Conceptual Containers: Art and Edifice

Architecture has slowly but surely been creeping into the fine art context over the past decade. This summer alone there are three large scale exhibitions devoted to the art of architecture and its utopian ideals at major American museums: Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe at the Whitney Museum in New York; Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling at the MoMA, also in New York; and Between Heaven and Earth: The Architecture of John Lautner at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. As all of the exhibition titles suggest, our contemporary re-evaluation of architecture represents a broader inquiry into how the design of social and domestic spaces reflect a cultural zeitgeist.

Adam Kalkin, one of the architects featured in the MoMA’s critically acclaimed exhibition, is a Vassar and London Architectural Association School of Architecture alum who designs functional and conceptual dwellings. His Quik House, a 2,000 square foot three bedroom home comprised of five shipping containers, mines the intersection of idyllic suburban America and the failure of American trade policies. Years after Levitttowns were introduced, Kalkin has taken modular pre-fab living and made it hip. His housing kit is as playful as it is efficient. When a client orders one they are offered a checklist of add-ons to customize their new home. One of the cheekiest is a dinner cooked by the architect in for $1,000 to christen the new space.

Shipping containers are appealing as housing because they are sturdy, simply constructed, inexpensive and portable. Scores of containers enter US ports each day and far fewer leave full. Ports have the option “dead heading” the surplus crates (sending them back empty) or selling them. Living in a shipping container isn’t only green, it’s concept-core. Kalkin is one of many experimental architects and designers working with containers. Lot-EK, creator of the Modular Dwelling Unit and the CHK loft houses, is a pioneer of the form. Container City I and II, completed in 2001 and 2002 respectively, are multi-unit live work spaces in London.

Despite his acclaim in cutting edge architectural circles, Kalkin does not consider himself part of the shipping container/pre-fab movement. “I’m not into the container per se,” Kalkin told the New York Times, “It’s what I can do with it emotionally; transforming a commodity into poetry.” Kalkin approaches the shipping container as a theatrical space and notes that their imposing structure instill a feeling of “otherness” in their beholders.

Kalkin’s design appeals to a traditional visual arts audience as much as cutting edge architecture junkies. Deitch Projects, featured his work in their 2004 exhibition Suburban House Kit. Kalkin’s Push Button House, a shipping container construction with hydraulic components that blooms like a flower, was exhibited at Art Basel, a prestigious international art fair, in 2005.

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