Adam Kalkin isn't the only architect to make homes out of shipping containers. A handful of architects, including Jennifer Siegal and Lot-Ek, began using them ten years ago as a gritty reaction against the tidy white surfaces of modernism. But nobody has employed shipping containers more inventively than Kalkin, a New Jersey architect and artist who has used them to design luxurious homes, museum additions, and refugee housing.
In architectural circles, Kalkin is regarded as something of an oddball. He began his talk at the Urban Center in New York Tuesday night by playing the first five minutes of a Jerry Lewis movie, followed by the actor's acceptance speech at the Academy Awards last month. His website includes lessons on hitting a tennis forehand and a selection of songs to sing after taking antidepressants. Years ago Kalkin shaved while delivering a lecture at the Whitney Museum.
His talk this week was tied to the publication of Quik Build: Adam Kalkin's ABC of Container Architecture ($49.95), which shows 32 of his projects in all their odd ingenuity, including Bunny Lane, a home he built for himself with a 19th century clapboard cottage inside an industrial hanger, and the Push Button House, a furnished room that unfolds from a container with hydraulic walls.
"Adam continues to be subversive, and subvert what architecture is supposed to be," design historian Alastair Gordon said by way of introduction in the panel discussion that followed Kalkin's presentation.
For all his artsy provocations, Kalkin's strategy makes some practical sense. After all, shipping containers are cheap, mobile and highly recyclable. The Kalkin project that puts these qualities to best use is the Quik House, a prefab home ($150 a square foot) made from six shipping containers that can be completed in three months. A smaller version, called the A Pod ($50,000), will be available later this year.
"Quik Build" arrives as modernist prefab has begun to lose its bargain appeal after years of hype. The most popular cost from $250 to $400 a square foot including installation, which is more than a thrifty consumer would pay for a home built by an architect and contractor. Last summer the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened Home Delivery, a show that celebrated prefab's design innovations but cast doubt on its current economics. Barry Bergdoll, curator of the show, suggested on Tuesday that Kalkin's containers could be used to provide low-cost housing in places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Can Kalkin provide a viable alternative to conventional housing? On Tuesday he said that he had never even considered himself a prefab architect until Bunny Lane showed up on the cover of a book about prefab. He's one of architecture's more unorthodox practitioners, but original thinking may be what's called for as architecture works its way through what Kalkin calls "a crisis of relevance."