Monday, December 7, 2015

Uncontained Potential (Taiwan Review)

Of the world’s 20-million-plus intermodal shipping containers, around 60 are sited, more or less permanently, along the southernmost stretch of Highway 19A in southern Taiwan, between Tainan City’s Xinhua District and Kaohsiung City’s Gangshan District. None of these steel boxes are being used for their original purpose, which is to hold and protect cargo as it is transported from one place to another by ship, train or truck.

Several have been placed next to pineapple fields, and likely belong to farmers who use them to store agricultural equipment. Some have been extensively modified, with holes cut in the sides for doors, windows and air-conditioning units. These serve as offices for small businesses or accommodate betel nut vendors. The function of others is less obvious, but for sure most will never again see the ocean. Few things are less glamorous than an old freight container retired to the countryside and used as a kiosk. Yet Taiwan has a growing circle of architects and specialist builders who find the possibilities offered by containers much more exciting than any chance to attach their name to a big-ticket landmark.

“In my experience, the general public is quite open-minded about the use of containers as buildings,” says Lin Chih-feng, a Kaohsiung-based architect who has worked on several container-building projects. The social media buzz that accompanied the opening of Flyin’ Moose, a Kaohsiung gastro-pub Lin constructed according to the owners’ design concept early this year, seems to support his claim.

The restaurant’s main structure consists of six 40-foot-long (12.19-meter-long) containers, arranged to create indoor and outdoor eating areas. Standard containers are either 20 feet (6.1 meters) or 40 feet in length, 8 feet (2.44 meters) wide and usually 8 feet 6 inches (2.59 meters) high. “Containers can be utilized in various ways that are very interesting to imagine, but I’m still waiting for opportunities to turn some of my ideas into reality,” Lin says.

His passion for what some call “cargotecture” dates from his participation in the 2013 Kaohsiung International Container Arts Festival, the theme for which was using containers as habitable spaces. Working with Wang Chi-tsun, another Kaohsiung-based architect fascinated by the potential of containers, Lin devised a three-story dwelling with a 6-square-meter footprint. The duo’s contribution used four 20-foot containers. “The first floor comprised the living room, kitchen and bathroom. The second floor held the master bedroom and a kid’s room. The third floor could be used as a study,” Lin explains.

Of the various container buildings Lin has created, the one he is most proud of is located in Kaohsiung’s Pier-2 Art Center, a waterside cultural complex. Incorporating a dozen 40-foot containers, the NT$7 million (US$225,800) building serves as a waiting room for people about to board a tourist yacht. From the observatory atop two vertically positioned containers, visitors can enjoy views of the harbor and ocean.

Having been developed not to slide off ships as they pitch in heavy seas, intermodal containers are exceptionally stable. When fully loaded, they are robust enough to be stacked, one on top of each other, nine high.

Lin points out that since his building at Pier-2 opened to the public in April, Taiwan has endured several tremors and two strong typhoons. “The structure has come through these severe tests safe and sound. This proves container buildings are tough,” he says.

“In earthquakes, you’re safer in a container than you are in a conventional RC [reinforced concrete] building,” asserts Wang, who has been intrigued by containers since his youth. His father, who now works with him, spent a good part of his life as an ironsmith. During that period, the elder Wang was often tasked with dismantling old shipping containers. He used to lament that if only he had the right tools and skills, he would have been able to convert one into a durable and attractive dwelling.

Container buildings are by their nature robust enough to satisfy the structural strength regulations in Taiwan’s building code. They are usually small enough not to require fire safety certification. However, the rule that all new public facilities and business premises allow barrier-free access for the disabled adds substantial costs...

To read the rest of this article, click here. I took the three photos here at a 35-container structure in Taipei City's Beitou District which was assembled to promote a new apartment complex.

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