In 1960, brewing magnate Alfred Heineken was visiting Curaçao, off the Venezuelan coast, when he noted with dismay the acres of trash underfoot—a good part of it produced by his own company. Heineken Breweries had an efficient bottle-return system in Holland, where the average bottle was used 30 times before being discarded. But without modern distribution, bottles in Curaçao were used once and thrown out. There was no lack of resulting trash: what the island did lack, however, was affordable housing. Heineken had a flash of brilliance: make beer bottles that you can build houses out of.
Rather than the eccentric form of American bottle houses—where the containers, mortared in parallel to the floor, created walls bristling with open necks—Alfred Heineken imagined less a beer bottle reused as a brick than a glass brick that happened to hold beer. Wash them out and slap on some cement: instant stained-glass shantytown. Heineken’s WOBO was, notes Martin Pawley in his 1975 history Garbage Housing, “the first mass production container ever designed from the outset for secondary use as a building component.”
Back in Rotterdam, Heineken contracted architect John Habraken to redesign bottles into a buildable container. A beer bottle standing upright is, surprisingly, up to code, bearing 50 kg per square centimeter. But bottles are not easily vertically stacked. Laid on their side, though, they crush too easily. Habraken’s solution was to develop vertically stackable Chianti-like bottles with long necks and recessed sides that nested into and supported each other. It was a brilliant compromise, but Heineken’s marketing department rejected it as “effeminate”—a curious description considering that the bottle consisted of two bulbous compartments surmounted by a long shaft. We can only assume that Habraken did not anticipate why the men of Curaçao might not want to hold this up to their lips.
So Habraken went horizontal. His next design was for a thick rectangular bottle—much closer to Heineken’s original notion of a brick that held beer. The bottom was dimpled in a pattern identical to the bottle’s stubby neck, so that the top of one bottle would interlock with the bottom of the next. The sides had a nubbled surface, to make them both easier to hold and to apply mortar onto. Still, there were some trade-offs: the glass had to be thickened for the disadvantaged horizontal orientation, and its blockier corners made it more susceptible to chipping in shipment.
But it is, even today, a remarkably utilitarian-looking bottle—a triumph of practical design. Habraken proposed that shipping pallets made of plastic could be reused as sheet roofing. Plans for a workable WOBO house were drawn up; bottle construction would be so simple that instruction could be printed on the beer label. And this is what truly sets WOBO apart in the annals of design: the totality of the concept. You consumed the beer; you reused the bottle and the shipping container; the instructions were available on every bottle. It is a self-contained system of latent architecture, a building in a bottle.
Heineken filed patents, insisting to colleagues that it was going to be on the cover of Time magazine someday. A test run of 100,000 WOBO bottles were produced, and in 1965 a prototype glass house was built near Alfred Heineken’s villa in Noordwijk, outside Amsterdam. Yet the architectural success of the new design was irrelevant. The company’s marketing department persisted in its rejections: Heineken was, after all, a premium beer. How would it look if poor people built houses out of the stuff?
The WOBO project soon fell to the wayside. Sixty thousand unused bottles remained in a warehouse in Rotterdam—enough for an entire house.