When I was a kid in the 1970s my father used to tell me that his job down by the docks near 39th Street and Third Avenue in Brooklyn was to run up and down the length of a conveyor belt all day with an oilcan. Then one day the conveyor belts and the job went away, thanks, he said, to containerization. Containerization is the use of steel boxes that can be filled with virtually any commodity and loaded from a vessel directly onto a truck or rail link. The major effect of containerization was the elimination of the need to unload ships crate by individual crate, and the permanent decline of New York City’s ports. Containerization also gutted the waterfront workforce. My father used to joke that the least they could have done was give us a free shipping container to live in.
Well, now I can live in one. Globalization has littered the world with 40-foot-long shipping containers, and used ones go for as little as a few thousand dollars. Many of them are refrigerated units, so they’re pre-insulated, and some also have snazzy teak floors. Does your apartment have a teak floor? No. If you live in the city, you probably don’t have a 40-foot-long apartment, either. A number of companies turn single shipping containers into narrow temporary homes or offices, but Adam Kalkin of the New Jersey-based Architecture and Hygiene has gone further. His new Quik House prefab homes are two-story, three-bedroom kits made from five shipping containers, and they sell for $76,000, not including land or assembly costs. For someone who grew up in the shadow of these containers, it’s both a dream and nightmare come true.
The containers represent “a very sort of romantic maritime detritus,” he says, and the Quik House will retain the corrugated steel exteriors and other elements of container chic. Kalkin knows the subtle mysteries of the container, but are there enough folks interested in the Quik House and other multiple-container homes to make them feasible? Kalkin has already built a pair of container residences in Vermont and Maine, but most of the folks ready and willing to go prefab don’t happen to have $76,000 in cash for the kit, ownership of an unimproved lot with utility hookups, and another $50,000 to pay a contractor to put the house together.
The Quik House prototype doesn’t have tenants yet. It was built in Newark with the cooperation of a container company, and made its public debut last month at Deitch Projects (18 Wooster Street) as part of the Suburban House Kit Show, which runs till March 27 (see Toni Schlesinger’s review on page 91). The press release says that “neither conventional notions of comfort nor specific usage is encoded in [Kalkin’s] materials or spaces. His buildings possess a layered interiority: found and reused structures create inner sanctums that recall childhood fortifications.” Try pitching that to a mortgage broker.
Living in a container is an artistic act with a dark side. After all, containers are “where all the people who try to stow away” are found, Kalkin explains, and sometimes they’re found dead. Since 9-11, the ports of the world are one WMD-filled cargo container away from total paralysis. (With no worldwide security system in place, ports and commercial traffic all over the world could shut down if even one shipping container secretly held nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.) Containers, even ones rigged together to form ultra-contemporary living spaces with lots of light, are “just as much about what’s inside as what they are.” And what’s inside a Quik House but you and all your accumulated former cargo? Plenty of people fill their living spaces with ironic tchotchkes, but who wants to live in a house that is also a postmodern comment? Especially one without exposed brick.
The Quik House must strike a balance. To be livable, it needs the elegance of a geodesic dome and the practicality of a prefab home. The challenge is to make sure the project doesn’t end up with the practicality of the dome and the elegance of a rusty hulk in a trailer park. Kalkin is confident that he can make the Quik House work not just as an architecturally and aesthetically overdetermined object, but as a business. He says he’s gotten attention from the usual crowd of “high-powered people”—not normally the sort interested in buying a home for one-eighth the price of a Brooklyn duplex condo—but also from mortgage companies, building contractors, and other more practical-minded sorts. And why wouldn’t they be interested? We’re already used to living in cubes, and there are plenty of cargo containers to go around.
Twenty-one thousand containers hit American shores every day of the year, and tens of thousands reach the waterfronts of other countries, with many more at sea on any given day. Containers can be shipped from Newark to Chicago without hitting even one traffic light on the way. Container homes don’t need to be limited to Soho galleries or the temporary office on a “real” construction site. They can be everywhere, maybe even all at once, the way seemingly identical Christmas decorations go up in every mall in the country the day after Halloween.
Shipping containers are Legos writ large, and what sharp kids can make of them the dull children just don’t get. It takes as much vision to see them stacked into a neighborhood without necessarily being the exclusive home to the underemployed or the local meth lab as it does to break the containers out of the shipping yard in the first place. “Some people could look at them and think they’re worth nothing . . . [or] they could think of [the Quik House] as a piece of art and worth 20 times as much,” Kalkin says, referencing the building kit’s five-figure price tag. Or shipping container homes can become just another housing choice for the city or suburbs, fitting into the average downtown block in a way that a brace of log cabins, an adobe condo, or an underground sod house could never manage.
Cargo-container homes don’t work against the cycles of distribution and waste that mark late capitalism. Neither sheer moral pressure (“Live simply in this yurt so that others may live well in their condos”) nor technocratic insistence (“OK, this dome will be mathematically perfect”) has managed to convince America’s mayors to raze their cities and just start over from scratch for the benefit of either real estate developers or eggheaded visionaries. Container homes, on the other hand, complement the inevitable booms and busts of globalization; they’re a creative construction made from the leavings of Schumpeterian creative destruction.
The future is easy to picture. Pass over the Manhattan Bridge, peer over the edge at what’s left of Brooklyn’s active waterfront, and you can see it. Shipping containers, stacked and laid down long rows, already looking like the skyline of a small riverside hamlet. You can’t get down there, but I did. The International Longshoremen’s Association used to have a clinic in Red Hook, and my father had a job as a crane mechanic at the nearby Red Hook Container Terminal. After dentist or optometrist appointments, there wasn’t anything else to do but wait around the crane shop or walk down the imaginary streets of Container City until he got off work and took me home. The funny part is that the Port Authority is looking into ending shipping (and the local jobs) and transforming the terminal into . . . wait for it . . . waterfront housing.
Nick Mamatas is the author of the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground, out next month from Night Shade Books.