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Joburg’s Trendy Melville Neighborhood Gets ‘27 Boxes Mall’

  • Darren Taylor

The '27 boxes' project is constructed from shipping containers, located in Johannesburg, S. Africa, June 2015, (Darren Taylor/VOA).

The '27 boxes' project is constructed from shipping containers, located in Johannesburg, S. Africa, June 2015, (Darren Taylor/VOA).

A "shopping mall" constructed entirely out of shipping containers is nearing completion in Johannesburg. The architectural design is called 27 Boxes, because each container is 27 square meters. It is a first for Africa, and is modeled on similar projects in London, Paris and Christchurch.

Construction workers add finishing touches to the 27 Boxes project in the creative Johannesburg suburb of Melville.

Its creator is Citiq Group structural engineer and architect, Arthur Blake.

“We had extremely limited funds. It continued to rain. As we went [dug] down, we got rock, which delayed the project. We’ve never done a retail development and this one took me by surprise at how long it would actually take,” explained Blake.

Blake said he did not want to build just another shopping mall, of which the city has plenty. “They’ve got no character; they’re just brick buildings,” he said.

He wanted to do “something different” at the site, something he’d never before attempted: to construct an affordable shopping space entirely from shipping containers.

Recycling

The recycled material is significantly cheaper to build with than conventional steel, brick and mortar. This project cost about $2.5 million (R32 million) as opposed to $3.5 million (R45 million) for a traditional build.

But, from the outset, said Blake, there were plenty of skeptics. “People just said containers are shacks on steroids,” he recalled.

Mandy Shave, 27 Boxes marketing manager, at the site of the unique development in Johannesburg, S. Africa, June 2015 (Darren Taylor/VOA).

Mandy Shave, 27 Boxes marketing manager, at the site of the unique development in Johannesburg, S. Africa, June 2015 (Darren Taylor/VOA).

One of the doubters was Blake’s colleague, project marketing manager Mandy Shave. “I thought: Shipping containers? Running a mall within shipping containers, how’s it going to work? How are they going to fit?” she speculated.

But Blake’s vision of completing the development for Melville’s “dreamers and artists,” as he calls his soon-to-be tenants, wouldn’t die. “This unique opportunity just started developing in my mind, that we could create a space for these guys. Simultaneously, we could develop the park into a very artisanal zone,” he said.

Shave said about 100 containers will be rented to people selling products you won’t easily find at a mall packed with franchise stores: From craft beer to Philly cheese steaks and wood-fired bread, to handmade jewelry and clothing.

“We’ve done a very good job,” she stated. “To make sure that we have a very good mix of people, that it’s people who’ve got high-end, beautiful quality products [to sell]. There’s a strong focus on making sure it is artists, and then giving them an opportunity to open a store.”

A cheaper alternative to renters

On average, the containers will cost about $400 a month to rent, much cheaper than stores in the big malls, which can easily cost 10 times more.

This has made it possible for people like Sian Mylroie to be one of 27 Boxes’ first tenants. “I’m going to be opening a nursery; I’m going to be mostly selling veggies and herbs, and hopefully be selling fresh veggies and herbs to the little restaurants that are opening [here] as well so that they can all keep organic and fresh,” Mylroie explained.

Shave said 27 Boxes, with its many open spaces, will be one of the most environmentally friendly shopping areas ever in South Africa.

“The green aspect of using a shipping container is what is also attracting a lot of people to go, ‘Wow! This is so different; I didn’t realize you could do this with a shipping container,’” she said.

Blake said several internationally renowned architects have congratulated him on what he describes as his “dream project,” and 27 Boxes is set to open within a few weeks.

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