A Container Bar

“She’s almost three months old now, but her personality isn’t clearly defined yet," says Bridget Dunlap. "We’re still figuring out who she is.” Dunlap is speaking of Container Bar, her latest Rainey Street “offspring.” Five years in the making, the bar was created with seven shipping containers — five 8-feet-by-20-feet and two 8-feet-by-40-feet — and its design is a major departure from Dunlap’s four other Rainey Street establishments (Clive Bar, Bar 96, Bar Illegal, and the recently closed Lustre Pearl), most of which are located in renovated old houses. 

By contrast, Container Bar is a series of indoor and outdoor environments with upstairs balconies and ground-floor courtyards. The shipping container interiors are tricked out with graphics — a winter scene, tile in gradient patterns, dark wood cladding, gold leaf, one with repeating text, and another still in the works — and lighting that enhances the volumes without removing their utilitarian identity. You know you’re in a metal box, but it feels a little thrilling, like you’re part of a movie set or on an adventure. And hey, there are drinks!

For Dunlap, using shipping containers isn’t a gimmick. These containers come to the U.S. full of Chinese and other imports, but then sit in storage for years, as it’s cheaper to store them than to ship them back empty. Both her smart decision to reuse and upcycle the containers, and using them in this particular place speak volumes about the changing nature of the Rainey Street district as well as Dunlap’s savvy regarding the area’s future.

The closing of Lustre Pearl, Rainey Street’s first bar, to make way for a 250,000-sf residential building, is an indication of what’s to come — the older bungalows that were changed to bars and restaurants in recent years will now share the area with, or be torn down to make way for, boutique hotels and condominium towers. According to Francisco Arredondo, principal of North Arrow Studio and the designer of Container Bar, Dunlap’s east side restaurant Mettle, and a new Italian 

restaurant that she plans to open in 2015, the entire bar was created with the knowledge that its site will one day be home to one of those hotels or towers.

The bar was built to be moved. “Rainey Street has changed, and will continue to change,” says Arredondo. “We started with the knowledge that this bar will have a second life someplace else, so it’s as structurally strong as it can be.” Arredondo says his team took great pains, and spent a good bit of money, on the engineering necessary to be sure the pieces could stand up to the rigors of a move.

“People often think building with shipping containers means they get a free building, but that's not true,” he says. "They are what they are, and you can’t change them into something else. Everything you take out of a shipping container has to be accounted for in order to maintain the structural integrity. So creating openings, putting in plumbing, electrical, steel, windows and doors — it all takes careful consideration.”

Arredondo says the ideal way to work on the containers would be to do all the fabrication in a warehouse, which was not done for Container Bar. “There’s an efficiency to building in a warehouse, as you then bring your project to the trades, not the other way around, and you have more control of quality. We couldn’t do that with Container Bar. But regardless, we had the right intentions, and we followed through.”

Dunlap is happy with her latest venture, although she admits to having mixed feelings about the evolving nature of the area. “I have seriously strong feelings about it,” she says. “The dynamic of the street is changing, and it’s been interesting and heartbreaking. As a business person, I know it makes sense. Growth is inevitable, and I just put on a little smiley face and keep going.”

Ingrid Spencer writes about architecture from her new home in Austin’s Zilker neighborhood.

This article is online content for the July/August 2014 issue of Texas Architect.