Visiting Container City

Trinity Buoy Wharf in the Docklands,  London ... October 2007... paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.

paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.

can be found on the web at

the psychology resource information system:

and at the blog:


and at:

About this page ...

it's just something
I'm interested in.

A number of the ideas and perspectives on this page
were provided by a Contemporary Urbanist,
a grad student at the
London School of Economics,
Elizabeth Mattiuzzi.

Lizzy couldn't join me on the day I visited.  She was busy registering for classes.  But as soon as she saw the pictures,  she understood immediately why I wanted to make this journey.  Indeed, she has since visited Trinity Buoy Wharf on her own,  and she's thinking she might write a paper about it. 

More about Container City

The Trinity Buoy Wharf developments are three of a larger group of projects that share the Container City (tm) name. The others can be found at the Container City webpage.

These projects are the work of London's Urban Space Management group (USM), which "is known for the economic renewal of run down or under utilised space for retail, workshop and community uses, in imaginative and cost effective ways."

USM was the developer of London's Spitafield's Market and Greenwich Market, and many other well known projects that don't involve the use of containers.

More about Fatboy's Diner ...
Through Ted Boardman, who is something of a diner enthusiast, I received a note from Larry Cultera, a genuine diner historian. Larry writes: "I already know about this diner. I have been following it for years. This was the former Georgetown Diner from Georgetown, Massachusetts. It was the next to last diner out of the Worcester Lunch Car Factory (built circa 1956-57). John Keith bought the diner in the late 1980's after it had been in storage for around 7 years in Ipswich. John moved it to New Hampshire where he did some restoration to it and then shipped it to Los Angeles hoping to sell it there. That did not work out and he sold it to Trevor Gulliver who started the short lived Fat Boys Diner chain in England. It is the only one now with that name (out of 5, I believe). When John Keith was restoring it, there were 2 original stools left in it. He removed those and put in all new stools. He traded those stools to me for something I had that he needed."

Larry goes on to explain what happened to the stools after that ... Larry publishes regularly in the Journal of the Society of Commercial Archeology.

More examples of container architecture
can be found at the containerbay website

In London, you can catch the Docklands Light Rail Line just across the street from the Tower Underground Station. This rail line will take you to Greenwich, where you can see time and space begin at the prime meridian. If you exit the train at the East India Station - before you get to Greenwich - you will be just a few blocks away from the Container City developments at Trinity Buoy Wharf. All along this rail line, you will notice that this is where the past intersects with the future.

A heavily industrialized area, the Docklands were extensively bombed during WW II. Long abandoned as an industrial wasteland, almost every inch of the Docklands provides space for brownfield development. Riding the train through this section of greater London, one cannot help but recognize that it is is a space from the past and that it is a space from the future. Redevelopment there was well underway when I first visited London 25 years ago. Today, there are still cranes to be seen everywhere.

This is an aerial view of Trinity Buoy Wharf and where you can find it on a map ... zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out and scroll to the left to see where it sits relative to the City of London.

On foot, from the East India Station, and just a few blocks from Trinity Bouy Wharf, you will find a modern neighborhood along the Thames.

At Trinity Buoy Wharf, you will find an enclave of old industry mixed with new, alternative architectural design.

If Container City had been constructed in California, it would be described as an exemplar of the "pre-fab modern" design movement. Or at least the funky component of that movement. But in an old city like London, it is understood to represent "post-industrial industrial modernism."

In reality, Container City represents modern industrial housing. It exemplifies housing that is manufactured and affordable, that is modern in design, and that is traditional in its ability to satisfy a need for place and community.

In London, Container City represents a space for artists, a place to live for those who are comfortable living on the edge between old industry and modern design.

This is where you approach: a walled entrance warning you (in the small sign on the right) not to take photos without permission, and welcoming you to enjoy a fifties era diner.

Fatboy's Diner  is exactly the type of "working man's" palace that one would expect to see "On the Waterfront." It reminded me of the Fog City Diner (shown here along with others of this type) in San Francisco. This diner was used as a backdrop in the film Sliding Doors with Gweneth Paltrow.

I read somewhere that Trinity Buoy Wharf is home to London's only lighthouse. Although it is certainly an industrial aesthetic, it has an elegant design that speaks to the artistry of the craftsman builder.

The other lighthouse on the site was designed for functionality.

Here you see that this is also where new building modules are being fabricated from cargo containers. Notice that the spaces being created are not confined to the 8' wide dimension of the building block.

And you will notice below that the modules do not confine themselves to their intended purpose, which was to serve as boxes to be stacked efficiently on a ship. What makes these units attractive from a structural perspective is that they were designed to be stacked. Their structural utility and uniformity is what allows for design flexibility.

There are actually three projects at this site. Container City I uses a color scheme that is familiar in applications where steel is exposed to wind, water and rust. It also maintains the cargo container's own aesthetic, celebrating its functional heritage.

Although different in its feel, Container City II is not disconnected or removed from the initial project. It is just across a skywalk.

Visiting Trinity Buoy Wharf on foot and without an invitation means that you will not see what lies behind any of the doors or in any of the living spaces. What you can read and what you will notice, however, is that it is a colony of artists and that their works appear here and there throughout the site.

I think one of the most important design features at Container City is the use of the round windows. You can find other container structures that seek to hide their structural heritage. One vendor of container homes in California dresses them with a pitched roof and shuttered windows, making them look like little cottages. Instead, they look like little homes that were made from an old box. The round windows used here not only provide a contrasting shape, but in this environment, they evoke the nautical theme. Here, you see a container shelter on a barge that is used as a classroom.

On the day I visited, there was one studio open. Unfortunately, it was closed when I came back to visit. Ordinarily,  this is a working space and a space to live,  not a curiosity for tourists. There are days when the Wharf is open, but on the day I visited,  it had the feel of a private enclave.

I did, however, have the good fortune to strike up a conversation with a young architect who was exiting the Docklands Light Rail at the East India Station as I did. Ted Birch was kind enough to show me his office, which is in the third and most recent development on the Wharf.

Here is another view of the office and a better view of Ted. You can see how spacious and comfortable it feels inside the structures, nothing at all like being in a box, and certainly a space that could form a comfortable living habitat.

Again, notice how effective the round windows are in reducing the otherwise stark angularity of the space. And notice the effect of the light in opening the space up.

The office building has a very clean and modern feel - but not at all sterile in the sense of true modernism. The spaces below are a water feature when not leaking.

Bridging back, from office to home.

This is the path I took when I left. Through an alley with old industrial shops. Back in time a hundred years, but really no different at all from where I had been a few minutes before.