Barely conscious notions of trailers as high design.

June 18, 2012

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Somewhere around 2003, “Dwell” magazine published a critical comment about mobile homes.  The author, having stopped by a dealer’s lot for a look,  provided a concise description; covering the interior and exterior; not missing the vinyl siding, flooring, wall covering, bathroom fixtures, and synthetic carpeting;  noting the marriage line in the floor, in the event a double wide was chosen; and ending with a bit of drama, saying that his “throat froze up,” presumably from off-gassing.  I found this little article to be gut wrenchingly, guffawingly funny.  I was literally speechless with laughter.

Years later, I figured out that it was the absolute irony of the situation that made it so funny.  Here I was, an architect, harboring barely conscious notions of trailers as the stuff of high design, when along comes the unofficial arbiter of “green and cool” to reinforce the long standing stereotype recently resurrected by the “Trailer Park Boys.”  I start laughing all over again.  What is the mystique?  Why do I think there is design potential in these 16′ x 80′ x 10′ residential boxes.

The answer is easier to formulate than, and partially in, the  question.  It has to do with potential.  In my mind there are only two types of mobile homes on the market today.  The first type is the finished home;  complete with all the accoutrements large and small, tasteful or gauche, rich or not, and all visually  imitating  suburbia.  These are the stereotypical keepers of the cult.  Real people buying real mobile homes without which there would be no market, and no mobile homes.

The second type is the strip out;  usually the cheapest model on the lot, single wide, without shutters, or decoration;  it has vertical siding and just enough of a gable to shed water.  It looks more like the back of a semi parked in a truck stop than any image of suburbia, and that may be true of the interior as well.  Usually found in pristine rural environments, on construction sites, or industrial lots, these carry images aligned with the current elite stylistic vision.  Furthermore, they have all of the implicit design potential of “Modernism” packed into the perfect abstraction of a structural box that not only functions as a  house, but also moves.  What could be more liberating?  Suddenly the architect is free to  plan it, duplicate it, color it, extend it, decorate it, split it, open it, close it, raise it, lower it, “green” it, bridge it and even move and float it;  all with few functional confines.  It is not difficult to see how these simple basic mobile homes could become suggestive to the point of architectural fantasy.

Of course, this all leads directly to the questions of reconciling  the stereotype and the fantasy.  I tend to view the whole mobile home industry as a kind of natural resource to be preserved on the basis of its design potential.   In reality, economics and demographics might well be turning later into now.  Either way, architects would do well to prepare, because the “observation effect” is already in full shift.

Copywright © 2012 Bridget Gaddis

Photos used under creative commons here:
Basic Mobile Home
Extended Living Space
Quick and Easy Street

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