Ship to Be Square: Meet LOT-EK, The Shipping Container Architects Behind the Whitney’s Pop-Up Classroom

The Whitney Studio under construction
(Courtesy LOT-EK)

The Whitney's forthcoming pop-up studio, designed to host the museum's supplementary educational programming, will have a bold presence in its Madison Avenue courtyard. The dramatic black cube features a diagonal swath of neon yellow glass that cuts into it on one side and runs over the roof to the other, providing at once two windows and a skylight, brightening the interior, and allowing passersby a glimpse of what’s going on inside. It abounds in angular geometries, sharply cut diagonals, and plays on the most basic of shapes. While the construction is relatively straight forward, it stands out radically, marking a sharp contrast to the museum's concrete exterior.

It’s also made entirely of shipping containers, the material of choice for LOT-EK (a play on "low technology"), the New York-based architectural firm commissioned for the project. To construct the pop-up studio, they stacked two layers of containers and partially cut the interior to create a mezzanine, resulting in a succinct, 472-square-foot minimalist cube. While shipping containers come in one shape, the rigid rectangular prism, the firm doesn't find them limiting, according to principal Giuseppe Lignano.  

"It’s not very dissimilar from art that went on in the '70s," he told ARTINFO, referring to the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Simon Gouverneur. "We're playing with these kind of plain, basic geometric shapes, but distorting them, intersecting them, splitting them open, making them do things they don’t really want to do. By imposing another geometry, we come up with surprising shapes and volumes."

Lignano and fellow principal Ada Tolla have been perfecting their use of these leftover boxes of steel for nearly 20 years, having founded LOT-EK in Naples in 1993. Devoting themselves to sustainable architecture, they’ve made it an inherent part of their practice to “upcycle” these overproduced vessels, to make use of what they refer to as a "marginal aspect of our civilation." At the Whitney in 2004, LOT-EK presented their Mobile Dwelling Unit, a complete shipping container housing structure with functioning bathing, cooking, and sleeping amenities. The firm is also playing a hand in Manhattan’s Pier 57 redevelopment program, which will include a shipping container market with a rooftop mezzanine. Their next shipment lands at the Whitney in April.

To see more shipping container architecture by LOT-EK click on the slide show.