Office Romance

Travis Diehl on a Center for Land Use Interpretation tour of LA office trailers

A Kiewit trailer at the I-405 expansion. (All photos: Travis Diehl)

IF YOU’RE OVER 8' 6" TALL OR 40' LONG, roll, require a permit to move, and are habitable but not a dwelling, you are known to the State of California as a “commercial modular”—an office trailer.

“Thanks for coming,” said Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, taking the mic of the bus PA. “I know the traffic was rough out there.”

Sure was. I’d covered the ten miles from Chinatown to Culver City in just over an hour. Upstream on I-405, an overturned diesel tanker had blocked three lanes and an off-ramp. Well. I should have taken the Expo Line, Los Angeles Metro’s newest light rail extension, whose “stub” terminates a couple blocks from Parcel B, future site of 115,000 square feet of retail space, now a parking lot in limbo, and until mid-June the home of a 720-square-foot mobile gallery. There, behind an unassuming faux-wood finish, was On-Site Office Trailers: Invisible Architecture of the Urban Environment. The modest building housed—and was itself—an official contribution to the Getty Museum’s “Pacific Standard Time: Modern Architecture in L.A.” Inside, several dozen photos of said trailers, arranged in a grid that covers one wall, were nothing so “arch” as a Becher typology. They’re simply, functionally, proof that these unsung structures exist. There was also a water cooler, folding tables, requisite OSHA posters, hard hats on pegs—real blue-collar stuff. I watched other visitors rubbing the CLUI trailer’s siding, smelling it, taking photos. Gleaming just outside on the blacktop was the luxurious touring coach that was to carry the thirty of us on our experimental journey through—not LA’s by now nostalgic architecture of the future but, as Coolidge put it, “LA as it’s building itself at this moment.” There on the bleeding edge, you can be sure, there will be trailers.

Left: At the On-Site Office Trailers: Invisible Architecture of the Urban Environment exhibition center. Right: First sighting, a trailer at the Expo Line.

Moments after we were underway, our first sighting: A trailer darted out from the concrete abutments of the Expo Line stub. It was a modest gray break room, and a good start. We meandered through Culver City neighborhoods, cameras trained out the windows of our outsize bus. “So we’ll follow a little bit of the [future] Expo line,” said guide Coolidge, “and then we’re going to sit in traffic on our way to the 405.” Well of course we are. But “perhaps at this elevated level we’ll enjoy the construction projects as we slowly pass through them on our elevated gallery platform here…”

We were on some kind of frontage road, with a good view of the 405 expansion below. Deep trenches and retaining walls unspooled between us and the freeway. We passed the trappings of a Metro press conference held earlier that morning to discuss another yearlong construction delay. Something like twenty utility lines must be moved over a few feet to accommodate those new HOV lanes. Meanwhile, some 300,000 cars a day flow through the Sepulveda Pass. Ahead of us was the so-called Carmageddon Bridge. Up on a ridge the white travertine of the Getty floated by.

A carved, reinforced embankment on the Kiewet project.

Mike, our bus driver, made a startling hairpin turn into—“now you can see on the left this complex of office trailers, the largest complex for Kiewit in this 405-widening experience”—a couple dozen raised dirt brown buildings, joined together, ringed with wooden decks. Near a pair of picnic tables burned with the 405 expansion’s logo (“Design It / Build It / 405”), we were met by Kiewit Corporation community liaison Natasha Jones. She talked trailer for a bit—but folks soon latched onto a particular detail of Kiewit’s project: the reinforced embankments above the road cuts, carved with a textured, rocklike appearance. The work of a subcontractor.

“He’s known for those walls,” said Jones. It was fascinating—a crude art—an industrial muralism discovered here in the liminal world of office trailers. But this was a crowd of artists and architects, after all. Back on the bus, I watched as two seats in front of me a couple CalArts folks connected—an alum from the 1970s and a current art faculty. Here in sandy Southern California, Coolidge mused, “We have to manufacture our stratigraphic views.”

As we slipped south on the 405, Coolidge briefed us on oil in the LA basin. The few active operations here, stretching up to a mile under the city from their wellheads, extract a goopy crude used not for gasoline but for things like asphalt. “The Getty Center of course was constructed with a legacy of oil money. Getty was John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world in the 1950s. The Playa Vista, where we’re going, is a site that was owned by the richest man in the ’60s: Howard Hughes.” The big bus hung a left at a Home Depot and into the redeveloped Hughes aircraft plant—whose present tenants include YouTube, Whole Foods, and Gehry Partners—and deeper into the completed residential phase, where the sales office, among other things, is a trailer.

The bus parked at Playa Vista.

“You can see that Playa Vista is a very sculpted, modern, contemporary, kind of dense environment,” said Coolidge. “It almost feels like we’re driving into an architectural rendering.” We were met by Derek Fraychineaud, the developer’s vice president of residential construction—a fast-talking, omnivorous industry man who says things like “We have a senior affordable apartment product” and “seven-eight chef-driven restaurants.” A guy in a straw fedora shook his head. Someone asked if one of the bleary lo-res printouts lining the walls of the trailer was the Gehry building. “Frank Gehry is not doing anything here.”

The VP joined us on the bus for a lap of the undeveloped grounds—a huge flattened pit where millions of cubic feet of dirt have been moved and removed to transform an estuary into real estate. Trailers, brown gray and blue, dotted the plain.

Everyone’s spirits were much improved after we ate our bag lunches on the lawn by the Playa Vista band shell. Nearby they were bulldozing and replanting some trees that didn’t take. Soon we were rolling past the Jefferson Boulevard residential frontage for the fourth time, heading through the afternoon haze toward the coast and to Los Angeles International Airport where the Tom Bradley International Terminal modernization is nearing completion. Looping the back way into LAX, we discovered an outlying colony of trailers—complete with city grid, named streets, utilities, and mailing addresses. Painted red arcs mark the paths of opening doors in gray outdoor hallways. Witness: the barbecue area. Witness: another conference room. There must be fifty trailers there, all rentals, wired together into a humming nerve center. Climbing the stairs to the top of a parking deck, witness: a trailer on the roof. “It may not be as sexy as what you see behind you,” said Albert Rodriguez, our LAX PR specialist, gesturing toward the renovated Bradley. “But it’s very important.”

One safety-vested contractor disagreed: “Depends on what you think is sexy.”

Left: LAX trailer on roof. Right: At LAX.

Now, lazily touring homeward via surface streets, everything started to look like a trailer. Sure—and maybe most everything we passed on the way back to Parcel B was at some point just a twinkle in a contractor’s eye as she manned a desk in an on-site mobile office. Adaptable, portable, ubiquitous, the trailer is the gateway to another world of buildings in potentia—from the lowliest light rail expansion to billion-dollar airport terminals, from schools and fire stations to the Getty’s palatial campus. They’re everywhere, and now you will see them everywhere. Like CLUI itself, the on-site office trailer is a bureaucratic container of limitless architecture.

A final turn or two around the Baldwin Hills oil field, past old back lots along an overgrown streambank where Tarzan was filmed, on one corner we saw Eric Owen Moss’s Samitaur Tower. The quirky, rusted, scrim-skinned building is one of three used by the Getty in its PST promotions, and is presently unsafe to climb.

“The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.” I think John Paul Getty said that.

Left: Eric Owen Moss’s Samitaur Tower from the bus. Right: CLUI sound recordist Eric Potter, program manager Ben Loescher, corpswoman Marina Pinsky, founder-director Matthew Coolidge, and program manager Aurora Tang.