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The arty side of ugly shipping containers can justify any use

It was the corrosively optimistic Reyner Banham who once said: 'Architecture is only a cultural answer to the problem of enclosure.' By that he meant there could well be many other answers, as indeed there have been. There have been caves and tree houses, system-built flats, straw bale walls, rammed earth, rubber tyres, tins and bottles, oil drums and even design and build, all uncultured answers to the problem of enclosure.

Earlier this month another solution surfaced in the unlikely environs of Trinity Buoy Wharf in London's Docklands, where Nicholas Lacey, long-ago architect of the transplanted Sarawak village of Heron Quays at Canary Wharf, has taken a stack of long shipping containers and cut circular Japanese-style portholes in them (AJ 8.2.01). Next he will weld it all together, add rough, tough balconies and a coarse brick staircase tower, to make not prison cells (as in Vietnam), nor even underpass homes for ex-convict taxi drivers (as in Taiwan), but studios for UK artists with a taste for gritty social realism and rust.

Now all things, as the proverbs have it, come in threes and are world famous for 15 minutes - buses, burglaries and botox for example - and containers are no exception. Only a week or so ago another shipping container burst into the news when it smashed the starboard dagger board of the racing yacht Kingfisher in the North Atlantic. Before that containers were still there in the background. If you go back a few years you will find they have been put forward as Existenz Minimum dwellings; used as rudimentary hotel rooms for oil men; and proposed as Brutalist student housing. It would not be surprising if they were to turn up as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.

They are after all practically indestructible, so much so that their only other traceable claims to fame are that stacks of them can fall over and crush a few cars, and that seaside and farmyard enterprises headquartered in them have, from time to time, been closed down by local councils because they were 'eyesores'.

Now the term 'eyesore', as is widely known, is used exclusively by philistines - the kind of people who enjoy enforcing regulations. That is why the great advantage that Lacey's Container City has over all the other potential uses for old containers is that 'art' is in there from the word go. Losing containers overboard from a container ship in mid-ocean is a risky game - you might hit a famous racing yacht and be in the papers next day, you might not. But welding up picturesquely patinated and oxidised used containers for artists to work in is a stroke of genius. It is obvious that stacked containers in raking winter sunlight are artistic. The pictures are there to prove it. As long as they are not painted up to look like giant washing machines it is obvious that only artists will ever want to rent them and never want to stay the night in them. Staying the night in a refurbished container must be like spending a night in the slammer. It is probably written into the tenancy agreement as well.

As for the process of assembly, there will be some minor differences in dimensions of course, as people found out years ago when they tried to weld together the rims of 55-gallon steel oil drums to make columns for a giant portico. But as far as art is concerned tolerances will be of no consequence; shims and a blow torch will make good all distortions. With art in your title and 'garret' in your mind you will enjoy the hollow clanging, the rusty water, the condensation, the creaking and the leaking window gaskets.

Shipping containers. Your time has come!

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