Trash to Treasure for Traveling Museum

August 01, 2006 |

Most of us look at shipping containers and see … er, shipping containers. But not the designers of the traveling Nomadic Museum.

Architect Shigeru Ban, of Tokyo, and San Francisco-based Gensler used 152 shipping containers stacked in a checkerboard pattern four containers high to form walls for the three-gallery museum. They were driven by artist Gregory Colbert's vision to house his traveling art exhibit in a 100% sustainable structure. The museum was most recently stationed in Santa Monica, Calif.

Their plan was to use only local reused or found building materials to form an inexpensive structure that could be assembled and disassembled quickly, leaving no footprint on the museum site. Their choice of materials, such as shipping containers, was also meant to reflect the journey of the exhibit, “Ashes and Snow,” a collection of more than 100 large-scale photographs and 35mm films that depict interactions between animals and humans all over the world.

“The shipping containers travel the world and then sit in container yards,” said Irwin Miller, project director and designer at Gensler. “They have a whole history of their own that complements the exhibit.”

As visitors start to look at the art work, the museum fades into the background, said Miller.

The exhibit is packed into a dozen of the containers as it travels from place to place. It debuted in New York City in March 2005 before its January to May 2006 stint in Santa Monica. Next stop: Tokyo, in 2007.

The remaining containers are borrowed at each new location, along with the recycled paper tubes for the roof and reusable wooden planks and local gravel for the floor, all of which can be recycled after the show.

Because the designers wanted a light-weight roof material that could be put up and taken down easily, they chose an extruded aluminum structure. Triangular paper tube trusses were placed atop 35-foot-tall, 30-inch-diameter paper tube columns that stand in the museum's interior. Above that, an extruded aluminum truss system was connected with PVC tensile fabric and affixed to the top of the shipping container walls. The paper tube structure also acts to resist slight deflections of the roof above and acts as an armature from which to hang Colbert's artwork.

The unconditioned space uses natural ventilation to recycle air through gaps in the underside of the roof connections.

Stacking the storage containers in a checkerboard pattern, meaning every other container space is a hole, posed additional wind- and waterproofing problems. To deflect wind and water and create a negative shadow space, they installed a custom system of diagonally slanted infill panels in each empty space. Lights were installed in the panel spaces to illuminate the building at night.

To meet seismic requirements, plates were welded to the top of chance anchors, which were drilled into the sand approximately 10 feet. The welded plates were the only fixed connections in the building. The containers were attached to one another with twist-lock connectors, four per container.

A new addition to the Santa Monica museum was a bookstore and cinema area in the middle of the structure. The bookstore was made entirely of recycled paper wall tubes, cardboard tables, plywood, and paper panels. The 500-sf store was built off-site in panels of 20 feet or less to fit in the shipping containers and assembled on-site in less than 24 hours.

Construction of the 56,000-sf museum space took less than two months. The entire project, from the beginning of the design process to the end of construction, was completed in four-and-a-half months.

The museum can be disassembled and packed for shipping in less than two weeks, and the Building Team always leaves the site better than they found it, just as the animals Colbert observed left their habitats better than they were when they arrived. In Santa Monica, the anchors were pulled from the ground and the parking lot where the museum sat was patched and repaved, leaving no sign that a structure once stood there.

Ban and Gensler received a gold award for their Santa Monica installation of the museum in the 2006 Industrial Design Excellence Awards.

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