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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Puma City visits Fan Pier

By Christopher Muther Globe Staff

It may be called Puma City, but the collection of 24 shipping containers, arranged into a multilevel retail store, bar, and event space, more closely resembles a set of giant building blocks than an actual metropolis. Showing off the space that he started conceptualizing more than two years ago, Antonio Bertone, Puma's chief marketing officer, bounces around the 11,000-square-foot structure like a slightly hyperactive child proudly showing off his handiwork. The only differences are that these building blocks are 40 feet long and each one is 11 tons of reinforced, corrugated steel.

"I've always had an obsession with containers," Bertone said as he gave a tour of the space last week. "I thought rather than building a pavilion that you would have to pack into a container to ship around the world, let's build a city out of containers."

Puma City is set up at Fan Pier, close to the Institute of Contemporary Art, for three weeks as part of the Volvo Ocean Race - a nine-month yacht race around the globe. At each stop of the race, sponsors such as Puma set up a small village of temporary buildings for racers and their support crew. Bertone, who is based in Boston at Puma's worldwide headquarters, wanted to open up his pavilion to the public. The result is a three-story stack of shipping containers - recently named Travel + Leisure's best retail space - that holds stores for Puma footwear, apparel, and official merchandise for the Volvo Ocean Race.

There are also offices, changing rooms, and flat-screen televisions for watching live feeds of the race from the bar. On the third level, a cantilever deck reaches toward the ocean.

"The way it's designed, it doesn't feel like you're sitting in 24 individual boxes," Bertone explained. "We removed panels to create double heights and triple heights. We added skylights. It really makes you feel like you're in an expansive space and you can't believe this is all made from two-dozen individual shipping containers."

Boston is the only US location that Puma City will visit and only the second city where the structure has been assembled for the public. Last year it was set up in Alicante, Spain. It arrived in Boston last fall, and sat in a parking lot in South Boston over the winter - where, Bertone says, it nicely survived the harsh winter. It was finally assembled two weeks ago and opens on Saturday. The structure will stay in Boston through May 16. Before it moves on to its next destination in South Africa, it will be the location of nightly events, including DJ battles and, of course, the fictional eating holiday, burrito de Mayo. Bertone was mum on the cost to create Puma City, simply saying it cost "a lot."

"Obviously it's not the best of economic times to bring something like this here, but people need something to do," he said. "It can't always be gloom and doom. At the end of the day I kind of look at it as a bright spot. A lot of time people see sailing as an elite sport, but we're trying to give folks an opportunity to see that's not the case."

The challenge of designing a 220-ton structure that can be taken apart, loaded on a boat, shipped across the globe and reassembled in another city, fell to a New York-based architectural firm called LOT-EK.

"We designed structures from containers, but never one of this scale that is also mobile," said Ada Tolla, a principle with LOT-EK. "I think it was more challenging because we weren't just interested in stacking them in whatever way. We were interested in opening them up and created a dramatic space with double and triple heights."

The building has since become beloved by architecture geeks and favored by environmentalists who would like to see out-of-commission shipping containers repurposed into striking residential and commercial properties. In the interim, Bertone hopes the striking collection of red boxes will attract Bostonians to the waterfront.

"The race isn't only about the boats, but also what happens at the different ports where the boats dock," Bertone said. "When these guys get into port there is a real celebratory aspect and we wanted to capture that in the spirit of the building."