Containing ‘places’?

Hatch, Oxford Road, Manchester

By Prof Gary Warnaby

Parts of many town and city centres have almost begun to resemble docklands in the sense that shipping containers – sometimes singly, sometimes stacked in different permutations – have appeared in urban space. By transplanting these metal boxes into a different context their use has changed – from shipping to, primarily, shopping.  This repurposing has led to a neologism – ‘cargotecture’ – to describe the resulting architectural adaptations into shopping venues (and in many cases, peoples’ homes). It is one manifestation of a broader concept of ‘container urbanism’, where repurposed shipping containers become, among other things, part of broader place-making initiatives.

“This standardisation enables a far greater flexibility, both in its original use, through incorporation into intermodal supply chains, and also through adaptive architectural re-use.”

Using shipping containers in this way is explained in part by their flexibility and design. In one way, their design is standardised and inflexible – Martin describes the shipping container very simply as a ‘box’ for transporting stuff: “its size, shape and form were agreed upon, made standard, and applied on a near universal basis”[1]. However, this standardisation – now widely captured in the baseline ‘twenty-foot equivalent’ (or TEU) shipping container – enables a far greater flexibility, both in its original use, through incorporation into intermodal supply chains (being equally part of road-based and sea-borne transportation), and also through adaptive architectural re-use. Indeed, a search through Google Images reveals the ingenuity and effort expended in modifying these structures to create new spaces in which to live and work. 

Schwarzer discusses the development of container urbanism as occurring in two ‘moments’[2]. He suggests that the first arose within late modernism (from around 1960 to the early 1970s), with a somewhat utopian view of ‘industrializing’ construction, whereby buildings would be pieced together from standardised elements in a way that facilitated both fixed infrastructure, and also a more mobile and flexible configuration of standardised prefabricated building units.  The second ‘moment’, dating from the new millennium, he regards as more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ phenomenon. Rather than the grand masterplans of the 1960s, this moment was characterised by “learning to make use of existing infrastructure and disused industrial artifacts, like the shipping box – fostering a vision of the city as fresh as the latest tweet and as august as a caravan marketplace”[3]. Indeed, Schwarzer describes this second moment in terms of “shipping container heterotopias”, highlighting the way(s) in which this modernist design icon[4] has been appropriated as alternative ‘other’ places to live, work, and – increasingly – consume, in urban space.

The term ‘heterotopia’ – literally “another place” or “place of otherness”[5] – can be regarded in an urban context as referring to “spaces of an alternative ordering”[6] and often one will find shopping and leisure developments made from shipping containers in such alternative, and often previously disused, spaces.  Such locations are regarded as exhibiting interstitiality; in other words, constituting what Harris calls “leftover space”[7], existing in the cracks of the dominant urban orders. Tonnelat defines interstices as:

“…the residual spatial products of contemporary urban planning.  They are the useless leftovers of the process of design and use of urban space…As such, the main property of the interstice is its temporary absence of attributed function; the interstice definitionally exists between a functional past and future”[8].

This definition also highlights a temporal dimension to this “inbetween-ness”[9]; existence between a functional past and future evident in the fact that very often the retail activity taking place in shipping containers is of the ‘pop-up’ variety. Pop-up retailing has been described in terms of an ephemeral, retail-oriented setting that can facilitate direct, experientially oriented customer-brand interaction for a limited period[10], and has become an ever more important element in the contemporary retail industry. Harris notes that pop-up “is now a fashionable choice for creative start-ups and a popular marketing tactic for global brands”[11]. The two particular examples of shipping containers repurposed as retail/leisure facilities discussed below – one (with two further offshoots) in Greater London, and the other in Manchester – have explicit spatial and temporal interstitiality: they exist in leftover space and have an emphasis on pop-up retailing activity. Furthermore, both could arguably be said to have created new ‘places’ within the areas where they are located.

Boxpark – the self-styled ‘world’s first pop-up mall’ (see – has a combination of food vendors and retailers of a variety of different merchandise categories over two levels. Opened in 2011, and initially comprising 60 repurposed shipping containers occupied by a rotating cast of retail tenants, it occupies part of the old Bishopsgate Station goods yard in the Shoreditch area of London. Its website states that the Boxpark concept:

“…utilised the modern street food market and placed local and global brands side by side, to create a unique shopping and dining destination. Entirely constructed out of refitted shipping containers, Boxpark showcases a unique position in being able to offer affordable and flexible leases for lifestyle brands, cafes, restaurants and galleries to trade and succeed”.

Originally intended to remain open for five years, Boxpark seems to have become a semi-permanent part of this area of London; and indeed, further Boxparks have subsequently opened in Croydon and Wembley in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Boxpark Croydon is built in the form of a semi-enclosed market hall surrounded by shipping containers hosting over 35 units, which are primarily food and drink-oriented. It is again intended to remain open for five years. Boxpark Wembley covers an area of 50,000 sq. ft, with a 2,000-person capacity events space also.

“Both Boxpark and Hatch are aimed at a particular demographic – younger, trendy, more ‘creative’ (dare I use the word ‘hipster’?) – and, as such, are examples of what Ferreri terms “the experimental and pioneering” in relation to temporary urban projects.”

In Manchester, the appropriation of otherwise unused (and perhaps otherwise unuseable) urban space by shipping container retailing is exemplified by the Hatch development (see, located on Oxford Road beside the city’s main university district. Hatch lies directly underneath the Mancunian Way, the two-mile long elevated motorway to the south of the city centre, forming part of the city’s inner ring road. It again comprises a set of repurposed shipping containers with an open-air streetfood courtyard, housing over 30 creative, independent businesses. According to its website, Hatch “offers a range of pop-up and semi-permanent containers designed to attract aspiring entrepreneurs and established traders looking to try something new”.

Both Boxpark and Hatch are aimed at a particular demographic – younger, trendy, more ‘creative’ (dare I use the word ‘hipster’?) – and, as such, are examples of what Ferreri terms “the experimental and pioneering”[12] in relation to temporary urban projects. Furthermore, they also raise issues relating to wider processes of gentrification? Indeed, one must also be mindful of the fact that there is, according to Colomb, “a delicate balancing act on the part of urban policy-makers who seek to harness alternative or countercultural movements in the city marketing discourse and urban development strategies”[13].  The role of developments such as Boxpark and Hatch – and how they are potentially perceived as new ‘places’ within our urban environments – is an area for further, more substantive research inquiry.

[1] Craig Martin (2016) Shipping Container. London: Bloomsbury Academic (p. 32)

[2] Mitchell Schwarzer (2013, February) The emergence of container urbanism, Places Journal. Available at: [Accessed 3 December 2019]

[3] Schwarzer, ibid. Online

[4] Gary Warnaby (2019) ‘Retail Containers’, The Modernist – 31 – in-between, pp. 12-15.

[5] Stuart Elden (2009)’Heterotopia’, in Gregory, D., Johnston, R., Pratt, G. Watts, M. J. and Whatmore, S. The Dictionary of Human Geography (5th Edition) Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 330.

[6] Kevin Hetherington (1997) The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering. London: Routledge.

[7] Ella Harris (2015) Navigating popup geographies: Urban space-times of flexibility, interstitiality and immersion. Geography Compass 9(11) 592-603, p. 596.

[8] Stéphane Tonnelat (2008) ‘Out of frame’ The (in)visible life of urban interstices – a case study in Charenton-le-Pont, Paris, France. Ethnography, 9(3): 291-324, p. 293.

[9] Warnaby, ibid. p. 13.

[10] Gary Warnaby and Charlotte Shi (2018) Pop-up Retailing: Managerial and Strategic Perspectives. Heidelberg: Springer.

[11] Harris, ibid. p. 592).

[12] Mara Ferreri (2015) The seductions of temporary urbanism. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 15 (1), 181-191, p. 182.

[13] Claire Colomb (2012) Pushing the urban frontier: Temporary uses of spaces, city marketing, and the creative city discourse in 2000s Berlin. Journal of Urban Affairs, 34 (2), 131-152, p. 143.