'A Fetish of the Modern Age' Container Art Examines Life in a Globalized World

In the age of globalization, the health of the world's economy can often be seen in the state of its shipping containers. Empty ships and beat-up old containers can be a bleak symbol of tough economic times. However, a new exhibit in Düsseldorf proves that an empty container can also offer exciting possibilities.


The shipping container may be pushing 60 but it's a long way off retirement. First used in the 1950s as a method of standardizing shipping, containers remain a hugely popular means of transporting goods around the globe. A fully loaded container ship indicates manufacturing, export and economic health, whereas an empty ship can signify a downturn.

But the big Lego-like boxes are no longer limited to sea ports: They have also made their way onto dry land where architects have adapted them for a variety of uses, from high-rise apartment blocks in Melbourne to designer penthouse additions in Manhattan.

A new exhibit in Düsseldorf, Germany, is honoring the significance of the shipping container in all its diverse uses, from seaborne storage to stationary exhibition space. For its exhibit on multipurpose container architecture, the NRW-Forum Düsseldorf invited designers, artists and architects from around the world to send in designs. More than 100 submissions duly arrived, 24 of which were reconstructed on a 1:5 scale. The result is the Container Architecture exhibit, which highlights the creative potential of the container and its unique ability to serve eclectic contemporary lifestyles.

A Sea-Faring Store

"Containers are a symbol of the way we live and dwell in our globalized, mobile, nomadic age," says exhibition organizer Werner Lippert. An urban nomad can cruise the world on a "container raft," as one group of artists demonstrated in their submission. Or a major brand can drum up publicity with a sea-faring store: One exhibit highlight is a reconstruction of Puma City, a traveling shop that has visited world ports from Boston to Alicante, Spain. The containers that make up the Puma City building are shipped to each port and the structure is then reassembled onsite.

Containers can travel but they can also stay put and become a stationary home, a fact increasingly embraced by modern architects. Another of the exhibit's eye-catching structures consists of a mini "highrise," a stack of containers that, even as a scale model, can't be contained in the exhibition space but "breaks through" the museum ceiling.

Student dormitories, apartment blocks, luxury condos, walk-in sculptures, bridges -- the ways in which containers have been put to use reveals the object's enormous versatility. Images of all the designs submitted to NRW-Forum Düsseldorf can be seen along the walls of the exhibit, which runs until September 4.

Once referred to the "fetish of the modern age" by urban planner Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm, the container seems fit for almost any purpose. In a time when economic woes have many countries worried, empty container ships can be a depressing image of lost productivity and profit. But the Düsseldorf exhibit leaves no doubt that, with some imaginative effort, an empty shipping container can be much more than a symbol of a struggling economy.

-- Alison Kilian


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