Matt Shaw on “American Framing”
ONE OF MODERNISM’S most ambitious goals was to house the masses through efficient, affordable, and mass-produced architecture. While the success of this project differs wildly from locale to locale, it is almost universally associated in the West with steel, reinforced concrete, and plate glass. Ironically, one of the systems that perhaps best fulfilled these dreams in the United States is an entirely different material, and one underpinning 90 percent of single-family homes in the United States: softwood framed construction. Despite its ubiquity, traditional architectural discourse has rarely included softwood framing in any serious sense.
Peeling back the proverbial siding and exposing this building system is the core of the “American Framing” project, originally conceived for the US Pavilion at the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale and most recently opened at the Wrightwood 659 exhibition space in Chicago. (Another version opened concurrently in Prague, at Galerie Jaroslava Fragnera). “American Framing” is an initiative of the University of Illinois Chicago, arguably the most influential school of architecture of the 2010’s. Under the directorship of Robert E. “Bob” Somol, the school promoted a whimsical attitude toward architectural practice and, to some extent, a corresponding style, the legacy of which can still be seen in nearly every temporary installation and house project by early- 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 percolated through architecture schools and especially on Instagram. The 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial elegantly institutionalized this tendency while falling into a trap similar to that of the 1980 Venice Biennale, “La Strada Novissima,” (The New Street), and subsequent ’80s architecture trends, which codified the everyday references and relatable signs and symbols of early postmodernism in an inward-facing repertoire of building precedents and formal typologies.
Whereas postmodern architects in the ’60s and ’70s recuperated forgotten or vernacular building styles, today’s ugly and ordinary is more attuned to underappreciated processes of construction. We take for granted traditional American wood-framed architecture, but it underpins domestic architecture from massive mansions to the tiniest of houses. 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 assume almost any form using the same base elements: 2x’s, nails or screws, plywood or OSB, and maybe a few light steel straps produced by companies like Simpson Strong-Tie or Eagle Metal Products.
Softwood construction was developed by German and Scandinavian settlers in the early nineteenth century. Moving West through the frontier, they modified European half-timbering techniques through an inexpensive, efficient, protoindustrial system. Dimensional lumber and mass-produced nails meant that unskilled laborers working in small teams could not only build stable buildings, but also adapt and experiment according to personal interpretation. Because framing was cheap and mobile, it proliferated across the North American continent, resulting in a quintessentially American technology that, as the curators write in their statement, was “bored with tradition, eager to choose economy over technical skill, and accepting of a relaxed idea of craft in the pursuit of something useful and new.”
In Venice, a five-story wall-less structure enclosed the front courtyard of the US Pavilion, its over-scaled, steeply pitched roof fenestrated with an overabundance of elongated dormers—a strange interpretation of the everyday house, but built with the same materials and techniques. In this sense, the installation functioned as a manifesto for the greater project of “American Framing”: peeling back the differences between stylistically eclectic American homes to expose a ubiquitous yet adaptable underlying system, here pushed toward its architectural limits.
The main installation, perhaps the best US pavilion showing in Venice in at least a decade, should have been a serious contender for the Golden Lion. In Chicago, a three-story atrium is filled with a lumber 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. Presented alongside the one-to-one spatial intervention are scale models, wood furniture pieces by Norman Kelley and Ania Jaworska, and two photography series, one by Chris Strong, another by Daniel Shea. Kelley’s furniture is made of dimensional lumber and OSB, explicitly conjuring Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione (1974), an open-source chair design meant to be built by the end user out of any material, but usually wood. Strong’s photos show builders at work on construction sites across the US in 2020 and 2021, exposing the manual labor that goes unnoticed in final buildings. A counterpoint to these light conceptual gestures are Jaworska’s simple benches and Shea’s photographs of foliage, both of which suggest a more atmospheric presentation. The resulting exhibition is a broad if somewhat unsatisfying journey through the world of wood framing, one in which neither concept nor affect are realized in full.
For an exhibition about populism, “American Framing” feels oddly aloof in its rhetoric and design. There is a common and frustrating attitude, pervasive in certain architecture circles, which could be summed up as “too cool to be clear.” This affect can be sophisticated and subtle when applied to design, but it can also be an alibi for underwhelming or unresolved work.
How did early adopters of softwood construction Americanize and industrialize European building techniques? How was timber used to dominate the American West? How has pop culture used framing as a trope? What are the speculative limitations 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 by Park Books is said to detail these stories but was not available to be read alongside the exhibition. This can only be called a missed opportunity.
Whereas so many exhibitions tend to overcode their objects with social and political meaning, “American Framing” has the opposite problem: It obscures and abstracts its content to the detriment of the truly rich history on display. Loss of meaning is, of course, a common upshot in architecture, and one that is symptomatic of the cold, modern world as we know it.