Buildings Made Out of Shipping Containers? Welcome to the Future of Upcycled Architecture

The following is an excerpt from LOT-EK: Objects + Operations, by Ada Tolla, Giuseppe Lignano and Thomas de Monchaux, published by The Monacelli Press, 2017. LOT-EK is an architectural design studio founded in 1993 and based in New York and Naples, Italy.


LOT-EK is a design practice that believes in being unoriginal, ugly, and cheap. Also in being revolutionary, gorgeous, and completely luxurious. LOT-EK believes that these conditions are not contradictions, but are in fact mutually dependent, and that it is necessary to question and dissolve these categories in order to develop a contemporary understanding of what it means for buildings to be efficient and effective, ecological and economical. LOT-EK’s research and design work tries to address the way that architecture deploys resources, both natural and financial, to create meaningful places.

LOT-EK focuses on manufactured objects and systems—not originally intended for architectural use—and the way they proliferate, accumulate, overlap, and interfere with the built and the natural environment. Like a skillful butcher, who respects the precious complexity and subtlety of the animal he is dissecting, LOT-EK locates an economy and a sustainability in how it cuts and combines, to find a way to facilitate eating “the whole pig” from nose to tail. LOT-EK starts with observation.

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The Qiyun Mountain Camp is a 60-acre extreme sports and adventure park in China. Two clusters of containers cut at 45 degrees with direct views to the river on one side 
and the Qiyun Mountain on the other. Two angled containers—one per each cluster—bring visitors respectively to a private dining room in the sky and an observation point from which a zip line starts. (photo credit: Noah Sheldon)

LOT-EK observes how these manufactured objects exist and behave within their “natural habitat”: the way that they are stored, stocked, transported, placed, deployed, or occupied. LOT-EK applies operations to transform these objects through forceful actions that are as physical as they are conceptual, pushing the limits of basic assemblies into more challenging architectures. LOT-EK studies and uses the internal and inherent characteristics of these individual objects, but also studies and extends the surprising emergent conditions that are developed in assemblies of objects, from two to 2,000.

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Twenty-four shipping containers were retrofitted and transformed into Puma City, a transportable retail and event venue that travels around the world. The three-level container stack is shifted to create internal outdoor spaces, large overhangs, and terraces. (photo credit: Danny Bright)

Some objects that LOT-EK likes are: air-conditioners, airplanes, antennas, billboards, highways, jetways, and tunnels; boats, booths, boxes, coils, cranes, ducts, lifts, lights, scraps, shacks, sheds, strips, trucks; packaging, plumbing, scaffolding, shipping containers, and tanks. Some geometrical operations that LOT-EK likes are: stacking, layering, piling, pouring, stepping, arraying, repeating, revolving, rotating, cutting, recutting, angling, shifting, and translating. Some material operations that LOT-EK likes are: stacking, layering, piling, pouring, stepping, arraying, repeating, revolving, rotating, cutting, recutting, angling, shifting, and translating. Some conceptual operations that LOT-EK likes are: stacking, layering, piling, pouring, stepping, arraying, repeating, revolving, rotating, cutting, recutting, angling, shifting, and translating.

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The Uniqlo Pop-Up in New York City was constructed out of two 20-foot shipping containers. Traveling on a knuckle-boom truck, these containers function as pop-up stores fully equipped with shelving space, cash-wrap, and fitting room. (photo credit: Danny Bright)

LOT-EK’s approach to ecology and economy begins with technology. LOT-EK doesn’t promise some utopian future technology that will make everything effortless. LOT-EK doesn’t look for a false cleanliness, or hide the effort behind making, maintaining, and inhabiting the built environment. LOT-EK doesn’t position any architectural intervention as making a clean break between effort and comfort, past and future, site and program. Instead, LOT-EK looks for the leakages, slippages, attractions, and complicities between these states. LOT-EK likes its bicycles old but customized. LOT-EK begins by looking for the dirt everywhere: for the backstage objects, products, and artifacts that enable architecture to exist.

Through object-based operations of cutting, opening, skinning, flaying, unfolding, inverting, and shifting; and through additional strategies of multiplication, repetition, and variation of many combined objects, LOT-EK works to develop the latent potential of these structures for architectural applications, and translate the anonymous perfection of these artifacts into today’s private and public lives. Rather than recycle objects—reduced, through additional energy, to their constituent elemental materials—LOT-EK upcycles objects, retaining and extending their performative characteristics and bringing them into new and better lives.

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Van Alen Books was an architecture and design bookstore and public reading room located at the organization's headquarters in Manhattan. Inviting the public to linger and browse, the store featured a 14-foot-tall seating platform crafted from a stack of seventy recycled doors, which ascended to create an amphitheater overlooking 22nd Street through the glazed storefront. Sourced from Build It Green! NYC, a nonprofit supplier of salvaged building materials, the solid wood doors formed a triangular installation evoking the steps of Times Square’s TKTS booth, an iconic project originated through Van Alen Institute’s 1999 design competition. (photo credit: Danny Bright)

LOT-EK is interested in technology because LOT-EK is interested in humanity. In humanity’s dignity, comfort, and delight. LOT-EK is interested in machines because LOT-EK is interested in ghosts—the invisible hands that made them on the other side of the world, the invisible forces of economy and polity that drive and are driven by them. LOT-EK doesn’t imagine that tools could or should perfectly serve the desires of either their users or makers, since every tool comes with its own built-in preferences and defaults. Every platform is a legacy platform, materializing an equilibrium to which its user is a kind of disruption. For this reason, LOT-EK tries to stay aware that an operation on an object might yield an optimization of one of its qualities, but that a certain looseness of possibility, a certain potential energy conserved between object, operation, and occupation is also what enables us to make oneself at home in the built environment.

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The Whitney Studio, located in the Sculpture Court of the Whitney Museum's Marcel Breuer building in New York City, employs six steel shipping containers stacked on two levels to form a monolithic cube. (photo credit: Danny Bright)

Objects + Operations: between those two words is a matrix of optimizations and occupations, things and events, nouns and verbs. Whenever LOT-EK opens up an object with an operation, LOT-EK is also aware that it is simultaneously opening up that operation itself. When you cut open a cement mixer, you are also cement-mixing the idea of cutting. To use something is to hack it. By changing something, you make it more truly itself. These sites and events destabilize each other as much as they reinforce each other: to circle around something is to avoid it, to put a circle around something is to face it. One can operate on an object, and then displace and deploy the object to operate on a new site and setting: these primary and secondary operations are contingent and manifold. This is the practice.

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