Originating in the early 19th century, softwood construction was a pragmatic solution to a need for an accessible building system among settlers with limited wealth, technical skills, and building traditions. Early examples, like George Washington Snow’s balloon framed warehouse, paved the way for churches, barns, stores, 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 American Midwest.
It has been the dominant construction system ever since—more than 90% of new homes in the U.S. today are wood framed. The accessibility that shaped its early development continues to influence contemporary life and reflect democratic ideals in subtle, but powerful ways. For instance, softwood construction is exceptionally egalitarian. 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. Buildings of every size and style are made of wood framing.
Despite its ubiquity, wood framing is also one of the country’s most overlooked contributions to architecture. A variety of prejudices and habits explain its absence from intellectual discourse, which tends to zero in on the exotic while ignoring 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, thin, and inexpensive. These qualities introduce a flexibility for form, labor, composition, class, sensibility, access, and style that open up wild possibilities for architecture. Wood framing is inherently redundant and transient, which allows for improvisation in design and construction, rough detailing, and ongoing renovation. It has been both a cause and effect of the country’s high regard for novelty, in contrast with the stability that is often assumed to be essential to architecture.
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 Daniel Shea and Chris Strong address the labor, culture, and materials of softwood construction. A collection of scale models, researched and designed by students at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture, presents the history of wood framing. Two sets of furniture by Ania Jaworska and Norman Kelley are installed outside in the courtyard and full-scale wood structure, both reviving historic pieces and producing them out of common dimensional lumber.
The 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia comes at a time when national cultural practices are struggling with their histories. How do we come to terms with our past choices? What kinds of futures can we create? American Framing examines the improbably overlooked and familiar architecture of the country’s most common construction system and argues that a profound and powerful future for design can be conceived out of an ordinary past. The works within the exhibition tell the story of an American architectural project that is 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.
Ania Jaworska, Norman Kelley (Thomas Kelley and Carrie Norman), Daniel Shea, Chris Strong, with UIC School of Architecture students Emory Alba, Kassandra Alvarez, Alondra Ayala, Hannah Bernas, Kenda Blanks, Sama Jafarnejad Chaghoshi, M. Lorenze Cordova, Luna Vital Gallego, Nathan Gawlinski, Ronald Hall, Esau Hernandez, Summer Hofford, Andrew Hunt, Andrew Huss, Jeffri Jacobe, Colin Jecha, Nash Kennedy, Tina Kracke, Riley Kyrouac, Sohui Lee, Rizna Rafi Maalouf, Shamsedin Mokhber, Courtney Moushi, Martin Murungi, Kayla Oliver, Yamileth Ovalle, Jacob Patnode, Sam Piombino, Meghan Quigley, Mallory Rabeneck, Ricardo Sandoval, Jocelyn Schneider, Cody Schueller, Martina Smith, Lia Thompson, Julia Turner, Giselle Valle Figueroa, Andreina Yepez, and Roya Zanjani