Aug. 5, 2011

Chris French

How was this project different from other things you have worked on?

It’s different in that we don’t typically work where we’re modifying things. We aren’t taking things that exist and altering them. Also the sensibilities of it, from a fabrication or craft standpoint…it’s more spontaneous than most of the work we do. I’m not saying there wasn’t preparation in this, because there was a lot, but the execution of it was more spontaneous and intuitive.

Is that because of client needs? In terms of what people wanted to see?

No, it’s just the medium or the venue. It’s not a home where the interaction is going to be as intimate. If you consider the shipping container as a material, it’s not the finest of materials; the finished product is not expected to be something that is super refined.

There’s a practicality to it?

There was definitely some more function over form. There’s something very deceiving about shipping containers. They seem very simple and straightforward, but there’s so much consideration in plumbing and [getting] electricity into the walls. You’re dealing with a non-standard shell, so there are different building conditions.

Talk about something you did that was totally different – maybe in the metalwork that you used or the process you went through.

Seventy-five percent of what we normally do is in the shop. Then we take it out and reinstall it or get it into its final place. But because of the nature of this project: the size of the component [the container] and the size of our shop. it was all done remotely. It was an interesting challenge; everyday was an “install day.” We’re taking tools out of the shop and going across the street. Everything they are doing is “in the field.” That was challenging and also engaging. It felt like we were out in the battlefield.

So, in looking at the broader ideas of proxy, I was thinking about the soon-to-be art gallery and how it will be both temporary and mobile. Did you think about that a lot?

I have definitely had personal fantasies about what I want to do with these things. For years I’ve wanted…I hate to say “summer home” because it sounds so horrible, but just a place to go outside your everyday norm…like camp. Which is not a realistic perspective for me… could, in a controlled environment such as a fabrication shop, outfit containers, put them on the truck, have them taken out to the sticks, put them on some footings—maybe you put money in some really good footings—and then you’ve got your go-to place…Each container is just a little bedroom, with maybe a deck and composting toilet. And then in the middle you have two containers with an open-air kitchen and wood-fired woks, a wood-fired oven, and gardens in between them all. It really wouldn’t cost much for what you would get. It’s somewhere between pitching a tent and building a house.

Move it around and around. It’s like either a really clunky motor home or a really mobile house. So you would think about this kind of stuff when you were working inside the container?

I had wanted to do it in my backyard when I first bought my house twelve years ago. I had a pretty dilapidated garage and thought: “Why don’t I just buy a shipping container?” All the shops I’ve ever been in have had containers that were used to store extra tools and hardware. We would always cut them open and throw a skylight in—really lowbrow alterations.

And there’s that attitude of making something precisely for its use, nothing more.

There’s a sort of responsibility in taking something that has already been made and just appropriating it. I will say, until this project, I had never thought about using a high-cubed container. From a building perspective, it seemed like a more feasible idea. The eight-foot ones are little claustrophobic, but the nine-foot-six inch ones are pretty special. It’s a huge difference.

I don’t know how many people outside of architecture will care about this, but give me a basic rundown of what you actually used, what parts did you alter with metal? Explain it to a layman.

Some of the containers we got had been cut in half, so they no longer had a rigid end. So, we had to make it rigid again. We used structural tube steel shapes to do that. The tubes mimicked the shape of the “virgin container.” So those were two inch-by-six inch tubes with big walls—pretty heavy duty. We would make a frame that would mimic the end and then it would get welded to that container. We would weld the entire seam, so that would be upwards of thirty-six feet of linear feet of welding. Anywhere where we had to put a door in we would cut the core ten corrugation with a metal blade on a skill saw. So we would weld our straight edge to the container then use that to cut with a saw. Then all of those openings had to get framed with tube steel shapes as well, otherwise the corrugation would wiggle….anywhere where we have passages, like Smitten and their dishwasher. The corrugation is just [made] to keep the stuff inside from getting wet. So when you cut that open, it gets very wiggly—it’s structurally compromised. We would make a doorframe out of tube steel and then weld that in and it would get rigid again.. Then on the first round [of container fabrications] we made custom doors, which had plate steel on them and tube frames.

To go in between the smaller doors?

Yeah. Anywhere where we put a new end, like flat plate instead of corrugation, it was primarily because… we didn’t know where to get (corrugation). It’s not something you just go buy. From everything that everyone researched, it seemed to be pretty exclusive to the container industry.

Do you typically imitate materials in your work?

There have been jobs where there are existing metal details that we mimic. Or we’ve done things where we laser cut floral patterns to match existing guardrails. It’s a special part of metal fabrication. There are iron shops out there and job shops galore, but the way they work is: you draw it, they built it, and you come get it. If it doesn’t work, it’s not their problem. Whereas, I come out of art, I went to art school. I’m obsessed with fasteners and materials. I’m a huge research geek. I have to know everything about what I am doing.

Do you have a lot of artists or people coming out of art school also working for you?

Almost everyone that I’ve ever had working for me, and who is currently working for me, comes from either architecture or art. One guy that currently works for me didn’t go to art school, but he cut his teeth making custom bike frames. He’s got some serious fundamentals and tight tolerances. It’s not art, but it’s the same sensibility.

What were your first impressions of this big thing kind of landing in the center of this very urban, downtown-ish, populated part of the city?

It’s guerilla style; it’s punk rock. That’s what I like about it.


Interview by envelope a+d and originally appeared in the zine ON SITE IN THE CITY.