07 October 2017
What is it about shipping containers?
Gateshead Quays, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Plans to build the world's largest shipping container garden and leisure destination with bars and restaurants at the Gateshead Quays on the banks of the river Tyne were unveiled this week.

Converting shipping containers for use as housing started as far back as the 70s, but the ‘Box Park’ idea of using multiple shipping containers for temporary commercial use is a much more recent phenomenon. Since 2011 when the first ‘Box Park’ opened as a temporary shopping mall, in Shoreditch, London, other examples have popped up around the country. Whereas these prefabricated units used to be used for small scale interventions, as demonstrated by this latest scheme in Gateshead, it’s growing into a development industry of its own.

So what makes the use of shipping containers – built with no regard to aesthetics and personal comfort – such an attractive proposition?

Partly, because they are seen as cool and trendy, partly because they are simple, robust, reliable and flexible but perhaps also it’s because they are transient. In a world of uncertainty, where there is lack of confidence in the future, maybe they suit the current condition?

But, more significantly, in our internet world with instant access to information, products, entertainment and cost efficiencies, container developments respond to our increasing demand for immediate solutions. Using shipping containers allows the market to respond quickly and economically to demand and, to a large extent, to circumvent the often cripplingly complex, costly and lengthy planning process.

And there is no doubt that these developments have been hugely successful. At Childs+Sulzmann we have been involved in a number of container schemes, most notably at the Boxworks at Engine Shed, in Bristol but also at Aztec West, Bristol and now in Milton Keynes, and we have seen their great appeal for ourselves.

The development industry has always been good at finding ways around problems. These Box Parks say ‘we don’t need masterplans or the planning system which dictates where shopping or workspace etc. should be ‘allocated’.  We don’t need to spend a fortune on bricks and mortar and wait months or years for a solution. We can get on with it!’

Fundamentally, they are slightly transgressive, and long may it continue! Transgression can make us challenge our assumptions and lead to progress. Perhaps they will lead to a revolution in our planning system to make it more relevant to today’s world.