No deposit, no return

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The container village, Art Positions at Art Basel Miami.

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The hourglass installation by New York artist Aaron Young.

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Inside the hourglass container (Harris Libermann Gallery).

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Outside Kenny Schachter's container (Rove Gallery, London).

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Kenny greeting the artlovers.

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Two windows in Kenny's container (Rove Gallery).

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The long side of Kenny's Zaha container.

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The containers, after sandblasting, in Steve Ekstrom's backyard, Midland, Texas.

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Insulation and framing in one of the sleeping units.

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After being trucked 150 miles to the Black Castle Ranch, the containers are unloaded.

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A crane lowers one of the containers directly onto its footings.

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Completed, the containers from the road (4WD only).

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The walkway connecting the containers.

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The Star Viewing Platform, daytime.

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The view to the Housetop Mountains. (Castle is behind us.)

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The Housetop Mountains, the steel decks and a ramp so we can drive a four-wheeler up to park in the storage unit.

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Shorty Robinson (a local rancher who gave named this place Camp Cinco, for the five containers) and Joe Brittain (our studio manager). Which one is the New Yorker?

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And, as the sun sets over the Camp Cinco . . . .

aMERICA IS FILLING up with shipping containers, as anyone who has gone by the Port of Elizabeth on the New Jersey Turnpike can tell you. The Chinese evidently don't want them back; it’s cheaper for them to make new ones. And so Americans are trying to figure out how to recycle them, including turning them into houses, as everyone from Metropolis magazine to Bob Vila have pointed out.

My friend, Kenny Schachter, the publisher of Rove magazine and what we now call a gallerist in London, bought a big 40-footer and got a famous architect to dress it up for Art Basel Miami in early December. I am not sure I am allowed to say that the architect was Zaha Hadid, who reportedly was unhappy with the results. But the exhibit inside was entirely of her work.

Kenny’s container was part of the “Art Positions” sub-fair at the beach. Some galleries who didn’t want to pay for a stand in the convention hall (or who were not allowed in, for some reason) could set up shop in a container. Part of the deal was a simple vinyl skin over each container, I guess to take away the curse of the railroad car look.

But with hundreds of dealers and thousands of artists, the problems is how do you stand out. The Art Position container format helped. Instead having a booth, you had your own space. And next to the containerized galleries, there was a nice little bar and cafe, also made out of containers.

Kenny thought they looked too much alike on the outside, and had his container sprayed with stucco and the walls pierced with slanted window openings reminiscent of Marcel Breuer’s big window in the Whitney.

At the big show in the conventional hall, the stands with the most traffic were those with a interesting variety of works of art at different price, and a couple of late de Chirico’s, or maybe a middling Lichtenstein to get people’s attention. There seemed to be fewer customers at the one-man stands. But, from the crowds entering the Zaha Hut, it must have worked for Kenny.

Some of the other containers also had single works. The best was a single installation that was a kind of hourglass by Aaron Young, except that he didn’t turn the whole thing upside down when it filled up. I could see guys on the roof shoveling sand down a hole, but I am not sure how they got it out when it was done.

Hey, that’s art.

It is not clear how much got sold, but there were estimates upwards of $500 million in three days. So not everyone went for the parties.

*     *     *

I have taken this container thing to heart, or at least to West Texas. There are now five 20-footers lashed together at the foot of Castle Mountain in Brewster County. The nearest town with actual people, is Marathon, pop. 600. The county averages about one person per square mile.

Marathon is the exact opposite of Miami Beach. The latter is humid, flat and filled with extremely trendy people in excellent shape (except for the tourists). The former is empty, rugged and dry. The tourists (on their way to Marfa to see the Donald Judd installations) tend to be have spent more time at the gym than the locals.

In fact, there are hardly any locals. The site is in Brewster County, which is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, but has about one person per square mile. No one at all has lived at Castle Mountain since the Indians were driven out by the Texas Rangers about 110 years ago.

This emptiness and quiet is an excellent antidote to life in New York, but it is not easy to get anyone to build anything there. My partner, Foster, and I bought part of an old sheep ranch, and stayed at the headquarters house until a Kentucky tobacco zillionaire decided to offer us so much money it seemed a pity not to sell the house and some of the land to him. We are left with quite a lot of land, by Manhattan standards, but compared to the neighboring ranches, we are invisible. Which was fine with us, except there was no place to sleep.

Enter Mark Wellen, a successful architect in Midland, Texas. This happens to be the same job description that my father had about 50 years ago. Surprisingly, Midland is a good place for architects, at least when oil is booming, and since Mark had studied my dad’s work he’s been good to work with, and did an inspired remodel job on the house that we’d just sold.

Mark proposed, as the quickest replacement, dragging some containers to the property after fixing them up in town. It turned out a lot better than that sounds.

A contractor, Steve Ekstrom, foolishly took on the project, which was a lot different than his usual work. Steve found five containers (FEMA had bid up the price, due to Katrina, and probably stacked hundreds some place out of reach of anyone on the Gulf Coast who might need them), and then sandblasted them, removing the logos of various Chinese shipping companies, added insulation and lined them with high density fiberboard. In three of them, he put in prefab showers stalls and built HDF cabinets to make a nifty little bathroom. In the fourth he put in a galley, with standard white appliances, one rung up from the cheapest. The fifth, we left, unfinished, for storage, an internet router, a washing machine and a freezer.

A sliding glass door was placed inside the end door on each container, and another window and a hole for an air conditioner/heater was punched on the back.

Mark lined them up in a row, with a little steel-grate catwalk. Steve put in footings, with steel posts that were spot-welded into the sockets that allow containers to stack. Mark designed a simple shed roof that was fitted on the top of each unit, to provide shade. Then he added a little deck, that we call the Star Viewing Platform. This place is so remote, with a vast view and big open sky. At night, when you turn out all the lights, there are no other lights, except when a train goes by in the distance. The Milky Way is a brilliant sash across the middle of the sky.

The exterior is all steel. The containers themselves are Cor-Ten, the rusting steel used in highway guard rails and Richard Serra sculptures, that never has to be painted. Out in the Big Bend it doesn’t rain much, so untreated steel doesn’t rust very fast and I figure I won't have to deal with any structural problems in my lifetime anyway.

In late January, we moved in, and it is a delightful place to be. It’s like you just landed there in a spaceship. (Cf., The Marfa Lights.) The rooms are small, only seven feet wide, but very cozy. And you quickly adjust to the scale, partly because Mark and Steve did such a nice job, and partly because if you are feeling a little cramped, walk out onto the deck and you can see forever.

*     *     *

We’re going to be seeing more and more containers. The key is not the recyling, it’s the portablity. You can get an idea, and take it anywhere.

Your Thoughts (2 comments)

2008-05-19 by Frank Martinez

Home on the Range

Roger: As you know I grew up in West Texas, very near Campo Cinco. Your home captures the spirit of the land and I am sure the night sky is beautiful from your porch. Great design, great work.

2009-07-16 by daniel

question on power provided

Roger, what provides the electric power? Thank you.

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