Today, I was picking up a specialty paper order at a warehouse on Ashland Avenue, a little ways south of the very large and very ugly Rush University Medical Center. The warehouse was sandwiched between two railroad tracks. As it happened, each was full up with a stopped train. I had to wait awhile while they found and cut the paper, so I stood in the door of the warehouse, out of the rain, and contemplated shipping containers for awhile.

Containers stuck on the tracks today.
I have long been fascinated with containers, for much the same reason I've long loved road signs -- they are mass-produced and uniform, but separate and unique, bearing the marks of their lives on trucks, trains, and boats.  Each has a graphic identity, a bold color scheme, and a patina of grime, grease, and graffiti.  They are beautiful, minimalist sculptures on their own, but attain real visual power when massed.  

These containers are extended to 53', from a standard 40'.

I was also thinking a lot about containers this week after reading that their inventor, Keith Tantlingerdied this week at age 92.  He revolutionized shipping, and, in the process, enabled the cheap global transit that has created a cascade of unintended consequences.  He dragged shipping out of the dark ages -- where each item was loaded by hand, in crates and bags -- and into the modern era.  One such unintended consequence is the container imbalance between us and China -- itself a side effect of our trade deficit -- which makes it cheaper to make a new container in Asia then to ship empty ones back.  Our docks fill up with surplus containers, which drives container prices down.  A vast supply of cheap, mobile boxes has led to a flourishing of container architecture, pioneered by readymade superheroes Lo-Tek.  I've even taken crack at it myself, in a flight of fancy.  I mean, let's be honest with ourselves and each other: architects love a grid, they love a matrix even more, and hell, throw in a couple platonic solids and you've got a real party going on . . .

Baby container house.

However, do the means justify the ends?  Just because containers are cheap, easy to transport, and have a "green" veneer, does that mean they make good architecture?  The container backlash started some time ago, and it continues to gather steam.  Besides being somewhat architecturally unimaginative, containers have a thin steel skin that is a thermal nightmare.  In cross-section, most only measure 8' x 8', so once you cram any reasonable amount of insulation in the walls, the finished space is tough to stand up in.  You end up having to build a box-within-a-box (so postmodern!) in order to insulate, run wiring and plumbing, and de-corrugate the walls.  I think Gregory Kloehn, however, may have solved the container-house equation with this gem.

Here we return to the means conversation that I started the other day.  I often think that this "sustainability" business has gotten hijacked by folks that are wrapped up in the idea of sustainability more than actual action.  A Prius is an elaborate way of driving less.  A container house is an elaborate way of making a container even less useful.  A fleece jacket made from recycled water bottles is an elaborate way of just drinking some tapwater already.  There are lots of ways to recycle; this blog is mainly about re-use, which I posit is more energy-efficient than shipping your trash to a plant, cleaning it, melting it down, making it into something else, and shipping it back out to consumers.  

That said, a few other things I've been reading/ranting about this week: