Thursday, June 18, 2009

Remix Architecture

In architectural circles, Adam Kalkin is regarded as something of an oddball. At last fall’s CUSP design conference in Chicago, the New Jersey architect and provocateur delivered an entire lecture wearing a rubber face mask; at the installation of one of his pre-fab homes last summer at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, Kalkin included a 5:26-minute video of himself playing tennis with his mother (the video, itself, a kind of pre-fabrication of a yard). Then, this past spring, in London, Kalkin “performed” John Cage’s controversial 4’33” while holding a violin, interrupting his own, mock-version of the piece after 17 minutes with some words about his work. “Adam continues to be subversive, and subvert what architecture is supposed to be,” Alastair Gordon, a design historian, told a small group that gathered at the Municipal Art Society of New York in March to hear Kalkin speak. The topic was Kalkin’s new book, Quik Build: Adam Kalkin’s ABC of Container Architecture, a survey of 32 Kalkin projects, including Bunny Lane, the home he built for himself and his family that fits a 19th century clapboard cottage inside an industrial hanger. The book also includes Kalkin’s famous Push Button House, a furnished room that unfolds from a shipping container with hydraulic walls. [Check out the video, here.]

But to call Kalkin subversive misses the point. Consider this artist one of the most daring remix artists now pushing at the edges of today’s data-rich culture. Where online satire now has remixer Andrew Fillipone [Charlie Rose by Samuel Beckett] and new-wave graphic art has Shepard Fairey [poster remix artist and creator of the iconic Obama Hope poster], architecture has Kalkin. “Some of the remix stuff is amazing,” says Kalkin, who buys surplus shipping containers from the ports of New Jersey for $1,500 to $2,000 each, then remixes and upcycles them into high-end glamour projects like the 12-container, $500,000 Adriance House in northern Maine and Kalkin House at Vermont’s Shelbourne Museum to a new, 12-story, midrise condo project in downtown Salt Lake City.

Sure, Kalkin isn’t the only person using shipping containers to create inexpensive, recyclable housing: Lot-Ek, for one, began offering recycled containers a decade ago as an alternative to chrome-and-glass modernism. But Kalkin is, by far, the most imaginative of the container architects—if not the most philosophical. “I have a fascination with ambiguity…with bending the rules,” says Kalkin, who studied philosophy and linguistics as an undergraduate, specializing in the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein. “In my work, what I like about the use of shipping containers in that it affords a chance to successfully play with people’s expectations and violate their sense of expectation to create surprises. That’s neurologically how we derive pleasure from music; I think it’s the same operation here, with these Quik House projects. The result is so convincing and so exclamatory and so surprising and, like, Whoa! It is all kind of wonderful because of that.”

Kalkin’s love of re-contextualization also is obvious in his lectures: at CUSP in Chicago last fall, he shared one of his favorite examples of remix from the world of entertainment—60s crooner Paul Anka’s rendering of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Anka doesn’t simply “cover” the Nirvana hit, Kalkin says. “It’s a perfectly unexpected corollary to the grunge thing. Cobain would have never been caught in the same universe as Paul Anka but here’s this orbital leap that works so well when joined that it’s beautiful”—kind of like what Kalkin attempts with his work: new visual and structural dialogues between the old and the new; the organic and synthetic, between one set of ideas and another.

While the downturned economy has all but put a stop to Kalkin’s high-end creations [a recent project to build a Unitarian Church out of containers was dropped, along with some pricey renovations involving some brownstones in Manhattan] the low-rise economy has begun celebrating his work: he was recently asked to build 50 units of affordable container housing in Newark, not far from the docks that supply his stash of materials. And Kalkin is especially excited that his drawing-board designs for refugee dwellings in New Orleans and Afghanistan, featured in his new book, are also getting renewed attention. “In rich countries, containers are constantly going out filled with stuff to places that don’t have stuff or that don’t have anything to ship back, so these containers end up stuck there, as a kind of scrap,” Kalkin says. “There’s an economic asymmetry that makes sure you always have these dead-ends and backlogs of these containers, and they’re usually in economically disadvantaged areas where housing is scarce to begin with. So it actually works, by some mistaken formula, that these things end up in poor areas. The possibilities are terribly exciting."

—Marcia Stepanek

(This post first appeared on PopTech and is being reposted here with permission)

(Photograph of Adam Kalkin's shipping container house: Peter Aaron/Esto)

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