Although her focus at school was art history, Allison Arieff initially landed squarely in the publishing world. After an editorial stint at Chronicle Books, she began her well-known tenure at Dwell magazine, in 2000, she was a founding Senior Editor, but she soon took over the reins as Editor-in-Chief, from 2002 to 2006. During her tenure, the design and architecture magazine won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence (2005), and by that point it had already become a ubiquitous read for an emergent design aficionado community, rekindling a design lifestyle boom for the 21st century, lightly centered around a contemporary California-style modernism.
Following this, Allison was an opinion writer for The New York Times for almost a decade and a half, where she dealt with issues such the lack of female representation in architecture, the rapid rate at which home square footage is increasing, and the need for more inclusive cities. She also wrote about design, architecture and cities for CityLab (at Bloomberg). During this period Allison also worked for nine years as Editorial Director for the urban planning and policy think tank, SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association). Originally born out of the 1910 SF earthquake as the San Francisco Housing Association (SFHA) it eventually grew to incorporate urban planning, land management, transportation, along with the appropriate name change. Using research, education and advocacy, they focus on issues such as housing, transportation, sustainability, food access and more.
In 2018, Allison was awarded the Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary. She has lectured at Stanford University, The New School, Pratt, and the University of California, Berkeley, and has published three books: Prefab (2002), Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America (2002), Spa (2004). Prefab, her first and next known book, explores the history and innovative potential of prefabricated housing – a side gig Dwell actually explored long after her departure.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:07] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo, in order to build better for everyone.
Eve: [00:00:41] Allison Arieff was lucky enough to help launch Dwell magazine, first as founding senior editor and then editor in chief. During her tenure, the Design and Architecture magazine won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, and by that point, it had already become a ubiquitous read for an emergent design community, rekindling a design lifestyle boom for the 21st century. Since then, Allison has continued to build a storied and prominent career as a writer, author and thought leader. Prefab, her first book, explores the history and innovative potential of prefabricated housing well before prefab became a thing. Today, Allison is back where she started as the editorial director of another print magazine, MIT Technology Review. You’ll want to hear more.
Eve: [00:01:45] If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do share this podcast and go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co, where you can subscribe to be the first to hear about my podcasts, blog posts and other goodies.
Eve: [00:02:13] Hello, Allison. Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m really pretty honored to have you here.
Allison Arieff: [00:02:18] It’s my pleasure.
Eve: [00:02:19] Probably the most exciting thing for me is that during your tenure at Dwell, one of my little urban real estate projects graced the pages of Dwell, which was a very exciting moment for me because Dwell was, of course, a very big thing at the time. And so, like talking about Dwell, which you helped launch early in your career, what was the purpose of Dwell? How did it come about.
Allison: [00:02:41] So long ago now, Dwell started in 1999 and the founder, Laura Beam, had been designing or looking for an architect to design a home for her and was having a really hard time, kind of communicating with her architect about what she wanted and also felt that there weren’t any publications that really reflected what she was looking for. I also just want to remind your listeners that in 1999, the Internet was kind of at a different place. Right now, of course, there are a billion and one places to find pictures of architecture and houses and all that stuff. But it was so different when Dwell started that for a while we even debated whether or not we needed a website. So think about that for a minute.
Eve: [00:03:34] Yeah, I used to have stacks of architectural magazines that I’d leaf through, and those stacks are long gone, so, yeah.
Allison: [00:03:41] So, Laura really decided she wanted to launch a magazine to kind of speak to what she thought was missing in the market, and specifically with an eye towards kind of modern design. If you think about most shelter magazines that were around back then, kind of like Architectural Digest, it’s more sort of palatial, aspirational, celebrity driven stuff.
Eve: [00:04:08] Not for everyday people, right.
Allison: [00:04:09] Not for everybody. Though, interestingly, the readership of Architectural Digest is much more aspirational. The people who read it tend not to be the people who own those houses, but people who aspire to them. So, I think that the idea of Dwell was to be really about the idea of good design for everybody, that everybody deserves it, that it should be much more a part of the conversation. There was really an emphasis on architecture. Even though only 5% of homes are designed by architects in the United States, I think we would really argue that it’d probably be better if that percentage was a little bit higher.
Eve: [00:04:52] Much, much better.
Allison: [00:04:53] But really, I think the magazine was really trying to demystify design and architecture at a time when they felt much more mystical than they are now. And it was really just a tremendous opportunity to be brought in to build something. Literally there was no magazine, at al, and we had nine months to put the first issue together. We launched in 2000, and then after that we had five weeks to do every other issue. So, we had kind of the luxury of time to think about what this might be at the outset. I think we really benefited, especially from two things. One, we were based in San Francisco rather than in the New York publishing world. So, we actually had to get up off of our desks and we had to reach out to different people than maybe we would have had we been in New York where the publishing world sort of is and was. And also, many of us on staff had never worked for a magazine before, so we were not really burdened with the whole like, oh, well, we always do it this way. So, on the one hand that’s amazing, on the other hand, it’s like we were just blissfully naive about a lot, but I think that enabled us to do a lot of really interesting stuff.
Eve: [00:06:11] And it was an amazing magazine. I remember I just thoroughly enjoyed it. So, it’s really about democratizing design, which hasn’t really quite happened yet. Maybe it’s a little better than it used to be because of the Internet. So, how did you come to be the first editor, which I think you were, right?
Allison: [00:06:32] So I was the first senior editor. And when I started, I was hired by Karrie Jacobs, who was the first editor in chief, and Karrie had been involved in Colors magazine, which was, again, another major design milestone. Tibor Kalman did Colors with Benetton. She was also at Metropolis Magazine. I was hired by Karrie. I had been at Chronicle Books prior to that. Publisher here in San Francisco. We just put together this really amazing team of people. Karrie left after about a year and a half, and I became editor in chief after that. But one thing about that team, and I think it’s really reflected in the pages, is we just really, really liked each other and had such fun putting that magazine together. And I think that energy and enthusiasm, like we really were just a bunch of kids, like let’s put on a show. We really spent a ridiculous amount of time together and just had a lot of fun putting it together. So, I’m stunned and amazed that I am here now at my new job, which I’m sure we’ll talk about later. And I get to do print magazine again because that’s my favorite thing to do.
Eve: [00:07:46] Oh, that’s really interesting. Why is architecture and design so important to you?
Allison: [00:07:54] I think about, and I read about this quite a lot when I had my column for The New York Times. When something is working, you don’t really think about. Like I’m sitting in a chair at my desk and a chair is comfortable enough so I’m not really spending a lot of time thinking about my chair. If my shoes are comfortable, I’m not spending a lot of time thinking about my shoes. But if you’re sitting in an awful chair or if you’re wearing really uncomfortable shoes, that’s all you’re thinking about. So, I think that we underestimate how much that sort of thing affects our quality of life and kind of how you go about your day. And so, on the one hand it seems quite obvious, we should be surrounded by things that were thoughtfully considered and well designed, but for the bulk of people and things, I just think that’s not true.
Allison: [00:08:43] We’re living in generally inefficient homes. I mean, with the heat wave now, I think it shows that we’re not really building things in a way that maximizes energy efficiency. We’re spending our time in cars that are getting bigger and bigger and more dangerous and wasting more fossil fuels. There’s so many aspects of life that, it’s not that we don’t have the ability to do better, we’re just either not paying attention or sort of wilfully ignoring that things could be better, or we’re not willing to invest in them being better. But I think that the things that we use and the environment that we are in, whether the ones we work in or live in or go to school in, are so important to myriad aspects of our life and we sort of ignore them at our peril. And I think that we’ve as a society done exactly that. We’re not investing in infrastructure. We’re not designing schools that are great learning environments for kids. There’s all these things that were neglected. And I think that, again, it’s not that we don’t have the ability to do better. Sort of lacking the will to do so. And a lot of respect.
Eve: [00:09:57] You know, I often wonder whether it’s just the supreme comfort of things being the same and that, you know, making change or changing something is uncomfortable, difficult, difficult to imagine, difficult to envision. You know, it just.
Allison: [00:10:14] It’s easier to not do that. I mean, you were an architect. You’ve developed projects. I mean, I remember speaking to developers, whether of office space or of housing, who were like, well, this model works. We get our ROI and why change it.
Eve: [00:10:32] And then we have the world littered with that model, right.
Allison: [00:10:36] Right, right. It’s like, oh, we’re going to build this on top of a parking structure and have this and that. And it’s like, well, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Yeah, but it works, it’s fine. And so, I think that you just see that writ large everywhere, and that’s kind of why you get on a plane and go somewhere now and you’re like, where am I exactly? Because…
Eve: [00:10:54] So, I mean, it’s really a shame to think that the world is shaped only 5% by thoughtful design, maybe, you know, and a lot of the rest of it is cookie cutter just because that’s the way we always do it. Do you think technology has changed changes? I mean, for one, people can see more design and they’re just subjected to more on the Internet. Right? So, they can surely see there are more possibilities. But, has that really changed things?
Allison: [00:11:27] I don’t think so. I feel like technology has enabled more consumerism, maybe. So maybe there’s a greater variety of products available. But I have not seen the advancements that I might have hoped for. More sustainable architecture, say, or cost savings through technology than enabled more attention to the design of buildings. It’s pretty disheartening, to be honest, to see how little that has changed. I have an image kind of in my archive of stuff of the first house with solar panels, which was in the thirties. And we’ve known how to do this for a really long time. And the fact that solar panels are still this really massive cost. They’re not part of anybody’s normal construction process or water collection, like all these things that are actually really, really easy to do at this point. You have to go through some hurdles.
Allison: [00:12:36] I mean, grey water, for example, was like illegal to have in San Francisco, where I live, until recently. Like, all these things that should just be par for the course. We’re trying to put solar on our 100-year-old house, and the cheapest it’s going to be is like $15,000. Ultimately that will be fine. But that’s the cheapest, right? And it should not be. When we got a new roof, whenever we got a new roof, like it should have been at this point, like you get a new roof and that’s part of it.
Eve: [00:13:05] You just get the solar panel with it. Yeah, yeah.
Allison: [00:13:08] I think the government could do better. I think industry could do better. The incentives are still pretty small for these things. They’re just there’s not enough collective work, but there’s not enough will from the top. I mean, you see how places can be transformed with visionary leadership, right? We can take the example of Paris and Mayor Anne Hidalgo who’s like, cars are a blight, these things should happen in this city. We’re going to have bike lanes. We’re going to have greater pedestrian access to things. We’re really going to prioritize the experience of a person in the city as opposed to a car living in the city. That wouldn’t happen just without someone really taking the risk to make it happen. And I’m just not seeing that happen anywhere in the States.
Eve: [00:13:50] It’s also, I think, culturally different here because I have an architectural friend in Italy and I was always astonished at how much sort of design for the good was accepted there versus here, where personal property is really first and foremost. If that tree is dropping leaves on my property, I want you to get rid of it. It’s not that the tree can cool down everyone’s houses, it’s just making dirt on my car. It’s a very different way to think about the world and.
Allison: [00:14:20] Agreed.
Eve: [00:14:21] Yeah, it’s interesting. So since Dwell, how has your focus shifted? What are you working on these days?
Allison: [00:14:29] Sure, let’s see. So, I was at Dwell for about seven years, I would say. And where at Dwell we were very focused on this idea of, that good design is for everybody. But in the end at Dwell, it was like, good design is very good for the person fortunate enough to live in a house that’s in Dwell.
Eve: [00:14:52] That’s right. They were absolutely spectacular places.
Allison: [00:14:55] Like yeah, things are great. I’m in this house. So, not long after I left Dwell, I started writing a column for the New York Times, interestingly, for the opinion section, but that’s who asked, so it was great. And so, I really started focusing on kind of beyond the house, right, to the street and the neighborhood and all kinds of various aspects of design and was really kind of expanding my ideas around how design could have more impact on more people for the better.
Allison: [00:15:30] I joined an urban planning and policy think tank in, let’s say, 2012 called SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, and then really expanded my focus from the house to the city to the region. Like how can we think about things from a much broader perspective, transportation networks, housing policy that ensures a certain level of a certain standard of ideally design, but let’s just say at least density, for regions and really focused on all aspects of urban policy. For nearly a decade at SPUR and worked on their, I was editorial director there. So, I did a magazine there, oversaw the website, oversaw public programming, all those kinds of things. And learned more than anyone would ever want to know about how.
Eve: [00:16:24] Probably had a lot of fun.
Allison: [00:16:27] Cities and regions work, which can be a little demoralizing. You talked about different places, having different attitudes. I mean, San Francisco fights for 20 years about a bike lane. The bike lane ends up being like a quarter of a mile and you celebrate for a week. And then someone introduces a ballot proposition to get rid of the bike lane. So, it’s just like this constant specific task around here, which is a little bit exhausting, but you’ve got to keep fighting the good fight. Earlier this year, I joined MIT Technology Review as editorial director of their print magazine, and I’m delighted to be working for print magazine again. I never thought it would happen. And while the bulk of technology reviews focuses on digital, every single person who ever went to MIT gets the print magazine, and we also have subscribers.
Allison: [00:17:23] So, it’s a lot of people who are looking at it. And so, I get to fill 88 pages every two months, and it’s technology writ large. I mean, as far as I’m concerned right now, anything can be a technology story. We’re doing a gender issue right now. We just did a cities issue. You can, of course, find all of these at TechnologyReview.com. We are doing one on mortality because really technology touches everything in our lives at this point. So, it’s a pretty broad definition. So, for me it’s fantastic because the different people that I can talk to during the course of a week, it’s just, I can talk to people about any subject that they want really, and we can turn it into a technology story. So, that’s great.
Eve: [00:18:09] That’s really great. So, you know, the one thing I wanted to touch on also was zoning because, you know, I’m in a place right now which still utilizes the 1950 zoning code, which is really bizarre, you know. It’s an overlay district of 3500 square foot lots that require enormous setbacks and, you know, a nice front lawn, none of which is energy efficient, especially in the current weather. I mean, I know, you know, have you written about zoning and its impact on place and, how do we tackle that behemoth? Because that’s really influencing everything, I think.
Allison: [00:18:48] It really is. I will say, a number of cities over the past few years eliminated single family zoning, which was great. But this goes back to the leadership thing that if there’s not leadership in place to kind of push for the policies that allow things to change within those zoning changes, then you don’t really get very far. But just to give another very contemporary example, during COVID tons of businesses had to shut down temporarily or permanently. And now, so many cities have massive amounts of vacancies, and maybe those spaces are zoned for something quite specific. I’m kind of all in favor of, this will never happen, but I’m in favor of it, of just like there should be no zoning, this should be just like a five-year zoning free time. Like, if you can find something to fill a space. Fill a space.
Eve: [00:19:41] It’s really interesting, yeah.
Allison: [00:19:44] Because I go, we have a little office space in downtown San Francisco, and I go downtown once or twice a week and it is a ghost town. There is nobody down there. Because of supply chain issues, there’s like, a shortage of everything. So, you see plywood over all kinds of businesses. And first I thought, oh my God, this many businesses closed. But in fact, people can’t get glass to to replace doors. So, it just adds to this feeling of just being in utter desolation and barring any pretty genius plan for bringing all these businesses back, I honestly think we just have to think so creatively about how to use these spaces. There’s lots of talk of converting office to housing, for example, which is not easy but not impossible. And I think that, and I’ve talked to people too, I’m like, oh, we have all these vacant storefronts. We can think about housing. And people will say things like, oh well, people don’t want to live on the ground level. And I’m just like, you know, I think people would be okay.
Eve: [00:20:44] Yes they do!
Allison: [00:20:44] It’s pretty easy to, there’s an empty Walgreens that you could like.
Eve: [00:20:51] You could do amazing like artist live/work spaces and taller storefronts and there’s all sorts of reasons to want to live there. You know, I agree with you. And Pittsburgh’s actually getting a lot of new housing in vacated buildings. But I think Pittsburgh’s fortunate in that it’s a little cultural hub in the downtown. So, I am interested to see how that shifts over time. You know, another thing I’ve noticed, which I don’t drive that often, but recently I drove through, past a strip mall which was completely deserted. And I noticed that, you know, first of all, there’s acres of empty parking, acres and acres of it. Surely, we can convert that into parks and usable spaces. Like I could see that being really interesting housing or office space with sort of an amenity out the front. But instead, what I saw was that all the storefronts systematically were being changed into storage, storage pods, which is, I’m not sure that’s the right direction either.
Allison: [00:22:01] Yeah, I’m amazed to see some of the prime real estate that some storage units have.
Eve: [00:22:09] How much stuff can people store, you know, it’s.
Allison: [00:22:12] SPUR did a study of empty parking lots in downtown Oakland actually a few years ago. And I won’t get the number right. But it was something on the order of, let’s call it 45 surface parking lots in downtown Oakland, the amount of housing that you could build on that. And to be fair, some of it has actually been developed into housing. But people will fight to preserve anything right now.
Eve: [00:22:36] Or if you took two lanes off one of those like eight or ten lane freeways in L.A., you could build an awful lot of housing. Anyway, it’s really interesting stuff. What do you hope to illuminate with your work these days? A little bit different than Dwell, I think.
Allison: [00:22:54] Hmm.
Eve: [00:22:56] Because you’ve written about women in architecture, streets, sustainability, access, inclusivity, much, much more, cars as death mobiles. I mean, there’s just tons of stuff out there, right?
Allison: [00:23:11] I feel like culturally we went through this period of embracing every notion of technology and really believing that it was going to solve every problem that we had. Anyone who’s read my work could see that I do not share that belief. I am not anti-technology, but I think for a really long time I’ve been really kind of urging a more critical look at anything that promises that it’s going to be the savior of anything that might be autonomous vehicles or Hyperloop, which, by the way, has still not been built anywhere, or how Lyft and Uber were going to solve transportation problems within cities. And now it costs like double the price of a taxi to take an Uber in the city. And the transportation systems are haemorrhaging riders.
Eve: [00:24:05] Exactly.
Allison: [00:24:06] And don’t have enough money to sustain basic service.
Eve: [00:24:09] And the streets are clogged, right.
Allison: [00:24:11] So we’re seeing a bit of a reckoning. Where people are hopefully being a little bit more thoughtful about empty promises. I think we’re also seeing a racial reckoning, gender reckoning. I mean, all these things that we might not have been thoughtful enough about around technology. Who’s making the decisions about a new product, who is that product serving? What would a diverse team look like to build these products? All these things I’m interested in highlighting. We have a story coming out in the next issue of Tech Review called “Why Tech Can’t Solve Its Gender Problem,” which just kind of looks at the trajectory of women in technology, careers and technology over the last, let’s call it 80 years. And most of technology was kind of dominated by women for a while. Coders were women. It was almost like being in a typing pool and the story just outlines how that culture became so incredibly male and then who is actually working now to change that? So, I’m very interested in telling stories around technology that have not really been told enough.
Eve: [00:25:22] A lot of that has to do with capital too, you know, who’s driving capital to what. Which is also a very elite class of.
Allison: [00:25:29] Absolutely.
Eve: [00:25:30] White males, because really, they dominate the VC world. So, you know, you have some ridiculously low percentage of women owned businesses and minority businesses, like 2 or 3% being funded.
Allison: [00:25:46] Well, I think what’s really interesting about this story in particular is, how it shows how intertwined all these people have been. Like, this guy takes this guy under his wing and then that guy takes this other guy under his wing and there’s just like a continuous thread of sort of insider relationship. So, that’s one thing that we’re exploring. In the cities issue that we did, talked a lot about everything from how surveillance is becoming such a big feature of our cities and how we might think thoughtfully about how that might be helpful in some regards and how that might be terrible in other regards. We had another piece on, I called it because I can’t help myself from my early magazine days of provocative cover lines, but like, sexy retrofits, how really the most sustainable architecture that you can do is just making sure that you’ve made the existing buildings more sustainable than they were before. There was an example of the New York Housing Authority, if they replaced all the refrigerators and all their units with energy efficient refrigerators, it’s like a million refrigerators, right? It has an impact that far outweighs any like, tech gadget or any other thing that you might think of. So really kind of digging into.
Eve: [00:27:00] Sensible solutions.
Allison: [00:27:02] Again, the broader swath of what technology can and can’t do.
Eve: [00:27:07] Interesting. So, I love it. So, what are some of your favorite amazing projects in the built environment today?
Allison: [00:27:17] Oh, this is a tough one. I will say I don’t follow kind of like new developments in architecture as closely as I once did. I’m also going to admit to something. Increasingly, I realize that sometimes a project can be successful in spite of the architecture or design of it, and I’ll give you two examples. So, every Saturday I go to the farmer’s market. It’s just a couple blocks from my house. It’s called Alemany Farmer’s Market, and it’s in a giant parking lot and with some stalls and no one ever parks in this parking lot. It’s just like, it’s there for the farmer’s market and there’s a flea market. And then it was a big COVID testing site at the height of the pandemic. There’s nothing attractive about this. The traffic flow is terrible, but it is the one place that I can think of in San Francisco that is the most diverse place that you could go. People from all walks of life show up there, every income level, every race, gender, kids, everything. People coming from all over the region to sell their produce.
Allison: [00:28:29] It was not designed well but doesn’t matter. Something allows it to succeed. And I’m kind of fascinated by this. For all my time spent arguing about the importance of good design, the fact is that sometimes it’s irrelevant in a way, like whatever it is about this market, it’s drawing everyone to it, in spite of the fact that it is just a parking lot. And so, I think that sometimes I’m in love with a building. It’s gorgeous for a million reasons, but then also I’m in love with something that’s just like a messy, random spot that ends up becoming really popular. And so, you can’t program, it’s programmed, it’s a farmer’s market, but still, I’m kind of fascinated.
Eve: [00:29:14] You can’t program those accidents. No, I think that’s right. And then you just have to hope that no one will mess it up.
Allison: [00:29:21] Yes. Yes. I mean, another example here is the Japan time in San Francisco, which is a neighborhood where lots of people were displaced at one point. It’s right across the street from the Fillmore neighborhood, which is one of the worst cases of urban renewal nationally. Just really, a very complicated history. But what emerged is this weirdly like Japanese shopping mall that has like ramen shops and bubble tea and an amazing bookstore which is packed night and day. And the building is like 1970s. There’s like bronze stair banisters and there’s one, there’s like two bathrooms for this entire huge complex. Like, there’s so much that’s wrong with it, but people cannot stay away from it. And so, again, it’s just whatever is there is just like hit on the zeitgeist of what people want. And if you tore it down and built some Herzog and de Meuron building, it wouldn’t. I’m just kind of fascinated in these spaces that function in spite of architecture.
Eve: [00:30:25] I completely agree. You know, When I visited in Beijing, which I have never been able to get out of my mind, was like, the Chinese like to build these sort of mega malls. And this was this, it was right behind Tiananmen Square. And it was this really long boulevard, very, very wide, with brand new shops on each side. You know, it was wide and difficult to cross. I mean, it was used, brand new, right? And then right behind it was this little alley which ran the length of it, packed like ten feet wide packed with people you couldn’t move. And I would much rather be there than the brand-new boulevard, you know, it was way more interesting. So yeah, I don’t know how you design that.
Allison: [00:31:18] I think this is the challenge of so many suburbs, right? And I’ve written about this quite a lot. It’s like cities are interesting because they have a patina and they’ve evolved over time and things kind of ebb and flow. When you put down like a new suburban development, it’s just this thing plonked down and it’s very hard to give any kind of context or texture to those kind of moments. We see so many of them and I don’t know that anyone is really, can crack the code on making them feel a little bit less like they were just plopped down.
Eve: [00:31:50] Right, right. When I was a young architect, my favorite book of all time was a book called Great Streets. Do you remember that? It had visual sections through streets that worked really well. And you could kind of really dissect what, at least spatially what drew people. You know, if a street’s too wide, it’s scary to cross. If there’s nothing on the other side, there’s no reason to go there. If you have to walk past blank parking garage walls, you’re not going to walk down the street. So, like some… I thought it was a fascinating book, anyway. We’re diverging now. So, what are some of your favorite cities?
Allison: [00:32:31] Favorite cities? Oh, I have a lot of them. Actually, just planning a trip to Dublin, a place I haven’t been, so I’m excited to go see Ireland. I lived in London for a bit. I absolutely love London. A less obvious one. I went on a press trip several years ago to Turin, which doesn’t seem like a city that tons of people visit, but it was kind of the most amazing surprise turn. There was so much there that was absolutely incredible. I stayed in a hotel where the Fiat factory was. There’s a track on the roof, which I think they made into a park. There’s an amazing contemporary art museum in a castle. Like a half hour ahead of town. There was just I mean, I had, it was one of those funny things where someone called me at Dwell, we would like to bring you to Turin. I was like, sounds great. And it was just, I had no expectations. So, it was such a surprise. I do really like visiting. I mean, one of the best parts of my experience at Dwell is that we did this issue every year called Modern Across America, where we tried to find examples, I mean, I’m sure you remember this, of architecture not in the major cities where you would expected and admittedly we were a little condescending when we would talk about fly over zones and all that kind of stuff. But on the positive side, I took trips to all these places that you might not ever normally plan a trip to.
Eve: [00:34:11] Maybe like Pittsburgh.
Eve: [00:34:14] Fayetteville, Arkansas, Gary, Indiana. Once a year I would, we would send people out and we would, this is back in the day when magazines had money and you could like, people have to do stuff. And I loved Milwaukee. I loved going to all these places because you will always find some little pocket of a creative community. And obviously I’d be going in to visit an architect and an architect would be happy to show me everything in their city or town. But also, the architects would universally say, like, if I was living in New York, I wouldn’t be able to build anything. And here I can pretty much build anything. So, there was something always really great.
Eve: [00:34:55] So it seems like you’re describing authenticity and grit a little bit, right? Places that have.
Allison: [00:35:02] Yeah, I mean that, But I think that obviously you go to Paris. Paris is amazing. You’re still going to find like a million surprises in Paris or Rome or any of those places which I love, as everyone does. But I also think it’s interesting to kind of visit places that you’re not expecting to have anything to be good, quite so interesting and discover it there. So, I like a mix of those things for sure.
Eve: [00:35:31] So, you also wrote a book on prefab housing before, probably before it was a thing, right? And what drew you to the subject and how do you think that’s played out?
Allison: [00:35:43] Sure. Well, I have to tell you a funny story, because I just heard the story about. So, before I did the Prefab book, my husband and I did a book on Airstream trailers.
Eve: [00:35:54] Oh, my favorite thing in the world.
Allison: [00:35:56] And weirdly, because they go through cycles of like extreme popularity. But at the time when we started that book, they were not going through extreme popularity. We definitely foresaw a trend. And my sister just told me the other day, my mom passed away some time ago, but somehow my sister and I were talking about camping. When I did that book and went on a few camping trips with my husband during the course of having that trailer, my mother had said to my sister, she’s not turning into a camper, which I just learned and I thought was hilarious. So, God forbid she’s camping. But so, the Airstream, the Airstream trailer, my mom really liked to make hotel reservations. She’s not a camper.
Eve: [00:36:43] I’m not either. I can glamp, but not camp.
Allison: [00:36:48] Which is all to say, the thing about the Airstream trailer that’s fascinating, it’s fascinating as a design object. It’s also fascinating as an example of something that’s built on an assembly line. Like you can live in it. There’s a form that’s repeated, right? And so, ultimately prefab, it’s the same idea, right? Is that you have a form, and you repeat it and that’s how you build housing and it’s more efficient and all those things. Both prefab and trailers obviously are attached with like tremendous stigmas, right? Of like, oh, you live in a trailer park. And I can’t count the number of movies that I’ve seen where, especially after doing an Airstream trailer movie, the bad character invariably lives in an Airstream trailer just outside of town. It’s just like such a funny trope because one the Airstream trailer is probably like $50,000 now because they’ve become like this collectible item, but it’s this funny trailer trope.
Allison: [00:37:41] So one of the first issues we did at Dwell certainly informed by the Airstream trailer stuff was on prefab houses, which was kind of a risqué thing for a shelter magazine to do because again, prefab houses are associated with trailers and cookie cutter crappy construction. In all fairness, the majority of prefab houses are exactly that, and you see them dotted across the United States. They’re just not necessarily advertising that they’re prefab, but in its perfect form prefab could be a very efficient way to deliver well-designed houses to a lot of people, and certainly I went all in on that at Dwell. We had an international design competition to actually build a house for our client, something I would not recommend doing for a variety of reasons. But it really elevated the perception and awareness of prefab to a point we could not have anticipated. There were so many articles about the prefab book and about the prefab competition that even Cooking Light did an article about prefab housing. It was it was in the New York Times Magazine gift guide, like a little prefab house. It just became this weird cultural thing, which, believe me, when we signed that book up with the publisher and told people what we were writing a book about, people were like, oh… interesting. Could not have anticipated that.
Allison: [00:39:11] I will say that it is very, very difficult to put a well-designed prefab house into production and much harder than anyone would have thought in the early 2000, lots of fantastic architects really invested their heart and soul and all their money into prefab factories to kind of do modern prefab. And it didn’t really pan out, especially as the housing recession hit in 2009 and kind of ended a lot of that. If I had a dime for every VC or various entrepreneur who has come to me to say that they have cracked the code on prefab and they know how to make it work, I would be very wealthy. It’s still very problematic. In a way it kind of goes back to what I was talking about a visionary leadership. If you build one prefab house like a one off, it’s going to be really expensive. In order to have any success, you need to do it at scale. Has there been an entity, and I’m talking specifically about the United States because it was very different elsewhere, has there been an entity willing to invest enough money to build, say, 1000 well-designed prefab homes? No. So the businesses end up producing extremely high-end one-off prefabs, which to my mind is like the antithesis of why you would use prefab in the first.
Eve: [00:40:34] That’s what we’re seeing with 3D printing as well, right?
Allison: [00:40:36] Oh, completely. When people say of 3D houses, it’s like, oh.
Eve: [00:40:40] They’re so expensive.
Allison: [00:40:41] It’s not. The energy use of 3D printing is off the charts. Absolutely off the charts. However, in Japan and Scandinavia, there’s tons of amazing prefab houses being built. The stigma is not attached. There aren’t the same kind of union battles that there are with prefabricated construction. I won’t go on and on because I could go too deep on this. But it remains, I say this in my book, it’s like this perpetual promise that we never quite get to.
Eve: [00:41:12] So, if all the myriad of things you’ve done, is it something you’re proudest of or enjoyed doing the most? Well, maybe the print magazine, because you really had.
Allison: [00:41:22] You know, it’s interesting. I’ve been so fortunate. I got to, I really had so many amazing experiences and I’ve got to do so much writing and editing. I’m back to doing mostly editing. And I do have to say it’s really nice to be editing again after a lot of writing, New York Times is a very high-profile place to be putting something out in the world all the time, and it causes a lot of anxiety. It’s kind of nice to just be a little bit more in the background, so I’m quite proud of the work that I’ve done, kind of pushing for more walkable, liveable cities, though I do feel like I could continue to write the same article every year till the end of time. I feel like I’ve turned what began as like a design publication and maybe a career in design journalism, to something definitely more advocacy oriented, which I’m proud of.
Allison: [00:42:24] I promise I didn’t force her into it, but my daughter is actually taking an urban planning college program at UC Berkeley this summer, so I’m raising a generation of, she wants to go into urban planning, I swear we didn’t push her. So, I’m proud of that, that she’s absorbed those lessons. She’s a city kid. She walks around, takes public transit everywhere and understands why those things are important. So, yeah. Thrilled to be back in publication that still values print. And obviously it’s through MIT. So, I’m just working with a very intelligent group of colleagues, which is the most that anybody could hope for really.
Eve: [00:43:07] Well, thank you very much for joining me today. And I can’t wait to read what’s next because I’m sure it will evolve. You’ve had this incredible array of things that you’ve written about. It’s a long way from Dwell, I think, which was a little entitled, maybe.
Allison: [00:43:30] Yes.
Eve: [00:43:32] But lovely. A lovely magazine. I’m still proud that we were in it. So…
Allison: [00:43:36] Yeah.
Eve: [00:43:37] Thank you so much for joining me. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Allison: [00:43:40] Oh, me too. Thank you.
Eve: [00:43:51] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive together. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. If you like what you heard, you can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media, or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me, you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing, head on over to smallchange.co, where I spend most of my time. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music. And a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Allison Arieff