Building With Beer and the Material Ecosystem

Material repurposing in architecture has more than a few negative associations to overcome. We often think of small scale do-it-yourself constructions, like greenhouses made from plastic bottles or pallet buildings that look like, well, piles of pallets. Even the term, “repurposing,” brings about visions of kitschy craft projects – perhaps a vintage suitcase converted into a table or an old washboard used as the face for a clock. As much as they may feature the character, nostalgia, or beautiful patina of the original item, they ignore its strengths. The object has been co-opted, but the function has not. Many projects have been successful in transcending this aesthetic.

Shigeru Ban’s Paper Loghouse.

Recently, while researching the architecture of Shigeru Ban, I came across construction photos of his paper tube homes. Used for relief shelter following natural or man-made disasters, they use this cheap (sometimes even free) material with an inherently structural shape to enclose and bear load. What caught my attention first, however, was the plinth on which the structures reside. A platform of beer crates is used to elevate the homes, allowing them to breath, keeping their paper architecture from absorbing water from the ground.

Beer crate plinth, supporting floor with paper tube walls.

This material has a very particular connection to my childhood. My parents being bar owners (with the bar attached to our home, no less), our storage rooms were well stocked with empty beer crates, boxes, and cases of all kinds. Naturally, this resulted in a long series of alcohol-themed play forts that no doubt raised an eyebrow when reported to the parents of my gradeschool friends. To me, beer crates were simply Legos scaled to the size of a child.
The Shigeru Ban discovery prompted a quest for beer crate architecture, and it delivered some interesting results. The first, a pavilion by students at the University of Applied Science in Detmold, Germany, treats the beer crate as a volumetric pixel in creating a music venue resembling a form active structure. Even with the branding plainly visible on each unit, the design clearly speaks to the homogeneity of its components as they dissolve into a whole. Applied to an elegant form, the crates themselves become more elegant than each could be in isolation. The result is repetition at its finest.

The Boxel pavilion.

The second, also a pavilion, attempts to make a more provocative statement through its choice of building material. From the designers, Architects SHSH:

“We desired the contents of the pavilion to ask, 50 years later, what the notions of progress, universalism and happiness had brought in their time through the system of international exhibitions, and how could a ‘package’ building be enrolled in the parentage of an architectural solution that manages to convey the architectural questions of a given period in time.”

Working at a larger scale that diminishes the impact of each beer crate, the structure plays on more traditional forms and pays tribute to our historic expectations of architecture.

The beer crate pavilion in Brussels, adjacent to the historic “Atomium” building from the 1958 Universal World Exhibition.

The columns, vaults, and domes contrast with the fabricated, hollow, mass-manufactured and orthogonal bricks. If the reusable, recyclable, and redeployable speak to the current crisis of architecture, how must we transform our preconceptions of what construction should be?

Beer crate pavilion, interior colonnade.

Beer crate pavilion, interior colonnade.

Beer crate pavilion, vault detail.

The beer crates of my childhood were a better toy than anything purchased in a store. In a way, the naïveté each child has regarding what can constitute a suitable fort-building material mirrors a larger conversation that architects must have about how we build. Are the refined, single-use, technologically advanced materials we have become accustomed to in fact not suitable for the vast majority of projects? Should our designs become subservient to the afterlife of building components, such that we can integrate with a larger material ecosystem?

Michler, Andrew. “Brilliant Boxel Pavilion Is Built From 2,000 Beer Boxes.” Brilliant Boxel Pavilion Is Built From 2,000 Beer Boxes. Inhabitat, 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. <http://inhabitat.com/boxel-pavilion-a-brilliant-use-of-beer-boxes/&gt;.

“Shigeru Ban: Paper Loghouse.” Designboom. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.
<http://www.designboom.com/history/ban_paper.html&gt;.

Yoneda, Yuka. “Intoxicating Pavilion Made of 33,000 Yellow Beer Crates.” Inhabitat. 23 Sept. 2012. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. <http://inhabitat.com/intoxicating-pavilion-made-of-33000-yellow-beer-crates/&gt;.

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