Out of the Box

January 23, 2018

Cargo-Tecture reimagines the ubiquitous shipping container as a creative vessel

Sometimes, what’s right in front of you is hardest to see.

The shipping containers stacked by the hundreds along Saint John’s waterfront were just waiting for a project to bring the city’s attention to their creative potential.

Enter the Discover Saint John Cargo-Tecture Design Competition, a competition inviting creatives to upcycle the steel boxes into new forms.

“When this popped up, it was like it was made for us,” says Jean Hudson, an emerging artist from Rexton who, along with her husband, Jack, created two of Cargo-Tecture’s five finalists.

The creative couple have experimented with containers before.

“We love them, and eventually plan to build a container house,” Jean says. “They’re really strong, stable, available and cheap. We had so many ideas, we had to rein ourselves in.”

Eventually, they settled on a pair of environmentally themed works: Maintainer Container, a waystation for cyclists, and Sustainer Container, Cargo-Tecture’s winning design, which reimagined the large container as a vertical garden, its sides bursting with produce. It was inspired by the growing interest in local and sustainable agriculture, and in growing one’s own food.

For the Hudsons, making do is simply how they live life and make art.

“Whatever we do, it’s usually going to involve recycled material. It’s going to be a creative reuse of a product found in nature or the garbage,” says Jean. “We like taking something that’s been tossed or considered useless and finding out how to use it. And how to make it look pretty.”

Like the Hudsons, St. Andrews artist Alanna Baird, who is well-known for her metal fish sculptures in recycled tin and scrap copper, embraces a reuse approach.

Inspired by container art and architecture projects she’s seen in other parts of the world, she was in Bermuda when her sister sent her Cargo-Tecture’s call for submissions.

“I’ve always wanted to play with one,” she says. While she originally envisioned a multi-unit architectural design for a marketplace, when she found out she’d only be working with one container and on a tight budget, she took a less-is-more approach.

“OK, I’ll just cut more holes,” Alanna decided. Her resulting work, #DotSpot, was airy with openings. “The concept changed completely once I embraced the limitations.”

For the team behind Periscope, Cargo-Tecture’s second-place finalist, the competition was a collective challenge. Alex Palmer, a hobbyist builder, was sharing design ideas over brunch one day with buddies Geof Ramsay, a professional designer whose clients include Umbra, and Kale Harper, an intern architect with the Saint John firm Acre.

“We kept coming back to the idea of using interesting light effects,” Alex says. “We talked about using mirrors. That popped a lightbulb in my head, I had this vision from when I was a kid, and I just blurted it out, ‘What if we tipped it up and made a periscope?”’

So, they did.

While Sustainer Container had a clear function, Periscope and #Dotspot were more experiential.

Alanna Baird favoured play and interaction, the hashtag in the work’s name referencing her hope (realized) that people would take selfies with it.

“Quite a lot of people were puzzled by it, they said, well what is it for? But little kids got it,” she says. “My concept was that people would play with the space. It was really fun watching them do that. It became a space for people to just experience.”

Bright green outside, pink on the interior, “it’s a bit like a melon,” Alanna says. “The people are the seeds.”

The bright colours were an important element in changing the container’s look and feel.

“I wanted something less industrial, less masculine for a project built with things that are traditionally associated with industry,” she says. With the first coat of lime green, “it just went zing!” she says.

“It transformed it from a rusty old thing. It transformed how you felt about it.”

Alex Palmer and his collaborators are also interested in transformation, particularly in relation to perspective, something Periscope offered literally and metaphorically, the idea that it offered a view onto something you couldn’t otherwise see rippling out into the broader urban context.

“A lot of people are talking about the revival the city is going through,” he says. “I’m not from here, but I see it in people who grew up here, how, when they see something nice, they see the city in a new way.”

The creative reuse of the containers isn’t so different, Alex contends, than someone renovating a boarded up old building, giving it new life. He and his collaborators also see social overtones to the work.

“People get along because they can see other people’s perspectives. We talked about empathy a lot,” he says. “We thought it was cool, this shifting of perspectives, of being able to suspend your current situation to see something different.”