If you have been anywhere remotely close to the UCen lately, you’ve noticed the large, red metal object resembling a garbage crate next to the University Art Museum. The first few weeks of school, Artsweek passed by Big Red multiple times, fantasizing about the many ways our university could be capitalizing on its presence. Maybe it’s one of those avant-garde art studio final projects never disposed of, a new portable for classes or a large storage unit used to hide toxic waste and students that failed Art Studio 1A. The possibilities seemed endless.

Artsweek immediately jumped at the chance, then, to attend the reception in honor of Big Red, aka “LOT-EK” (pronounced “low-tech”). Also known as a “mobile dwelling unit” (insert robotic voice here), the building was designed by New York City-based architects Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, who were asked to transform pre-existing structures into new forms of portable living space. In this exhibit, the daring duo took a standard shipping container and evolved it into “a fully functional mobile living environment designed for individuals who wish to move around the globe.” Ah, the perfect solution for an increasingly global and shifting world: portable architecture.

At the indoor exhibit, one follows a distorted voice recording into a dimly lit corridor, all while an eerie blue light illuminates. After watching two giant screens give a virtual tour, one follows yellow tape further inside, like robots marching down a production line, into the next room. Here, blue prints of MDUs line the walls and a small-scale model of an entire MDU complex sits on display. Meanwhile, the same monotone voice blares from speakers above, discussing the various uses for MDUs.

Having stepped in the MDU on display outside the University Art Museum, Artsweek couldn’t help but see similarities between the narrow streamlined design of the interior and the trains Artsweek spent all summer living on in Europe. Narrow windows line the walls, and behind every door, a new space exists – a bathroom, shower, bed, kitchen and workspace, fully equipped for efficient living. If anything, the MDU is a perfect example of both contemporary art and revolutionary architecture coexisting. Yet the confined space reminded Artsweek more of a prison cell than an exciting new style of architecture.

Artsweek did enjoy the overall exhibit, but the experience left us a bit jaded after an uncomfortable opening reception. First, the guest speakers had been canceled but the exhibit was still open for viewing. A herd of black-clad thirty-something art “experts” hovered close to the wine table, schmoozing instead of actually experiencing the exhibit inside. Not an art snob, Artsweek felt slightly out of place in a striped sweater, jeans and Converse, toting a $15 Louis Vuitton knockoff purse purchased in the streets of Rome. Prodding stares were vocalized when one woman exclaimed, “humph, nice purse” and rolled her eyes in Artsweek’s direction. Well, who knew students shouldn’t be allowed to go to art shows at their own university without designer duds in tow.

After passing through the haze of pretentiousness that lurked outside, Artsweek discovered that the people inside the University Art Museum viewing and working at the exhibit were more than welcoming. To artistically extrapolate, the “LOT-EK” exhibit can be seen as a metaphor for the entire experience: Although it may look cold and uninviting on the outside, search a little deeper and step inside. Don’t let exteriors, whether people or a cold shipping container, intimidate you. In this case, the inside happens to be a futuristic architectural exhibit able to challenge preconceived notions of personal space.

“LOT-EK: Mobile Dwelling Unit” can be viewed at the University Art Museum from now until Dec. 7, 2003, and is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12:00-5:00 p.m. For info, call 893-7564.