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Container Art in Santa Monica by Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban’s inventive yet frugal Nomadic Museum berths on the Santa Monica beachfront

For the past 14 years, Gregory Colbert has been filming the interaction of animals and humans around the world, creating images of great beauty. In 2002, he mounted an exhibition, Ashes and Snow, in the Corderia of the Venice Arsenal e. and invited Shigeru Ban to design a prefabricated gallery in which this show could be displayed in varied locations.

Naturalist and architect shared a concern to make the building environmentally sensitive, and for Ban it was a challenge to recycle commonplace materials on a heroic scale. Ever since he first employed discarded paper tubes for the installation of an Alvar Aalto exhibition, he has used them in an increasingly sophisticated way- in a post earthquake church in Kobe (recently re-erected in Taiwan, AR December 1996), a canopy over the courtyard of MaMA (AR September 2000) and the Japanese pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover with Buro Happold.


The Santa Monica beachfront context

For the Nomadic Museum, Ban specified walls of used shipping containers (which can be rented in every major city), supporting a roof frame and tensile PVC membrane braced by trusses atop two colonnades. The 152 long and short containers are stacked four-high and attached at the corners with twist-lock connectors to form a chequerboard of solid and void.

The spaces between are filled with a diagonal membrane providing the same protection from wind and rain as the roof. For the columns, two Sm-long, 750mm diameter Sonotubes (used for pouring concrete pillars) are bolted together, and smaller tubes are joined to form trusses that read as pediments at either end. The reception area and shops are also made of paper tubes and honeycomb panels. This inner structure, along with lighting and wood-slat walkways, can be quickly disassembled, packed, and shipped to the next location in eight containers.


The forum space between the two elongated volumes

At the museum’s New York debut last spring, the walls extended 200m along a West Side pier, and the linear, colonnaded interior recalled Venice’s Corderia. For the second presentation, by Santa Monica pier, southern California, Colbert wanted to expand the interior to house additional exhibits and avert congestion in front of the main projection screen.

Ban proposed a V-plan in which the linear gallery would be folded to enclose a wedge-shaped projection area. The local authorities rejected this because it would have occupied too large a footprint and impeded public access to the beach. Instead, the two halves flank a broad concourse with a butterfly roof.

To expedite and execute construction, Ban teamed up with the Santa Monica office of the large international firm Gensler. But there were other issues to resolve. Santa Monica, which was hard hit by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, has a tough seismic code and requiresthat any structure that is intended to remain for more than three months should conform to the requirements for permanent buildings. Because the pier parking lot is built on sand, the containers had to be supported on chance anchors - 200mm pipe columns drilled 9minto the ground.

That underpinning also kept the structure level on a gently sloping site.Aiuminium extrusions with expandable joints replaced the heavy steel roof frame used in New York. These structuralenhancements were worked out with Arup in two months, drawingsand permits were fast-tracked , and site preparation and assembly tookonly ten weeks.


Exploded isometric of basic structure


Cross section

Shipping containers are impressive in their natural habitat, stacked high on a quayside, and they are equally satisfying when used artfully as building blocks, combining strength and implied lightness. As with the sculptures of Donald Judd, each red steel box is superficially similar, yet subtly different from the rest in its labeling and patina. Sun and interior lighting bring out the texture and the scarring from hard use .

The interior, with its dimly- lit nave and aisles, and light-washed columns, has the majesty of a great cathedral at evensong. From the dark void emerge still and moving sepia-toned images of Colbert’s peaceable kingdom, an idealized world of picturesque natives cavorting with wild beasts.


The two halves of the museum flank a concourse with a butterfly roof. Tubes used for casting concrete pillars are employed for low budget pediments

The languorous movements of cheetahs, whales and people seem choreographed to the New Age score. Seen on an lmax screen, these images would dazzle, but the grandeur and chiaroscuro of the architecture diminish their impact, while arousing aestheticexpectations the pictures are hard pressed to meet. ‘I want the building to enhance the emotional charge of thisinterplay of man and nature,’ says project manager John Picard. ‘The museum should be performance-based and not just shelter, incorporating new technologies for spot cooling and generating power.’

A solar cloth developed by Siemens may be used for future roof membranes- though it is currently ten times the cost of PVC- and employed in conjunction with a fuel cell. ‘And yet,’ Picard insists, ‘the museum has to stay simple.You can measure the efficiency of packing up and moving by the number of containers you need , like the number of bags you take to the airport’. The Nomadic Museum is expected to travel to Tokyo and Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Europe. In all these varied climates, the basic building blocks are unlikely to change, and, like Ban’s inventive shelters for victims of natural disaster, they demonstrate the architect’s commitment to the art of frugality.


Architect: Shigeru Ban

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