ONE OF THE MODERNIZATIONS the most ambitious goals were to house the masses through efficient, affordable, and mass-produced architecture. Although the success of this project differs greatly from place to place, it is almost universally associated in the West with steel, reinforced concrete and flat glass. Ironically, one of the systems that has perhaps best realized those dreams in the United States is an entirely different material, and one that underpins 90% of single-family homes in the United States: softwood frame construction. . Despite its ubiquity, mainstream architectural discourse has rarely included softwood framing in any serious sense.
Peeling back the proverbial cladding and exposing this building system is at the heart of the “American Framing” project, originally designed for the American Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale and recently opened at the Wrightwood 659 exhibition space. in Chicago. (Another version was opened in parallel in Prague, at the Jaroslava Fragnera Gallery). “American Framing” is an initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago, arguably the most influential school of architecture of the 2010s. Under the leadership of Robert E. “Bob” Somol, the school promoted a whimsical attitude to architectural practice and, to some extent, a corresponding style, the legacy of which can still be seen in almost all temporary installations and house projects from early times. and mid-career architects working today. This vaguely “neo-postmodern” camp resurrected the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Memphis, John Hejduk, Charles Moore, Arata Isozaki and early Michael Graves. It flourished roughly between 2008 and 2016, a time when pop references, cartoonish figuration and other postmodern tropes seeped into architecture schools and especially Instagram. The 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennale elegantly institutionalized this trend while falling into a trap similar to that of the 1980 Venice Biennale, “Strada Novissima,(The New Street), and subsequent architectural trends of the 1980s, which codified the everyday references and relatable signs and symbols of early postmodernism into an inward-looking repertoire of building precedents and formal typologies.
While postmodern architects of the 60s and 70s reclaimed forgotten or vernacular building styles, today’s ugly and ordinary are more in tune with underappreciated building processes. We take traditional American wood-frame architecture for granted, but it underpins domestic architecture, from massive mansions to the smallest homes. As curators Paul Preissner and Paul Anderson like to point out, no amount of money can buy you a better or worse 2×4. Ironically, this hyper-standardized system is adaptable to the point of being plastic: it can take almost any shape using the same basic elements: 2x, nails or screws, plywood or OSB, and maybe some strapping lightweight steel produced by companies like Simpson. Strong-Tie or Eagle metal products.
Softwood construction was developed by German and Scandinavian settlers in the early 19th century. Moving west across the border, they modified European half-timbering techniques with an inexpensive and efficient proto-industrial system. Dimensional wood and mass-produced nails meant that unskilled laborers working in small teams could not only construct stable buildings, but also adapt and experiment according to their personal interpretation. Because framing was cheap and portable, it proliferated across the North American continent, resulting in quintessentially American technology that, as the curators write in their statement, was “bored by tradition, eager to choose economy rather than technical competence and accepting a relaxed atmosphere. craft idea looking for something useful and new.
In Venice, a five-story wallless structure enclosed the front yard of the American Pavilion, its oversized, steeply pitched roof fenestrated with an overabundance of elongated dormers – an odd take on the everyday house, but built with the same materials and techniques. In this sense, the installation functioned as a manifesto for American Framing’s greatest project: peeling away the differences between stylistically eclectic American homes to expose a pervasive yet adaptable underlying system, here pushed to its architectural limits.
The main installation, perhaps the best American pavilion presented in Venice for at least a decade, should have been a strong contender for the Golden Lion. In Chicago, a three-story atrium is filled with a wooden installation framed in the typical method, with a slight twist: the “roof” is inverted, creating an unusual valley at the top, rather than a ridge or hip. Alongside the individual spatial intervention, models, wooden furniture by Norman Kelley and Ania Jaworska and two series of photographs, one by Chris Strong, the other by Daniel Shea, are presented. Kelley’s furniture is made of dimensional wood and OSB, explicitly evoking those of Enzo Mari Autoprogettazione (1974), an open source chair design intended to be constructed by the end user from any material, but usually wood. Strong’s photos show builders at work on construction sites across the United States in 2020 and 2021, exposing the manual labor that goes unnoticed in the final buildings. A counterpoint to these light conceptual gestures are Jaworska’s simple benches and Shea’s foliage photographs, both of which suggest a more atmospheric presentation. The resulting exhibition is a broad if somewhat unsatisfying journey through the world of timber frame construction, a journey in which neither concept nor affect is fully realized.
For an exhibit on populism, “American Framing” feels oddly distant in its rhetoric and design. There is a common and frustrating attitude, pervasive in some architectural circles, which could be summed up as “too cool to be clear”. This effect can be sophisticated and subtle when applied to design, but it can also be an alibi for disappointing or unresolved work.
How did early adopters of softwood construction Americanize and industrialize European building techniques? How was wood used to dominate the American West? How has pop culture used framing as a trope? What are the speculative limits of this malleable system? How was it taken up in the so-called New World as a conquering force: both modern and colonial? A forthcoming publication from Park Books would detail these stories, but was not available to read alongside the exhibit. It can only be called a missed opportunity.
While so many exhibits tend to overcode their objects with social and political significance, “American Framing” has the opposite problem: it obscures and abstracts its content to the detriment of the truly rich history on display. The loss of meaning is, of course, a common result in architecture, and one that is symptomatic of the cold, modern world as we know it.