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Tuesday22 July 2014

Building Study

Landroom's RSPB complex

Looking north across Rainham Marsh towards the elevated A13.
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Landroom’s complex of buildings including a bird hide for the RSPB’s Rainham Marsh site in east London makes a novel use of old shipping containers

In 1967, the critic Reyner Banham made a pilgrimage to the recently established container ports at Stratford and Tilbury in east London, environments that both in their extreme automation and yawning horizontality looked nothing at all like the bustling and compact upriver ports that they would soon kill off. Banham was seduced. In an article, “Flatscape with Containers”, he described the scene at Stratford:

“The given landscape is wide, raw, flat and sandy under the expanse of sky that would make poets rave if it wasn’t the southern end of Hackney marshes. Nothing stands more than a truck’s height, except where containers have been stacked two deep along the sides of the terminal, and beside them the outlines of the two big Morris straddle-cranes dominate the sky… It’s one of the great sights of London.”

In this scene, Banham found a suggestion of a possible architecture, one that in its mutability and semiological neutrality might embody a radical libertarianism. That perception gelled with the preoccupations of the sixties avant-garde; indeed, as the author acknowledged, Cedric Price had proposed the use of “container technology, near enough” in his unrealised Potteries Thinkbelt project of 1964. Yet it was a vision still far ahead of its time: the first significant real world experiments in the architectural use of containers would not be undertaken for another 20 years.

The breakthrough was partly technical — a flurry of patents relating to the technology’s sound adaptation were lodged in the late eighties — but the more fundamental change was an economic one, namely the increasing global trade disparity. The number of containers required to ship goods exported by the developing world was now far greater than that demanded by the return traffic. As transporting empty containers proved prohibitively costly, western docks found themselves with a surplus. A trade emerged. Such “deadheads” may have undertaken no more than a single journey, but suddenly they could be had for a bargain price.

The corten steel containers come from China. The composting toilet stands in the foreground.

Credit: Sue Barr

The corten steel containers come from China. The composting toilet stands in the foreground.

In his enthusiasm for the brave new worlds of Stratford and Tilbury, Banham neglected to mention that these scenes had been created at considerable environmental cost. Each had erased a vast swathe of the ancient marshland landscape that had once extended uninterrupted along the north bank of the Thames. By the time of his visit few stretches remained, but the 352ha Rainham Marsh was one. This landscape owed its survival to the fact that the Ministry of Defence used it as a firing range. It retained that function until the late nineties, but when English Partnerships then submitted a proposal to cover it with warehouses, a campaign was launched to save the site. Of particular concern was the risk that the marsh’s rich ecosystem — which supports rare water voles, teal, short-eared owls, shovellers and redshanks — would be jeopardised. The campaign was successful, and in 2000 the land was acquired by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Three years ago, the charity built a visitor centre designed by Van Heyningen & Haward at the entrance to the site. It is a touch voguish, but not bad — a showcase of environmental design features, the most prominent of which are a couple of wind cowls which lend the structure a compellingly figurative presence in this flat world.

Elsewhere, the RSPB has accommodated storage and basic office facilities in a more ad hoc manner, through the use of minimally customised shipping containers. Save for the remains of the old brick shooting ranges — dilapidated but magically still crowned by enormous steel plate numerals — these are the only “built” elements on the site, and as such have attained something of the quality of a local vernacular.

It was with that thought in mind that the charity recently commissioned a new complex of buildings comprising a bird hide, a field classroom and a composting toilet for use by school parties. These too have been built from containers although as adapted by Landroom, the practice headed by architect Peter Beard, they have a considerably greater sense of refinement than the others on the site.

The hide has been created by welding together two 12m-long containers.

Credit: Sue Barr

The hide has been created by welding together two 12m-long containers.

The complex lies a five-minute walk from the visitor centre, a journey made partly on land and partly on the boardwalks that slice through tall reeds growing out of silt lagoons. Work on establishing this approach had begun before Landroom’s appointment, but the practice was able to steer the design’s detailed resolution. Plans to employ off-the-shelf humpback bridges for the smaller crossings were thankfully binned, while a consistent language of bespoke handrails and benches was imposed throughout.

Two of the boardwalks are particularly lengthy. The first adopts a languorous zig-zag, while the second is ramrod straight. Its directionality is emphasised by a bund which follows a parallel course to the north. Rising to eye-height, it blocks our view but is broken midway along its 100m length. Here, the boardwalk branches through the gap before immediately bifurcating again. One route takes us to the classroom and toilet block, the other to the hide.

The containers originate from China but were sourced in the Netherlands. They are standard products but have the aesthetic distinction of being made from corten steel. Landroom has deployed them in a loose ring, rather in the manner of wagons circled in anticipation of an attack by hostile natives. The boardwalks are supported on 3m softwood piles and following some load-testing conducted by engineer Jane Wernick, this technology has been used here too. Clusters of four piles are positioned at the corner of each container, with paired assemblies sufficing for intermediary supports. So propped, the buildings stand half a metre above the water, the reflection serving to flatter their form.

Ultimately, the fixity of this arrangement sets the scheme apart from the kind of responsive, non-rigid architecture that Banham envisaged 40 years ago. It is not just the way the containers are supported that ensures they are to all intents and purposes immobile. Of the three buildings, only the toilet block, created from a single 6m-long container, is of a size that could be easily craned to another position. This is because it accommodates the one programme that was readily reconciled to a container’s standard 2.44m width. The two larger buildings have both been created by laying two units side by side, the junction between them being established by a 400mm onsite-welded gusset of corten steel plate.

The complex is reached from a 100m stretch of boardwalk.

Credit: Sue Barr

The complex is reached from a 100m stretch of boardwalk.

The classroom block has been assembled from one unit of 12m in length and another of 6m, thus creating an L-shaped volume of variable width. We enter via a small lobby in the narrower part of the plan, where a metal grille floor allows us to scrape the mud from our boots directly into the water below. On one side lies a (single-width) store, on the other the (double-width) classroom. Full-height shutters in opposing corners of this room enable cross-ventilation, but the principal view out is by way of a cinematically proportioned fixed window cut into the north wall. It surveys a piece of ground that had previously been obscured by the disposition of buildings and land forms. Almost completely ringed by water and equipped with a series of dipping platforms around its edge, it serves as an outdoor teaching space.

The hide presents a simpler plan comprising two 12m-long containers joined to form a single volume. It is reached by way of an external platform of equivalent dimension which has been lent a room-like character through the introduction of a high perimeter screen of freely spaced timbers.

The hide’s internal treatment follows that of the classroom: floor, ceiling and walls are uniformly lined in softwood. The long window also reappears, but here at double the length. The structural implications of the gesture doubtless caused the odd moment of anxiety, but the effect is stunning. We look out across an expanse of water, the edges of which have been significantly adjusted. To the west lies a habitat bank which has been constructed from sand sourced for its stickiness and reinforced by lengths of hazel. A little further away to the east rises a more substantial landform, which is again intended to attract wildlife but also tactfully edits Van Heyningen & Haward’s building from view.

The structural challenge of joining two such large containers together has also necessitated the introduction of a steel along the line of the gusset. In order to keep its depth to a minimum, a couple of columns have been introduced along its length. In a wonderfully surreal move, tree trunks have been employed for this purpose — a nod perhaps to the shipping container’s status as the primitive hut of our times.

Flatscape With Containers was published at a moment when a post-modern agenda was beginning to be formulated, and was conceived very much as an attack on that development. Banham was particularly dismissive of the semiologically-minded critic George Baird, lambasting him as “the arch priest of the cult of values” — a position at an obvious remove from his own support for a machine-like architecture of “human service”. The rich perversity of Landroom’s scheme is that while it draws on the iconography of Banham’s future, it invests it with the formal and semantic specificity for which Baird was arguing. It is a project that serves to organise our experience of its extraordinary site and, through its artful engagement with the material and spatial qualities that are to be found there, to interpret it too.


Credit: Sue Barr


Project team

Architect Peter Beard/Landroom, Client Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates, Quantity surveyor Appleyard & Trew, Building services Fulcrum, Main contractor Kind & Co, Groundworks & piling Hugh Pearl, Container supplyBoxtainer, Specialist steelwork M&G Engineering

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