Outside every building construction site, there's a box on wheels that's around 8 feet wide by 20 feet long. It's a simple structure, built to stay within the width of one lane of road, so it can be towed to and from other jobs or holding sites. It has plain brown, beige or green siding, and its only decoration is an air-conditioning unit grafted to one side, a spray-painted serial number, the leasing company's sign and reflective tape strips for when it's moved at night.
The office trailer is the brain of any construction operation. It's where a visitor checks in. It's where the contractor can make a quiet phone call. It houses the white boards with to-do lists, construction drawing sets, a small meeting area, usually a printer, maybe a fridge and a storage space for odds and ends related to the job.
“You may work in one, you may be taught in one, or you may at some point be incarcerated in one,” says Matt Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, referring to the trailers' ubiquity and, in that last bit, to the way overcrowded prisons occasionally use the trailers to house inmates.
Like neighborhood power-switching stations, the proprietary storage-container “PODs” in driveways all over town, or the shipping containers on the backs of semi trucks driving to and from the port in Long Beach and San Pedro, the homely office trailer is part of the 99 percent of structures that get overlooked.
Coolidge and his team organized the exhibition “On-Site Office Trailers: Invisible Architecture of the Urban Environment” to highlight the unassuming, subservient workstation to L.A.'s constant whirlwind of demolition, reconstruction, gentrification and movement.
CLUI's offering is certainly one of the less promoted of the exhibits under the umbrella of Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., the Getty's ongoing, multi-institution series this spring and summer. But unlike other shows in the series, which examine, for example, residential architecture of the 1950s and '60s, these on-site trailers reveal a present-day, workhorse modernism that's very different from the kind of architectural house porn Dwell magazine offers.
“The trailers come from an economy of affordability and production. They're utilitarian and efficient — that was always the goal of modern architecture,” Coolidge says. “They're a model of modernism that's working and successful.”
Frank Gehry and Richard Neutra's buildings in Los Angeles don't affect residents' daily lives as much as an under-construction highway overpass on the 405 might.
Coolidge sees places such as an airport or an empty Christmas tree lot that soon will become a strip mall as “sites of transition,” which can provoke multiple interpretations or reveal unforeseen urban phenomena.
This is precisely what CLUI — part museum, part art project and part research institution — has been doing since its founding in 1994.
The trailer even reveals hints about the culture and economy when it's sitting at its permanent storage site, Coolidge says. “If you look at the lots where they hold these things out in San Bernardino and the Inland Empire, you'll see — if the lot is full, on one hand, or if many of the trailers are deployed out to sites and the holding lots are more empty. They're a barometer of the state of the construction industry. They're a harbinger of changes to come.”
The “On-Site Office Trailers” exhibit itself will reside in a job trailer, walking distance from CLUI, which is headquartered on Venice Boulevard in Culver City.
The empty lot where the exhibit trailer will sit happens to be an on-hold construction development, where Culver and Washington boulevards intersect Canfield Avenue. The location is effectively a site of transition as well — a construction site that's currently on hold in a developer's limbo, used for temporary purposes like an ice skating rink in the winter and overflow parking for events the rest of the year.
Within the exhibition trailer, the show explores the assembly-line production process of trailers, the way they're held and processed between jobs, and the logistics of their movement.
Supplementing the exhibit, CLUI has organized tours to various office-trailer job sites throughout the city. The sites include one of the construction staging sites along the 405 expansion through the Sepulveda Pass, one of the future Expo line stops and the renovation project at areas of LAX's terminals. Caltrans personnel, engineers and contractors will be on hand to offer information.
“The tours are meant to provoke conversation,” Coolidge explains. “Some of these construction sites extend for miles.We want to explore what that represents in the city.”
Office trailers have served as staging areas, exhibition spaces and outposts for many of CLUI's programs, such as last year's “Centers of the USA” project, where exhibits were stationed at the geographic center of the United States (in Lebanon, Kan.), as well as the nation's population center (in Plato, Mo.), among others.
Coolidge and CLUI even launched an interpretive research center within a floating office-trailer conversion on Houston's Buffalo Bayou waterway in 2011. This on-demand architecture is ideal for CLUI, whose exhibitions are often found at nonsites, and constantly changing points on the landscape (like L.A.'s freeway overpasses).
John Powis of Mobile Modular Building Co. has worked with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, providing buildings for such projects. “They're not beautiful,” Powis says of his fleet of brown boxes, “but it's because of the trailers that the creators are able to make their beautiful architecture.”
“On-Site Office Trailers: Invisible Architecture of the Urban Environment” runs May 17-June 16 at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., Culver City. (310) 839-5722. Open Fri.-Sun., noon-5 p.m. Tour dates are May 24 and June 7, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; $20 per person.