Rising up from the atrium all the way to the third floor of the Wrightwood 659 gallery, “American Framing” fills the space with light-brown soft wood. The structure, previously by the U.S. Pavilion at the seventeenth International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia (2021), marks the first time this project will be seen in the United States. An exploration of the architecture of wood framing, the installation is a nod to the most common construction system in the States—a 2019 survey found wood is used in more than ninety-percent of new home construction, making it one of the country’s most important contributions to building practice.
Brought to life by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the U.S. Department of State and the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), and co-curated by architects and professors Paul Preissner and Paul Andersen, “American Framing” looks into the endless possibilities of lumber in juxtaposition with materials such as concrete, which are more widely used in European countries, especially when it comes to residential homes. Bringing such a structure into the Tadao Ando-designed exhibition space provides an opportunity for introspection. Beyond its material attributes and beneficial characteristics ranging from its widespread availability, to versatility and to ease of workability, arise issues of labor as process, public and domestic space and even democracy. No amount of money can buy you a better two-by-four. Νo house is better than another—at least not when it comes down to its very core—framing. In its simplicity, wood can be quite revolutionary.
“We want to work with a particularly American theme and open up new possibilities for design. The exhibition looks back at the history of wood framing and speculates on how buildings might be different if we restrain or exaggerate the system itself,” says Andersen. “As practicing architects and educators, we often explore how ordinary architecture might be a platform for new ideas and discourse,” Preissner says, calling wood framing “a great forgotten basis of American architecture.”
To complete the vignette, the exhibition features photographic works by artist Daniel Shea, who follows the lifespan of lumber from forest to construction site, and photographer and videographer Chris Strong, who spent weeks on construction sites documenting the processes and techniques that underlie the creation of America’s suburbs. To further add to the themes of labor, technical skill, culture, building traditions and materials of softwood construction, Ania Jaworska and Norman Kelley (the design practice of Carrie Norman and Thomas Kelley), rethink historic furniture pieces, such as the American Framing Shaker chair, and recreate them in common dimensional lumber embracing an egalitarian, do-it-yourself approach. Adding a pinch of sculptural element into the space, scale models designed and built by UIC students during seminars led by the two professors are scattered throughout.
As the structure invites the viewer to experience the forms and techniques of wood framing firsthand by immersing themselves in its grandiose size and sublime aesthetics, one cannot help but grasp the emblematic nature of the material, the overwhelming realization of scale, and the diverse stories and endless potential it encapsulates as a whole in both a pragmatic and a conceptual level.
American Framing is on view at Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood, through July 30.
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