A shipping container is an industrial storage box. A vast metal parcel which sends goods globally by rail, road or sea. It’s the shining torch of our intertwined economies! The very emblem of what is called “frictionless transmission”! (Meaning the easy transportation of all we buy.) A potent symbol of contemporary capitalism! Though I might be getting carried away…
In any case, these functional blocks are an increasingly common sight in London’s up and coming neighborhoods, where in recent years a series of ‘container campuses’ have been assembled on sites primed for much larger developments in the future. Such ‘meanwhile’ projects seem to be a great use of land that would otherwise be wasted in our cramped capital. Yet scratch the surface, and a more complex story appears in which this innocent box begins to play a role in a larger, more sinister government game.
Boxpark & The Container Phenomenon
Visitors to Pop Brixton will immediately draw parallels with Shoreditch’s BoxPark which opened its doors in 2011, describing itself as the world’s first pop-up mall. The brainchild of Box-Fresh CEO Roger Wade, it seemed to offer exciting new experiences. At ground level, independent designer brands and boutique labels give a sense of daring when appearing alongside high-street regulars. Whilst on the upper level, street food vendors open onto communal eating areas, catching onto a growing trend for more casual dining experiences. These spaces also host music and cultural events brought in from this campus’ hip Shoreditch vibe.
Pop Brixton – What Is The Bigger Picture?
Pop Brixton opened in May this year. It is described as a ‘pioneering’ new space that will create opportunities for local entrepreneurship by providing retail space at an advantageous 20-50% off market rate. It promises to be a bright, if short-lived, cultural spark hosting regular events over a period of 2 years. Tapas bars, vintage clothing outlets and such independent start-ups have lodged here for now… But what happens when the 2 years are up? Then the fun and novelty of Pop Brixton will transform into a development of offices and high-rise flats.
How can the project afford to offer reduced rent rates? The landlords, that is Lambeth Council, are leasing it rent-free to the designers behind the development; Carl Turner Architects.
It might seem like a nice idea to use the space for Pop Brixton before turning it into a development. Before Pop Brixton you’d have found an ice rink on the site, before that, a car park. Now a car park wouldn’t have looked pretty, but we must not forget that this is fundamentally about replacing land long-used for the public with a development that seems to be far more profit-orientated. Suddenly it’s very much a political issue about the use of public land, and gives insights into the pressures London’s local authorities are under.
Brixton’s more critical residents have been quick to note that Pop Brixton does not cater to local people; it is more about so-called ‘retail-tourism’, aimed at the sort of person who has ‘arrived on an Uber from Clapham’ for the novelty. It amounts to Lambeth council creating Pop Brixton as a distraction – a short-term cover for an increasingly privatized cityscape and the revealing of the sad truth for councils, who are still pushed to balance their books in times of austerity and left with few options.
BoxPark in Shoreditch is now a franchise and will open a larger second version in Croydon in 2016. But despite its claim to be the first to use containers in this specific commercial context, the idea of stacking together these industrial storage units to create an instant building or mini city is nothing new. In Holland and France they’ve been used to create low-cost homes since the early 2000s, often to provide student accommodation. Like the contemporary examples of BoxPark and Pop Brixton, the containers used are waste leftovers from global trade. It took 10 years after the container’s widespread acceptance in the 80s for them to become obsolete for industrial purposes and therefore cheap to buy (currently they retail for around £800 each). Designers began converting these ready-made frames to alternative uses not long after. Though this system is in regular use in residential capacity on the continent, British people still seem to be uncertain about ‘living in a box’. Despite this, some of us are quite willing to tuck into the latest gourmet fare between their corrugated steel walls – provided they are illuminated by the correct trendy light fittings that is…
Land & Loss
Although Pop Brixton is a far more sophisticated attempt to offer the city something new, the bigger picture in ‘meanwhile’ projects is ultimately about what happens to the land they rest on. The potential for the urban uses of shipping containers has yet to be exhausted, and as London continually morphs, we are likely to find them stacking up at other locations in the capital. A truly progressive use of the Pop Brixton site might be to follow continental example and construct a low-cost container skyscraper! This would go someway to solving the borough’s housing crisis, what with 19,000 residents on the waiting list for affordable homes and precious public land running short, such radical solutions might be closer than we think… sailing towards us could be a future of sleeping in steel units!