Off into the box
Magazine Contact #20
On the left-hand side of the road, somewhere on the outskirts of Melbourne, where things look just the same as in any suburb in the world, where human living space gives way to filling stations, car dealerships and burger cartons, it suddenly emerges before you as if from nowhere. From a distance, the dark, almost black, one-storey office building looks like a work of modern art, perhaps by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The angular conglomeration is slightly reminiscent of a reduced version of the National Gallery in Berlin. “It’s incredible what can be made out of this material,” says Aaron Roberts, Project Manager at Room 11 Architects, who accompanied the creation of the unusual structure until it was ready for occupation with the last twist lock door handle. “To be honest, I felt as if the design process had catapulted me back competition organised by Royal Wolf. He refers in extravagant terms that are a joy to hear to the theory of the French revolutionary architecture movement, the so-called “architecture parlante”. “We wanted to present the company in as practically relevant and authentic manner as possible. I think that was the determining factor in the client’s decision in our favour.” The building’s restrained elegance, according to Roberts, was a conscious decision. Every Australian knows the blue containers with the yellow wolf-head logo, and on the roads this brash image that turns up again and again in the landscape is absolutely legitimate. “But as soon as something mobile gets slower, comes to a standstill and finally mutates into a building, it needs to have a somewhat more sedate, somewhat more discreet, appearance. That is precisely what we have done.”
Although the containers have already clocked up zillions of miles by land and sea, they scarcely show their history. A total of ten 20-foot and four 40-foot used overseas containers were used here. To guard against the sometimes hot climate in the south of Australia, the containers were upgraded by the addition of an interior veneer and a 15-centimetre thick thermal insulation in between. The soft, attractive cork flooring and the edged surface of the steel skin of the walls and ceilings ensure the necessary acoustics in the interior spaces.
“You can’t just heave a container one-to-one from a freighter, place it on the plot of land and immediately put a few desks in it,” the architect explains. “But even if you take into account the addition of warmth insulation, the acoustic measures, the installation of windows and the finishing of the interior surfaces, such a building can still be erected quite a bit more quickly and cheaply than a comparable project constructed by traditional means.” The construction cost 900,000 Australian dollars, some 650,000 euros. “And where is there another architectural project in which the individual building blocks are connected by means of twist locks? Zip, zap, there’s something to be said for that!”
But Aaron Roberts’ primary concern is the frequent misuse of the terms “sustainability” and “recycling”. “It would be ecological madness to construct a building like this from new, unused containers, as enormous quantities of embodied energy would already have been expended by the time the raw material steel has been brought into this shape. In this case, however, we are drawing on elements which would otherwise land on the scrap heap or in the container cemetery.” According to Roberts, so long as people send goods over the oceans, so long as there are containers and haulage companies in this world, container architecture will make a valuable contribution to saving resources and conserving the environment.