Trade across the high seas isn't what it used to be. And the ubiquitous shipping container, though still the workhorse of international trade, has become a surplus good stockpiled in less than active ports of call. Proposed new uses for these sturdy and spacious boxes have ranged from backyard storage to housing projects for low-income populations.
The new role of the shipping container has been extended to the workplace in the form of a conference room designed by Pugh + Scarpa as the central attraction in their remodeling of a 1930 Art Deco masonry building in downtown Santa Monica for Reactor Films. A print advertisement offering second-hand shipping containers caught Lawrence Scarpa's eye five years ago and has been burning a hole in his wallet ever since. With the commission from Reactor, an award-winning maker of music videos, advertisements, and television films with credits including Bud Lite's "I love you man" commercials and videos for Smashing Pumpkins, Scarpa's long wait for the right client and the right project has paid off.
Reactor Films' Steve Chase was "the first client I've had who has given me artistic freedom," explains a delighted Larry Scarpa, who has designed projects for Reactor's parent company, Partners USA. "As a director and creator of films and commercials, he was extremely sensitive about telling me what to do," says the architect of the professional respect shown by his client. All that was asked of Pugh + Scarpa was that the production facility have its own identity and that it be designed and constructed in 14 weeks. The 7,000-sq.-ft. space with 18-ft. ceilings came with a requirement of its own: a city ordinance stipulates that the first 50 ft. at the front of any building located within the Bayside Pedestrian District be dedicated to the engagement of pedestrian activity.
To ensure that the tight deadline for occupancy was met, construction costs kept in check, and the city ordinance fulfilled, Pugh + Scarpa established a design/build relationship with Brian Crommie and Tom Hinerfeld of BT Builders. The architect and contractor divided the program, which included private and open offices, editing bays, and a conference room, into distinct areas for detailed development phased with the construction schedule. Each area was designed, presented to the client, dimensioned, and issued to the contractor for construction. Each phase of construction established the existing conditions for each successive phase.
Purchased from a Long Beach shipping yard for roughly $1,200, the container was delivered to the site on a flatbed truck and, following removal of the existing storefront, set by forklift onto poured-in-place concrete piers in Reactor's lobby. The design/build team sawed 12 ft. from the length of the steel container, which was originally 40 ft. long, and cut away portions of its roof and sides to create a bit of breathing room in and around the 8 ft. x 8 ft. x 28 ft. box. A sculptural assemblage of wood, glass and perforated metal screens, panels and doors covers the exposed sections of the box. "I didn't want to assign a particular meaning to the container," says Scarpa, explaining its fragmented form and alluding to a favored quote from Robert Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction. "A familiar thing seen in an unfamiliar context can become perceptually new as well as old." Without shedding its original identity, Scarpa and friends acted on that possibility, transforming a utilitarian box into a machine for conferencing.