Shipping containers, once a darling of architectural upcycling, have received a lot of criticism recently, as architects are beginning to recognize that their perceived advantages—ready-made habitable space and structure, and an opportunity to recycle a widely available material—are based in little more than hopeful PR spin. But for one of the most prominent practices which regularly uses shipping containers in their work, LOT-EK, the attraction of these architectural ready-mades always went beyond the ecological and practical rationalizations provided by others. In this interview at the firm's New York studio, part of Vladimir Belogolovsky’s “City of Ideas” series, LOT-EK founders Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano discuss the conceptual foundations of their fascination with shipping container architecture.
Ada Tolla: ...Giuseppe and I, we have our own path. We like to do our own work; it is not about following what is preached at the moment. We don’t care about what is trendy. We recognize the value of artistry and authorship, and personal voice, and our own agenda. And we’ve been pushing our work in that direction. We also teach and push our students the same way. We try to suspend them by saying—now you have all this knowledge, do something with it, discover your own voice. You are not just a student, you are an artist, you are a thinker. Show your voice. Once they are out of school I want them to be prepared to take another path, their own path, whatever it may be. For example, we never encourage them to use shipping containers; that’s what we do.
Giuseppe Lignano: Our practice is conceptual and therefore obsessive. And that’s what we teach our students—to be conceptual and obsessive.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You both graduated from university in Napoli and came here on scholarship to study at Columbia University. What did you do after graduation? Did you work for anyone or were you on your own from the very beginning?
AT: Yes, we were; somehow we knew our own way. We found a loft in the Meatpacking District, which in the early 90s was a terrible place to be in, and yet it was a fantastic place. We started our careers more as artists, while working at restaurants at night to make a living. We like the idea of having our thoughts uncontaminated. From the beginning, our work was all about responding to things we would find on the streets of New York. You come across a piece of furniture, a cardboard box, or foam packing, and you ask a question: What do you do with it? We like the idea of not starting something from scratch but rather transforming what already exists. Things that are not architecture have a strong presence in our intellectual environment. By looking and recording, we are learning and thinking. We like assembling and disassembling; we may be respectful to something or disrespectful. At first, we brought all kinds of junk into our studio and simply organized it by shape, material, color, etc. But our idea was not recycling; it was about doing something new—reinventing space, reimagining functions. Our early works included art installations for galleries and museums, and temporary structures for theater events, and so on. Especially then, our work did not fit general expectations of what architecture is. LOT-EK is a concept and we work to materialize this concept in any format—permanent-temporary, stationary-mobile, urban-object...
VB: Why did you name your firm LOT-EK?
GL: From the very beginning, what we had in mind was the idea of reusing objects and systems. We wanted to express in our name the idea of tension between low-tech and high-tech, between two of us working together. And we changed the spelling of LO and TEK to LOT and EK. There is something of a computer language in it and the idea of a different way of looking at things. And we thought it was a good brand. This is something we really wanted to do—to create a brand.
AT: Not just a brand but a new idea, new concept, new direction, new vision...
VB: Your recently built house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was a real shock to me. I made a special effort to find it and I was very happy to see it in person because it is an extremely rare example of truly experimental architecture in New York, which is very conservative when it comes to freestanding single-family houses. In fact, this house is one of not that many here that disregards a predictable colonial model and instead poses a question: What is a contemporary dwelling? What do you think about this breakthrough?
GL: It is true; the people who may commission an experimental house typically live in apartments here, not in houses. So if they want a house, they commission a second home in the suburbs, not in the city.
VB: A freestanding single-family house is the foundation of architecture. That’s where architecture begins and New York is missing it entirely. There are practically no modernist houses in New York City; there are no Post-modernist houses either. House after house is modeled on pre-20th-century ideas. Someone could say that New York does not have freestanding single-family houses. But we have more houses than most other cities. We probably have at least one million houses. OK, let’s say we have very particular clients here who are different from clients in Los Angeles, Sydney, or Mexico City. But what about the architects themselves? Why don’t they build their own experimental houses here?
AT: Well, it is a challenging place... On the other hand, it is very exciting working here and every time we get a project, we always try to see things differently from what we already know. How can we invent something that we haven’t invented yet?
VB: Shipping containers are an element that you use again and again. Still, in relation to this house, what are the advantages of using containers, as opposed to typical walls and floors?
AT: First of all, we never built a house with shipping containers before, so we had to! We have been playing with them and designing for a long time, always with the ambition to do real architecture with it, not just temporary pop-up structures with cute colors...
VB: But what is the advantage of the container in designing a house?
AT: There are materials and objects that we are interested in, and the shipping container is one of them. To us, it is an ongoing speculation. We always modify the container, but this project offered the opportunity to think in a slightly different mode—we started from the container stack, and cut it. The house did not begin with a single container, but with the modification of an assembly, a mass. By doing this, we immediately took advantage of the inherent ability of the container to come together, to form much larger volumes than its own self. We started from the generic stack you see near ports and highways.
GL: The other interesting coincidence is that our lot, which is typical in New York, is 25 feet wide and 100 feet long. So we used three eight-foot-wide containers on the short front, with two 40-foot-long containers and one 20-foot-long container along the side.
VB: And what was the main idea?
GL: We wanted to manipulate a container stack and do something monolithic and sculptural to create private space on the inside and, at the same time, open up the space to interesting possibilities. So we stacked the containers and then cut them on the diagonal, both on top and bottom. The top cut opens up containers and, every time the diagonal meets the top of the container, we close it with glass. Now every floor has both inside and outside space. And the sides of the containers, along the 100 feet of the house, provide privacy for these outside spaces, which are very exposed on this corner lot. The use of the containers allowed us to get away from the existing typology and create a new one.
VB: Why containers? How did you discover them in the first place?
AT: The first objects we used for our architectural projects were truck containers, which are made of aluminum and are much lighter. What we liked was the fact that they were transportable (carried by truck), they contained space, and they were modular. One day we were going to New Jersey and by chance we entered a whole depot of shipping containers. It was incredible and transformative. Initially, what was interesting to us was the scale. It was like being in a city—there were avenues, streets, piazzas, buildings. Immediately we realized that the potential of this box was not simply itself, but what you can do by altering this simultaneously dumb and intelligent object that can be picked up, moved from ship to truck, and that can reach everywhere.
VB: It says on your site that LOT-EK scans the environment in search of manmade objects and systems. Could you explain the intentions of your work?
AT: Our intention is to engage with the idea of two things—leftovers and overproduction, and we do it with a positive attitude. We love these big sturdy things made out of steel. What can we do with them? We find this idea super exciting. We don’t see any limitations; we see them as open-ended and endlessly inspiring. That’s our agenda from the very beginning. We are curious about cutting these things into pieces and slices. The most interesting aspect of using the containers is the fact that we are using objects and volumes, as opposed to posts and beams, or a poured material. It is this use of these objects and volumes that suggests certain possibilities that otherwise would not have presented themselves. We are interested in these discoveries as provocations.
VB: You mentioned that containers are not the only material you use. Do you see limits in your work? Would you do a project with no containers at all?
AT: It would be hard for us to do architecture made of conventional materials. We use objects in our projects, but not just containers. We upcycled other manufactured objects and systems—including truck bodies, tanks, airplane fuselages, reclaimed steel doors, sinks, antennas, billboards, ducts, packaging, plumbing, and scaffolding—as structural and spatial interventions to design buildings and interiors. Our goal is to not only recycle an object, but to recycle the intelligence that went into the object’s development.
GL: First, we are architects and we wish our work would be seen independently of the fact that we use containers. We see it as our material but we want to be known not for the containers but for what can be done with them. For us the container is simply a vehicle to invent new architecture.
VB: Using containers and other objects is a way of bringing discipline to your work and having a set of constraints, right?
AT: Absolutely. In a way, we are blind to the objects we use. Meaning, we try to find our own interpretations and new uses for everything that comes our way. It is the objects themselves that guide our curiosity. I feel we can do anything.
GL: Even conventional materials we use very unconventionally. For example, we often expose things that are typically buried behind walls. We always try to find our own way of seeing and using things. Discipline is the key. Our work is more conceptual than compositional. For example, we always work with one object at a time. It’s not only that we don’t mix them up, but we typically use just one operation—diagonal cuts in case of the Carroll House or shifting at the Puma City. And we try to use just one color at a time.
VB: We started this conversation by discussing your ways of teaching and encouraging your students to develop their own agendas and visions. How would you summarize your unique point of view?
GL: The idea of creating new aesthetics is important to us. We try to create tension. On the one hand, we want our architecture to be low-tech, handmade, textured, brutal, organic, and romantic. On the other hand, we want it to be high-tech, geometric, graphic, obstruct, perfect, and otherworldly, like a dream. We want tension and balance between these extreme ideas. We design our projects by making and building things, not by drawing something from scratch.
VB: What single words would you choose to describe your work?
AT: Raw and conceptual.
GL: Raw and precise, strong gesture.
AT: Chance and intention, assembly.
GL: Organic and super-rational.
LOT-EK's new monograph, "O+O" is now available for purchase. Click here for more details.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.