Wayback Wednesday: Jennifer Siegal and the Office of Mobile Design

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.41.07 PMTo celebrate our 15th anniversary, FORM is highlighting some of our favorite features from past issues. Today, we’re running publisher Ann Gray’s interview wtih Jennifer Siegal, of the Office of Mobile Design. Image via Office of Mobile Design.

This year, FORM celebrates our 15th anniversary. As part of our year-long celebration, we’ll be highlighting some of our favorite articles from past issue of print edition here on the Web site in a feature we’re calling Wayback Wednesday. Today, we’re going back to 2009 and re-introducing you to Jennifer Siegal and her Office of Mobile Design, who was interviewed by our publisher, Ann Gray for that year’s March/April issue.

What is your latest project?

An interesting woman with a lot of property in Big Sur hired us for two residences. The intention is that they be off-grid. She wants them to be a different version of prefab structures, as examples of what can be done, as test projects.

Tell me about the Eco Lab. Who initiated it?

That project was done in 1998. It was one of my first design and build projects right after I graduated. I initiated it and found a non-profit in Hollywood, the Hollywood Beautification Team, that needed [help]. We determined they needed a mobile classroom. I went around begging for materials. It’s pretty easy to get people to step up to the plate. There were six students in the studio and we used recycled and found materials. It was interesting because the trailer itself came from Richard Carlson at the Brewery. I later did a house for him with containers.

The problem with the Eco Lab, like a lot of programs, was that they didn’t have a longterm vision for how they would staff it and how they would repair it, so after its first couple of seasons it disappeared. But Sharon Romano who founded the HBT was my cohort and client. It was a labor of love, about getting a bunch of people together and moving them in the same direction.

So in a sense you also had a mobile client.

Yes. She had all kinds of people coming through that helped work on it, students from Woodbury and students doing community service. It was amazing to watch them. That spurred the next project with Larry Scarpa to take a manufactured home and turn it into mobile classroom for the Venice Community Housing Corporation. A lot of the students from Eco Lab came on as managers on that project. It’s a testament to what you can do with a lot of passion and direction but not a lot of funding. They need leadership. Especially now, given the local schools cutting curriculum, the idea of using mobile classrooms can be shared between schools, like a science lab, is timely. There is a group called Side Street Projects in Pasadena that is starting to service the schools in Pasadena. They have mobile trucks and trailers [and] run on solar.

Is this a prototype for others?

It has spawned new things for us as well as for other people. I think as I mature in my profession and I do a lot of lectures, it gives me a platform. When a student has a [good] idea, to say “That’s a great idea, why don’t you do it.” There’s something about mobility that conjures up images for students at architecture schools. It’s a scale they can grasp and it’s generational. It’s the way in which they have been born into technology. It’s a clear leap between mobile structures and the way they communicate with each other.

Mobile architecture is as ancient as man but there is less concreteness in how we live our lives so paradoxically it is very current. You look at a car and realize how much it does for us. They talk, they heat, they comfort us, they move us—and then you look at a house and they look so bulky, they look so out of date. There is so much evolution in autos but not in architecture. Auto design is changing but how come architectural design is not evolving?

How does it differ from your other mobile projects?


It was the first so I learned from it. I learned about making decisions on the fly, pulling something out and trying it again. It was an experiment so it wasn’t precious. If we found a better material or a better way to do something we could be more responsive. The first time you are so naive you don’t know you can’t do it. You tend to be freer and sometimes it tends to be the best work.

Who provided the educational content?

HBT provided it. They would take the classroom to the local schools and the kids would get on board and learn about the life of a tree, for example. [Students] would move through the structure and at the end they would get a sapling to take home [and] plant. It struck me that those kids had not seen that many trees before.

Have you seen the children interacting with the Lab?

They were crazed, running around and the teacher was trying to get them to flow through the space as we intended. It was exciting and more rewarding than doing a single-family residence.

What is the most surprising result of the Lab?

Working with the Woodbury students. They were not the star students but it instilled confidence in them. I saw a real transformation.

Any other classrooms on the boards now?


I just finished a big school in North Hollywood last year. I was hoping [it] would get me back to my educational roots; then I got sidetracked with all these houses. But I would be keen to develop that. Those projects take initiative and time. It’s something that the universities should be [encouraging]. It should be mandatory that each arch student go through a community related project.

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