Paul Vermeulen, in "Oase #76", Anne Holtrop, Mechthild Stuhlmacher (ed.), nai010 2008, p. 60.

Domestic containers

The first person to describe an open field with randomly stacked containers as a symbol of radical modern space must have been Reyner Banham, in his 1967 article ‘Flatscape with containers’.1 Banham, at the time a disciple of Archigram and Cedric Price, was a passionate critic who wanted to complete the modernist project and liberate it from all formal determinism. In the ‘dock design’ in vogue at the time, developed by engineers who were not compromised by architecture, he found support for the vision of the future he advocated: ‘fit environments for human activities’, minimally equipped sites that imposed no straightjacket of form whatsoever on the development of the programme. There would be no buildings anymore, only temporary, moveable and expendable receptacles for industry: containers. The field of containers was an apt spatial paradigm for consumer capitalism.

It comes as no surprise that it should be Banham, of all people, who was susceptible to the ideological significance of this utilitarian arrangement born of postindustrial economics. As a historian, he was familiar with the inspirational impact that American factories and grain elevators had had on the modernist avant-garde, a subject to which he would later devote the intriguing study A Concrete Atlantis. In an analogous way, variable stacks of containers could become the visual germ of the sprawling territory. It must be said that the image identified and defined by Banham turned out to be more robust, more multifaceted, more ambiguous and consequently more inspiring than Archigram’s tiresome science-fiction. Banham opened ‘des yeux qui ne voient pas’. Those who saw through those eyes what Banham was pointing out subsequently saw its essence. Just as the aura of factories and grain elevators had previously proved viable beyond the avant-garde, there was more to the containers arranged according to the ebb and flow of logistics than a hard ideological core. They had an aesthetic, even romantic quality, allowing the image to nestle and take root in the imagination of late-capitalist society.


Flatscape with containers

The meanings of that image multiplied and amicably contradicted one another. This symbol did not just stand for the cosy triviality of consumer society – which Banham always managed to evoke with iconoclastic glee. It also stood for the counterculture attracted by non-conformism and inhospitality. Here emerged not merely the suspension of the genius loci and the dismantling of architecture; the stacking of packaged cavities also encapsulated the heroism of construction at its most elementary. In the boxes adorned only with the most innocuous of signs – an arbitrarily chosen layer of paint and a numerical code – one read not only a farewell to architectural expression (Banham used his article to launch a naked assault on the then-stirring semiotician Georges Baird). Equally, their non-descript exteriors alluded to unknown, precious contents, which conjured a mysterious, proto-urban quality. It was not simply the collapse of self-conscious composition that was sealed here – the plastic charm of the aleatory was also celebrated. 

The sprawling expansion of the human territory and the extraction of the genius loci in favour of an uncomplicated satisfaction of consumer whims did in fact come to pass, but this turned out not to be as compelling or liberating as Banham, consumed with polemic fire, had predicted. The urban nomads inching along in traffic jams feign domesticity. They pretend their piece of suburbia, to which they return every evening, has roots and tries to neutralise the vacuity of the non-place, terrifying in its promise.

Vathorst, the place to which this text now turns, is one of these non-places, trying to convert into its opposite. It is a VINEX urban expansion district north of Amersfoort in the Netherlands, which like many such residential areas displays a shortage of structure and an excess of articulation. VINEX districts, the plan was, were to be built close to city centres, so that the new residents would be able to make use of the existing public facilities. The cynical result, however, was that very little room was reserved in the new residential area for public life. A manic articulation of the newly built dwellings masked the lack of programmatic diversity and of an appealing representation of the public idea. The void was so painstakingly filled with real estate conforming to market demands that the receptivity to human activity, once the predominant promise of the non-place, had atrophied.

Kamers Front

De Kamers, Stefan Müller, 2008

This, in broad outline, is the social and spatial conflict in which De Kamers, Vathorst’s sociocultural exchange platform, scored a victory in a heart-warming way. De Kamers (‘the chambers’ or ‘the rooms’) is an edifice that, in the midst of the expansion district, offers room for public life. There is a conference and meeting room, a kitchen with a home-style restaurant, a branch of the city library and a larger room for theatre, music or other performances. It was brought to life not by the powers that be, but by two private individuals, one with an artistic background, the other with a religious one, outside institutional channels. They so doggedly championed their project to residents, developers, governmental authorities and subsidy agencies that they got the go-ahead to build it and put it into operation, provided they exercised the requisite economy. Besides funding, they also had to find a space. A receptive space for human – in this case social – activity had to be fought for in the jampacked void. This space was ultimately found on the edge of an open field carved out in the district, between a school with the friendly authority of an institution and a farmhouse, tricked out for amusement, that aims to exude reassuring antiquity. De Kamers, on the other hand, displays neither reminiscences of privileged traditions nor an identifiable institutional type. It remains true to its non-institutional origins in spontaneous self organisation. It mostly resembles a stack of containers.

Kamers Twilight

De Kamers, Sjaak Henselmans 2008

This means, for one thing, that it eschews frontality. It is an all-round structure, that looks out in every direction and does not make an issue of the differences in its views. This has to do with uncertainty about the building site during the design process, but also with the nature of the final construction site. There is no sharply defined urban space that invites a directed response, as in the work of contextualists; there is the admittedly gesticulating yet amorphous housing mass that more or less stretches as far as the eye can see. The letters of the name are large and displayed one by one on or around the corners of the stacked boxes. You can only read the name if you walk all the way round the building, led by a high plinth like a long, colourful frieze, painted by creative neighbourhood residents as an act of appropriation, as happens with fences and building sheds. Although this is a durable, permanent building, it is as tactile and informal as a temporary structure. It is ironic and revealing that in this setting dominated by the market, the public distinguishes itself from the private not through prestige but through a capacity for creative appropriation. The image of the stack of containers has conjured up a symbol in Vathorst, reverberating with both ideological subtext and romantic amendments. In the midst of feigned urbanity, this is an authentic voice.

Kamers Auditorium 2

De Kamers, Stefan Müller, 2008

The first germ of the project was a standard container that was to be made suitable to host meetings. As the project gathered momentum, more containers were added. Initially, all the modules were identical. But ‘the growth model as we had it in our minds was ultimately not carried out. It immediately became a total design’.2 The dimensions of the boxes began to vary in order to include more possible uses, until, in the words of the designers, a ‘casual, almost improvised composition’ emerged, with ‘a clear priority to the interior rather than to the exterior’.3 It became a ‘space without an exterior’:4 an echo of the container as a neutral receptacle for valuable contents.

Kamers 04 Web Mensenwerk

De Kamers, Stefan Müller 2008

Containers also figure in the portfolio of the building’s designers, Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architects of Rotterdam. This includes an artist’s dwelling, transportable by lorry, that can be completely deployed and made accessible once on site. Its timber walls, its rudimentary comfort and the cranks and pulleys that control its enormous shutters recall the pleasantly adventurous atmosphere of a camping weekend. More well-known is their Parasite, again an experimental dwelling, without foundations of its own, clamped to the lift shaft of a warehouse in Rotterdam. The home, now stored away until a new host body can be found, housed exhibitions and special events and stood out in the skyline as a logo without a brand. These antecedents are helpful in understanding De Kamers in Vathorst, Amersfoort. These are containers without the ‘flattery of technology’. 5 The substitution of timber for plate metal for the walls retains the structural immediacy while making the containers warmer. Their form, circumscribed by the requirements of mobility, allows no further superfluous limitations and deviates from the standardised parallelepiped, so that they are no longer items of mass production. They are no longer suited to endless, anonymous voids; they are all the more suited to the fringes that an over-conditioned, chocker-block world reveals only to the eye of an alert adventurer.

Palmas Roof View

Parasite Las Palmas, Anne Bousema 2001

The decisive hallmark of these experimental dwellings, however, is that they take on a social, public role. This is also the case in De Kamers: its non-institutional publicness born of self-organisation is home-like. The house that belongs to everyone, and therefore to no one in particular, is not hijacked by foisted status symbols; it is genuinely home-like. There is no hierarchy among the timber rooms of the house. The main staircase, in a small hall, is not much more prominent than the staircase leading to the loft from the dining room, so that those familiar with the house can choose among a number
of routes. Some rooms are secluded; others display themselves fully to visitors, with a touch of Loosian theatricality. Loos’s informal sequence of rooms has been followed, but not his classicising volumetry forced into a dominant form. Since the modules had jettisoned their portability, it was all the more imperative that their expression of happenstance and improvisation not be suppressed. Their solidity was not to conceal their conditional nature, their marginality, the mental distance from a spirit wandering further afield.

Kamers Living Room

De Kamers, living room


1. Reyner Banham, ‘Flatscape with Containers’, New Society, 17 August 1967, vol. 10, no. 255. Commentary on this article in: Nigel Whiteley, Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

2. Mechthild Stuhlmacher in: NN , Keuzes en Kansen. Over het ontstaan van De Kamers (Amersfoort: Stichting De Kamers, 2007).

3. Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architects, De Kamers House of Culture, a+t, ‘Civilities II’, Autumn 2007, issue 30, a+t ediciones, Vitoria- Gasteiz, Spain.

4. Mechthild Stuhlmacher, De fysionomie van het poppenhuis, OASE 47, 1997. Quoted in: Hans van der Heijden, ‘Klein huis met grote schaal. De Kamers in Amersfoort door Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architecten’, de Architect, volume 39, February 2008.

5. Reyner Banham, ‘Stocktaking’, The Architectural Review, 127, February 1960, and in: NN, A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham, Selected by Mary Banham, Paul Barker, Sutherland Lyall and Cedric Price (Berkeley/Los Angeles/ London: University of California Press, 1996).