ZED | Zegarra Environmental Designs

Container Home Kit

Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano are two enthusiastic architects that use existing materials and objects to warp them into magnificent living spaces. Take for instance the true genius shown in their “container home kit” which uses ISO cargo containers to build sustainable homes. Your prefabricated home can be delivered anywhere in the world, and in any color. Your home can be as big as the number of cargo containers you use. This article from The New York Times narrates the story behind LOT-EK architectural firm and the creative minds behind it.

A Lot-Ek Solution

Published: June 8, 2008

When you meet Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, the partners in the New York architecture firm LOT-EK (pronounced low-tech), the first thing you notice about them – apart from their Italian good looks – is their enthusiasm, a trait that many of their peers in the profession conceal beneath a facade of chilly reserve. But Tolla and Lignano, who came to this country in the early 1990s after completing architecture school in Naples, can’t help themselves. There’s just too much great stuff out there waiting to be turned into architecture: shipping containers, scaffolding, truck backs, ductwork, plastic mesh. Huh?

In fact, LOT-EK – which was a finalist in this year’s National Design Awards – has been making architecture out of industrialized society’s detritus for more than 15 years, turning the drum of a cement mixer into a media lounge, or the tank of an oil truck into the bedrooms and bathrooms of a loft apartment, or recycled shipping containers into mobile clothing stores, offices and apartments. Unlike architects who envision a perfect world of jewel-like buildings in meticulously planned settings, Tolla and Lignano love the messy layering of ad hoc, incremental urban growth; they’ve described their aesthetic as being more “Blade Runner” than “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Olympia Kazi, the director of the Institute for Urban Design, a New York nonprofit, says of LOT-EK, “The way they deal with urban reality is just to accept it.”

Since founding their firm in 1993, the architects have acquired a kind of alternative renown as a little firm that does small, arty projects. Indeed, their biggest U.S. commission to date is a 3,000-square-foot house for Lawrence Weiner, the artist, and his wife, Alice Zimmerman, which is nearing completion in Greenwich Village. But the fact that LOT-EK doesn’t do slick doesn’t mean they can’t do big. Mark Robbins, the dean of the school of architecture at Syracuse University, argued that “it would be a disservice to trade only on the novelty” of LOT-EK’s work. “They are very much architects,” something Robbins said will serve them well as they get bigger commissions. In fact, they recently had a chance to prove this in an extremely competitive arena: Beijing.

The Chinese capital is filled with mind-boggling projects, by superstar architects, that are going up at breakneck speed: Herzog and de Meuron’s “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium; Rem Koolhaas’s enormous, cantilevered CCTV towers; Steven Holl’s two million-square-foot-plus Linked Hybrid development; Norman Foster’s Terminal 3 at the Beijing airport, which will be the biggest building in the world. This would not normally be the kind of playing field on which you’d expect to find a firm of LOT-EK’s size and style. But then, more than one architect has called China the Wild West of architecture today, and in the Wild West, pretty much everybody had a shot. Indeed, while the big boys were designing their supersleek megabuildings, it was Tolla and Lignano’s container fetish that got them not one job but two.

Tolla and Lignano were contacted by the well-regarded Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who was commissioned by a Chinese development company, Guo Feng, to design the master plan and some of the buildings for a mixed-use development called Sanlitun North, not far from Beijing’s version of Embassy Row. Kuma admired the store that LOT-EK designed, featuring recycled shipping containers, for Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing manufacturer, and invited Tolla and Lignano to try something similar in Beijing for a 97,000-square-foot retail and office building. Ultimately, the developers decided that containers weren’t the right look for the upscale Sanlitun North, but the building does have elegant metal-framed windows that angle out from the building’s facade like ductwork, a prized element of LOT-EK’s vocabulary. And the developers liked the container idea enough to bring Kuma and LOT-EK in on Sanlitun South, a retail project they were planning nearby. (SHoP, another young, edgy New York firm, also designed buildings for both projects.)

In contrast to the North project, Sanlitun South was aimed at a younger market – which, presumably, would be much more receptive to LOT-EK’s industrial-funk aesthetic. LOT-EK’s design for the four-story, 250,000-square-foot Sanlitun South, which uses 151 shipping containers, orange-painted stainless-steel mesh and steel scaffolding, was based on the layout of the traditional Chinese hutong, the densely packed neighborhoods punctuated by alleys and small courtyards. The result looks like a kind of retail beehive. “It’s a huge-scale jump for us,” Tolla said. “We could never build like this in Europe or America.”

The notion of a frontier waiting to be explored is central to LOT-EK’s vision, and in all cases, that frontier is an urban one. Tolla and Lignano, who are in their mid-40s, grew up in the same Naples neighborhood but did not really know each other until they were university students. After graduation, they spent three months traveling around the United States and were bowled over by what they saw – especially in contrast to Europe’s “untouchable history,” as Tolla put it.

And as if America’s size and relative newness weren’t enough, the two were particularly awed by its industrial landscape, which would ultimately shape their design vocabulary. “We were like two kids in a candy store,” Lignano said. They longed to return to New York. “It had the same chaotic energy as Naples,” Lignano explained. So in 1990, the pair (who are not a couple) got a postgraduate fellowship at Columbia and found an apartment in the city. They waited on tables at night, did their work by day, began a never-ending love affair with hardware stores and started “making things out of what’s out there.” They also began recording in notes and photographs the chaotic, random and banal elements of the man-made landscape. This giant database became what the architects call the Urban Scan, which is their bible and which is also the title of the book on their work that was published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Tolla and Lignano embraced the idea of low-tech, of operating on the small scale as well as the large, like a workshop, and thus invented their firm’s quirky name, which is also influenced by Jamaican patois and computer language. (It’s still a puzzle to many; Lignano once got a letter addressed to Mr. Ek.) They didn’t want to shun technology; on the contrary, they use it in many of their projects. But, as Lignano said, their work goes “against the grain of thinking that you have to design every single thing.” They discovered the display windows at Barneys and wrote to Simon Doonan, now the store’s creative director, who came to visit them. “We were like, wow, this really is America!” Tolla said. Doonan put some of LOT-EK’s work in Barneys’ Madison Avenue windows in 1993, and the firm was off and running.

A number of art-world commissions followed, including interiors for the Sara Meltzer Gallery, Henry Urbach Architecture and the Bohen Foundation, a nonprofit organization that shows art it has commissioned. In 2001, Urbach – for whom LOT-EK had designed several innovative art-fair installations, including one called SURF-A-BED, in which 16 television screens were suspended above a bed – commissioned LOT-EK to design “MIXER,” the cement-mixer/media cocoon, for his gallery. Urbach, who is now the curator of the architecture and design department at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, admires Tolla and Lignano’s commitment to installation-scale work, their passion and the fact that their found-object fixation is recycling in the most fundamental sense. He loves “their inventive spatial sense – the idea that TV light makes space, for instance,” and the fact that their design is humane without being sentimental. Moreover, Urbach said, “I don’t find a trace of cynicism or nihilism in their work, and those things are not in short supply these days.”

For the Bohen Foundation, which is housed in a former printing plant in the Meatpacking District, LOT-EK turned eight recycled shipping containers into discrete modules that function as offices, meeting rooms or video rooms and which move on tracks set into the concrete floor. Walls interspersed among these modules pivot out to create flexible exhibition spaces. For the Weiner house, a former bakery, Tolla and Lignano gutted the interior, moving the staircase to the back of the building, and inserted metal ductwork vertically through the building to house not just ventilation but storage, bathrooms and an elevator. Truck-container backs, with glass instead of a pull-down door, were inserted into the facade, creating a modern version of bay windows, and the architects added a penthouse and a green roof. The industrial elements are tough yet elegant; there’s no trace of conventional domesticity in the house, save for its open kitchen, which takes up much of the first floor, a decision that in itself is unconventional. The master bathroom has no door – something the owners insisted on.

LOT-EK’s design for the lobby of the CanCo lofts in Jersey City (a former American Can factory) includes stacks of Douglas fir planks that become upholstered benches on the floor and that contain lighting when suspended from the ceiling. A wall of electrical conduit forms the backdrop for rows of video screens. The idea was to create a place where residents would congregate, not simply pass through. Mikhail Kurnev, the president of Coalco New York, the company that developed the project, described LOT-EK as an unorthodox but appropriate choice for a project that was aimed at young professionals. “We wanted to position ourselves as up and coming, not like every other building,” he said. LOT-EK’s design, he continued, “definitely put the project on a different pedestal” and got the firm the commission to design the apartment interiors for the development’s next phase.

Tolla and Lignano’s coming projects include an 11,000-square-foot traveling pavilion for the footwear and clothing manufacturer Puma’s entry in the Volvo Ocean Race. The design has not yet been made public, but it’s safe to say that it’s consistent with the vocabulary of two people whose idea of a good time is to photograph stacks of shipping containers in the New Jersey Meadowlands. “The spontaneous built environment is really our master,” Lignano said. “This stuff makes up a much bigger percentage of the environment than architecture ever will.” He cites highway overpasses and airplane graveyards (two unbuilt LOT-EK proposals involved recycling airplane fuselages as buildings) as examples of “the infrastructure that’s in your face all the time.” And grungy as it is, Tolla added that “it’s about the idea of abundance – like the hardware store, but at a bigger scale. It can be in the desert of Namibia, in Los Angeles, or Tokyo. You can see this layering everywhere, because it’s about the way we really operate as human beings.”