By Bea Elle
American trailer parks have a negative connotation of being a dead-end — a place people wind up after they’ve hit rock bottom. But Los Angeles-based prefab designer Jennifer Siegal, founder and principal of Office of Mobile Design (OMD), seeks to reinvent the American trailer park in a positive light, and she’s looking to the past to guide her vision.
Siegal started OMD in 1998 when she noticed that society’s tools of communication were becoming more compact and efficient.
“I thought that this idea could also be folded into the world of architecture,” she says. “Up until then, [portable lifestyles] hadn’t really been thought about at that level.”
She incorporated her extensive travels through the Middle East and curiosity about Native Americans and their dwellings into her thinking.
“I was drawn instinctively toward others that were pursuing a Nomadic type of lifestyle,” she says.
As a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture, Siegal began to research and develop ideas with her students about mobile homes and how they came to have negative connotations with the rise of American suburbs in the post-WWII era.
“I really felt like I was tapping into an ideology and philosophy that was undermined considerably, and it was really Dwell who … at the time … were questioning and raising this idea of prefabrication. Sort of resurrecting it.”
Siegal says she was “in the right place at the right time with my research and thinking” when more and more architects and designers were becoming anti-establishment and positioning themselves against the idea of static, heavy constructs.
Siegal continues, “Eventually, the wave took off, and I happened to be upon it at the time.”
“That appealed to me,” she says. “That’s what really drove my practice.”
She came to the conclusion that American trailer parks have been undervalued and underdeveloped — undeserving of their stigma as a blight on the landscape. The usefulness of trailer parks should be reconsidered in the 21st century, she says.
“I’ve been thinking and rethinking about the American trailer park a lot, and how it could be used now to address the Millennial Generation and people that don’t necessarily want to own or invest in a large structure,” she says. “I think we can pull a lot of ideas embedded in American trailer parks and use them to reinvent the next generation of trailer parks. They are incredible communities. They’re closely-knit based on shared values and shared space.”
Siegal’s home design philosophies were featured during Dwell on Design 2017’s Home Tours in the form of her “Vertical Venice Prefab” (V.V3): a triple-stacked steel modular addition to Siegal’s existing 1920s Venice bungalow home.
The 560-square-foot modular addition was added with a crane and is designed to maximize light, energy, and efficiency. Siegal created the home as a prototype for future residential infill projects utilizing faster construction times, tighter building envelopes, “green” finishes, higher insulating properties, and less waste than typical home constructions.
“Responding to the housing crisis and meeting the latest requirements from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, the V.V3 offers a solution to urban dwellers looking to increase density without unsettling the neighborhood,” states Siegal’s website.
Unlike the nomadic lifestyle she models her design philosophies after, Siegal has left a lasting impact on the world of architecture. She is the first American woman to win the fourth arcVision Prize – Women and Architecture, an international award for women’s architecture organized by Italcementi. The award jury unanimously chose Siegal for being “a fearless pioneer in the research and development of prefabricated construction systems, at low prices for disadvantaged users and areas, who has been able to invent and build practical solutions and a new language for mobile and low-cost housing.”