There must be at least a million wannabe architects in Australia, based on my research at parties. And every one of them has toyed with a design for re-using shipping containers. It’s easy to see why: they offer a mode of building that is elemental, even instinctive – the arrangement of discrete blocks of space, the assembly of smaller, simpler units into a larger, more complex composition.
Shipping containers are also perceived – not entirely accurately – to be cheap, quick and easy to adapt, with an icing of sustainability and a cherry of industrial aesthetics. There is a romance to the idea of the humble and ubiquitous container, journeying from the high seas to the backyard, to fulfil its destiny as your new workshop or guest room. This romance papers over the fact that turning one of these dark, skinny tubes into a room with light, space and utility is easier said than done. Joining them together is even harder. They’re hot when it’s hot, freezing when it’s cold, and difficult and often costly to fit out.
Still, many professional architects also like containers. They interlock and stack well, and their unfussy utilitarian directness seems to offer an anti-stylistic – even anti-aesthetic – mode of building. There are detractors, of course: one commentator decrying the “sinister brutality” of container architecture, describing it as “utterly ill-suited to human life”. Another described a Barcelona social-housing development made of stacked containers as “sardine tins for the poor”. But to no avail, because today containers are everywhere – remade into everything from tiny houses to corporate headquarters and sports stadiums. They are extensively employed in entertainment and the arts, especially for temporary events.
At times these have been spectacularly successful. Who could forget Red Square, the centrepiece of Barrie Kosky’s 1996 Adelaide Festival? A seven-storey amphitheatre of shipping containers, open to the sky, it provided stage and setting for unforgettable performances – the whirling dervishes! The bobcat ballet! – as well as much dancing and revelry. As a dewy-eyed architecture student, it certainly made an impression on me.
So I approached the new headquarters for Flipside Circus, located in Brisbane’s Northshore development, with some excitement. On the day I visited, its monolithic form was splendidly lit by a low, orange, autumnal sun. With its neighbour, a charismatic rusted steel tank, the pair sat on their grassy riverside site like some Jeffrey Smart-inflected, industrial-antipodean Piazza dei Miracoli.
The Flipside project has commonalities with Red Square, albeit on a smaller scale. It is also a quadrangle creating a performance and practice space within, this time with a roof and concrete slab floor. Like the earlier project, it intends its four storeys of containers to be used as stage equipment – anchor points for high wire, jumping-off points for trapeze. Architect Daniel Burnett, of Blok Modular, says it can accommodate 30 people hanging from the rafters.
The containers are used effectively as giant bricks, laid in a slightly staggered pattern that introduces overhangs at the external corners and leaves gaps for light and air, doors and windows. Some of these openings are filled in with polycarbonate, others fenced off with cyclone wire, open to breeze and view.
Within this massive perimeter wall, the ground floor containers also open inward, acting as gear storage, green room, ticket booth, administrative office, parents’ waiting area and toilets. These adaptations work to varying degrees – the office is squeezy and the green room is dim – but the project’s strength is not the containers’ poky interiors themselves, but the large internal space they enclose. At 12 metres tall, it’s a grand volume, lofty and light, strung about with ropes and wires and trusses: a box of tricks waiting to happen.
In later stages of construction the plan is to slice open containers in the upper storeys, forming alcoves and stages for vantage and performance. For the moment, most of the fun happens at ground level: muscled trainers padding about, youngsters juggling and hula hooping and spinning plates. The main space is divided into two arenas: one for performance, with banked audience seating that packs away into the adjacent containers, the other for practice. After later stages of construction, the performance space will eventually be an enclosable black box.
The non-profit Flipside Circus describes itself as Queensland’s largest youth arts organisation, having trained more than a million people in circus skills and performance since its founding in Brisbane in 1994. It aspires to “empower communities through circus,” and is aligned with the larger social circus movement, which pursues transformative learning, radical inclusion and social justice through circus arts, as well as expression, entertainment and fun.
The company’s journey to a new home has been onerous and its resourcefulness impressive. With precarious tenure and the threat of redevelopment hanging over its previous rented premises, it approached Burnett to produce a speculative design, then used this vision to secure a site and the money to build. Both the state and Commonwealth governments tipped in, including matching money raised by the Flipside community.
Northshore was formerly the site of Brisbane’s wharves and is now 304 hectares of riverfront “innovation and commercial enterprise space” administered by Economic Development Queensland. The precinct is already home to various entertainment venues and the wildly popular Eat Street market – itself located in a series of adapted shipping containers. The precinct will be home to the 2032 Olympics athletes village.
The circus has a tradition of transience – the big top folded down, the trapeze packed up, and the whole ragged band of carnies moving on. But while I’m told the Flipside building was designed for mobility and disassembly, this strikes me as disingenuous – it could move on, but only with enormous expense and difficulty, given the slab and roof are both bespoke. The current lease is for nine years, albeit with the expectation of extension.
Thinking about this, I started to feel troubled. Perhaps it began when I found out the containers used here are in fact new. Structural engineers apparently won’t go near an actual second-hand container. But surely this makes a mockery of the sustainability argument, of repurposing and reuse. At what point does a shipping container cease to be a shipping container and become a pastiche?
And there are deeper complicities: shipping containers are also known as “specialised intermodal containers”, and are a crucial part of global supply chain infrastructure. The introduction of mass containerisation in the late 1960s replaced the earlier system of break-bulk cargo, where an arriving ship would be unloaded and sorted by stevedores, the parcels either warehoused or reloaded. It was all very slow and laborious. Standard intermodal containers, on the other hand, could be shifted seamlessly by machine from one form of transport to another – from a ship to a train to a truck – without being unpacked or even opened. Handling was automated and streamlined, volumes increased a hundredfold and mass global trade was born. It’s the container that now enables us to buy endless cheap crap instantly from anywhere. The container shrank the world, made the ocean into a highway and ushered in our frenetic era of rampant over-consumption, with its unsupportable environmental and social cost. The container is the foot soldier of globalisation.
In this light, the seemingly jolly use of containers as pop-up ticket booths and food vendors in “placemaking” urban activations is just another index of economic flexibility, of a “just-in-time” system with its temporary tenure, precarious and casualised labour and fluid capital exchange. The most striking aspect of container architecture today may be its explicit expression of contingency: of those purposes and people deemed too marginal to deserve a real, permanent building.
So notwithstanding the qualities of the Flipside building, the skill of its architect or the pluckiness of its tenants, if we step back to look through the lens of political economy, what do we see here? A well respected and established arts organisation, accommodated on a temporary lease, as an activation of a site awaiting development, in a shelter built from containers made for the brutal, extractivist traffic of global trade. Could there be a more tragically appropriate emblem of the status of the arts under late capitalism?
CERAMICS Milton Moon: Crafting Modernism
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until August 6
INSTALLATION Embodied Cultures
Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, May 26–June 3
LITERATURE Sydney Writers’ Festival
Venues throughout Sydney, May 22-28
EXHIBITION Kurunpa Kunpu | Strong Spirit
Fremantle Arts Centre, until July 23
LITERATURE Melbourne Art Book Fair
NGV Melbourne, Melbourne, until May 28
MULTIMEDIA Lost in Palm Springs
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until May 21
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2023 as "Box of tricks".
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