labor could be solicited on a job-by-job basis. Correspondingly the popularity of container architectures stemmed from the fact that they could be easily installed but just as easily discarded when no longer deemed desirable or profitable.
One way of understanding this movement, and certainly the dominant narrative at the time, is that this was a breakthrough in human infrastructural design. It was believed to enable more efficient organizations of human settlements, both spatiotemporally and financially.
However, conversely, container architectures could indicate that the 20th century sense of mastery was giving way. What seems to follow, is a renewed awareness of the insurmountablity of the various catastrophes which humans faced, both "natural" and otherwise.
In fact there is significant evidence that cargotectures were actually primarily designed for crisis conditions. In 2011 they were used to recreate the center of Christchurch in New Zealand after it was destroyed by an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. Likewise, in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane known as "Hurricane Sandy," architects in New York drew up designs for shipping container houses which could be deployed in future disaster situations.
Containers were also used to respond to crises of welfare provision. In Brighton, England, stacked containers were used to literally contain those at the time referred to as "the homeless." Meanwhile, in Denmark, containers were deployed to store people ‘with a history of mental illness’ on the outskirts of the city of Amsterdam. Here cargotectures, far from utopic, seem to have been used to shut away evidence of infrastructural failures in societies at the time.
In these contexts the celebration of cargotectures does not seem to demonstrate humans’ efficiency and agility during the Anthropocene. Rather, it reveals a defiant attempt to glamorize what was, in reality, a growing realisation of their precarity on earth and the inability of their systems to combat that precarity. Cargotectures were a second-rate replacement for the reliable and durable infrastructures that the population of Earth had once aspired to. Perhaps it is fitting that shipping containers were taken up as architectural forms. Built to withstand treacherous conditions during transoceanic trade, containers were an appropriate infrastructure in which to ride the waves of ongoing climatic, geophysical, political and socio-economic emergencies in human society.