Wood framing has always been wood framing and no amount of money can buy you a better 2x4 than the 2x4s in the poorest neighborhood in town. This fundamental sameness paradoxically underlies the American culture of individuality, unifying all superficial differences. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, FDR lived in a wood framed house, Beyoncé lives in a wood framed house, and you can live in a wood framed house, too, because all framing is the same and all framing is good.
Originating in the early 1800s, softwood construction was a pragmatic solution to the need for a variety of buildings during westward expansion. Early examples like George Washington Snow’s balloon framed warehouse in Chicago paved the way for churches, barns, commercial buildings, and the most common wood framed building type, the American house. An abundance of Southern Pine and Douglas Fir forests, simplicity and speed of construction, and an ability to be built by low or un-skilled workers made wood framing a perfect fit for the growing economies and populations of the Midwest. And it has been the dominant construction system ever since—over 90% of houses in the U.S. are wood framed.
American Framing draws attention to one of the country’s most potentially influential contributions to architecture, which, for a variety of reasons, is one of its most overlooked. The field of architecture tends to zero in on the exotic and ignore the ordinary. In the case of wood framing, a lack of disciplinary prestige stems from the same characteristics that make it so prevalent: it’s easy and inexpensive. But those qualities introduce a remarkable flexibility for form, composition, sensibility, and content that could open up new design possibilities.
The exhibition presents the subject of wood framing in a collection of works throughout the galleries and grounds of the U.S. Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia. A four-story installation forms a new façade for the historic pavilion—a half-section of a wood framed house through which visitors enter the exhibition. This open-air wood structure encloses the courtyard to provide space for reflection and conversation. It also introduces the world of wood framing as directly as possible by allowing people to experience its spaces, forms, and techniques firsthand. The full-scale work expresses the sublime and profound aesthetic power of a structural method that underlies most buildings in the United States.
Two types of works are exhibited within the galleries. Newly commissioned photographs from Linda Robbennolt, Daniel Shea, and Chris Strong address the labor, design, culture, and materials of softwood construction, and scale models of wood framing, researched and designed by students at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture, study the history, common forms, and potential of exaggerating some of the system’s typical parts and qualities. Two sets of furniture explorations by Ania Jaworska and Norman Kelley are installed outside in the courtyard and full-scale wood structure. Both projects revive historic pieces by making them out of common dimensional lumber.
The works tell a story of an American architectural project that is bored with tradition, eager to choose economy over technical knowledge and skill, and accepting of a relaxed idea of craft in the pursuit of something new. This desire plays out in the way that the pavilion building itself is restaged. American Framing completes Delano and Aldrich’s 1930s U.S. Pavilion, which aspired to classical European architecture, with America’s ubiquitous domestic project: the wood framed house.
The 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia comes at a time when cultural practices are struggling with their histories. AMERICAN FRAMING makes the case that a profound and powerful future for design can be conceived out of an anonymous past.
This website, the presentation of the U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale Architettura 2021, its instagram: @americanframing and the associated book: American Framing: The Same Something for Everyone (Park Books) are about that.