by David M. Roth
Homes from shipping containers? At first blush, it seems like an unlikely proposition: a giant sweat box or a deep freeze, depending on the weather. However, as I learned from a documentary film about the storied career of Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, partners in the New York architecture firm LOT-EK, the idea, launched the mid-1990s, has since taken hold across the globe — in single-family homes, apartment complexes and corporate headquarters. The duo’s MO, though uniquely formulated for the current moment, is in many ways a continuation of the ancient practice of people making homes out of whatever they can find.
Unlike rocks, sticks, mud, tires, scrap wood, cardboard or corrugated tin – the scavenger’s harvest of yore — shipping containers have one truly unique property. They can be piled up modularly like Legos, making transportation by truck, train or boat a simple matter of vertical stacking. For shippers, the efficiencies are spectacular. So, too, are the environmental costs, documented in a statistic-packed brochure accompanying LOT-EK’s exhibition at Hosfelt Gallery, up through January 27. Titled Spill/from 1 to 29, it shows, among many things, how utility can be wrested from cast-off junk and how the exercise of blowtorch-powered imagination can transform abundant waste into low-cost, resource-efficient housing whose simplicity and raw, minimalist beauty stand in sharp opposition to the pretensions of high-end architecture.
LOT-EK’s story: After immigrating from Naples in 1989 and graduating from Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Tolla and Lignano became scholars of the man-made landscape. They photographed, cataloged, gathered and transformed all kinds of urban refuse (e-waste, box springs, shopping carts, cement mixers) into things people could use, catching a major break when Barney’s New York, the luxury retailer, asked them to design its storefront window display. Commissions for homes and offices soon poured in, initially from artists, then from families, corporations, municipalities and governments from across the globe.
The epiphany that catapulted them to their present status came during a trip to a New Jersey port, where they viewed acres of empty shipping containers and realized how their modularity could be adapted to architectural design. But, instead of merely stacking them one atop the other, the team fitted the containers together at odd angles and sliced out geometric shapes, creating livable spaces where none would otherwise exist. The resulting forms, viewed from the inside, recall the grace and elegance of those Ellsworth Kelley created in two dimensions.
Spill, I’m duty-bound to point out, features nothing that remotely resembles a habitable structure. Instead, what we see is a collection of 29 pieces cut from a single shipping container; they spread across the gallery in various shapes and formats ranging from abstract wall-mounted sculptures to coffee tables set on stacks of 2 x 4s to communal seating areas fashioned from metal and wood flooring, the only part of a shipping container that isn’t steel.
Videos form another critical component of the exhibition. One shows LOT-EK’s studio team in operation, carving up steel, while two others display footage of 583 of the world’s major ports, each a landscape of multi-colored shipping containers stretching as far as the eye can see. A floor drawing (done in tape) of the Panama Canal, the route traveled by five percent of the world’s estimated 60,000 cargo ships, serves as the exhibition’s conceptual backbone, snaking from the reception desk through the galleries and ending at a darkened hallway where seven circular LED lamps built from truck wheels represent the terrestrial side of the global supply chain.
In case you haven’t already guessed, the idea is to contrast the mind-boggling waste of the shipping industry with the near-total efficiency of LOT-EK’s enterprise. What becomes evident after a short spell is that every shape displayed has its exact negative-space counterpart someplace else. The waste generated consists of a half-filled jar of steel shavings, a remarkable achievement considering the labor involved in cutting apart a 20-foot container weighing more than two tons.
What to make of the byproducts of this exercise, the pieces of sculpture that form the core of the exhibition? Looking at even the smallest of these objects, say, the pointy spire that greets you at the reception desk, it’s impossible not to be struck by the sheer weight of it and, by extension, the brutality of the industrial processes from which objects like this arise. It’s one thing to see tractor-trailer rigs hauling shipping containers down a highway; it’s quite another to hold a remnant of one in your hand, to feel the bulk of it and to imagine the resources (fuel, electricity, water) consumed and the pollution generated from shipping millions of such objects around the world each day. Tolla and Lignano’s efforts aren’t likely to change that. But by recycling abandoned containers, estimated to number in the millions, they disrupt the process, turning what would otherwise be waste into habitable art.
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LOT-EK: “Spill/from 1 to 29” @ Hosfelt Gallery through January 27, 2024.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.