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Get excited about AMERICAN FRAMING, the 2020 U.S. Pavilion in Venice

A Usonian Framework

Get excited about AMERICAN FRAMING, the 2020 U.S. Pavilion in Venice

War housing in Erie, Pennsylvania, 1941. Al Palmer (Courtesy Library of Congress)

American wood framing is an “art” and “a weird cul-de-sac of architecture” that has been “overlooked by historical and contemporary discourse.” according to Paul Preissner, cocurator of AMERICAN FRAMING, the 2020 U.S. Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

Preissner, along with frequent collaborator and fellow traveler in the ways of wood, Paul Andersen, will present an exhibition that traces the history of wood-framed construction, a uniquely American architecture that was developed in the United States but has not spread much beyond its borders. AMERICAN FRAMING will present the ubiquitous construction system of wood framing, the most common in the U.S. and “one of the country’s most important contributions to building practice,” possibly even more important than steel, the curators argue.

Wood framing was developed as a folk body of knowledge by westward German and Scandinavian settlers moving through the Midwest in the early 19th century, taking techniques of timber construction and half-timbering and remaking them in the image of a proto-industrial, cheap and efficient system. The advent of dimensional lumber (1814) and mass-produced nails allowed small teams of unskilled labor to construct stable buildings and innovate with the standardized system over time, with wood framing remaining as a whole a loose, nebulous system open to interpretation and experimentation.

The UIC School of Architecture commissioned the pavilion, and director of the Robert Somol said, “As in other work conducted in the School, the UIC proposal for the U.S. Pavilion intensifies and deviates a standard element or system as a means to remake the world in a surprising yet plausible way.” It is no accident that this project is coming from UIC, as a pop sensibility pervades the framework of the show. According to the curators, many Americans grew up in wood-framed houses, making it a system used across classes, from small bungalows to McMansions, and “across formal classes,” from Spanish Colonial homes to Cape Cod.

“We wanted to work with a particularly American theme and open up new possibilities for design. It seems fitting to both look back at the history of wood framing and speculate on how buildings might be different if we restrain or exaggerate the system itself,” Andersen said in a statement. Because wood framing is the stereotypical American construction type, it should titillate the global audience roaming il Giardini.

Diagram of a wood frame house under construction
An example of balloon framing. (Audel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide. ©1923)

The exhibition will depart from past U.S. pavilions by centering architecture, not architects. Rather than a roundup of what others are doing, the 2020 iteration will dive deep into a topic about building. The exhibition will feature a monumental installation completing the neoclassical pavilion’s geometry in plan by closing in the forecourt in front of the main entrance. Inside, commissioned photographs, site-responsive furniture, and models made by UIC students will tell the story of this rich building tradition.

Photographer and UIC alumnus Daniel Shea has been commissioned to develop a series of photographs that document a range of common wood-framed buildings and construction sites, while photographer Chris Strong, in collaboration with Linda Robbennolt, will create a photographic series focused on various people who work and live within framed construction.

Taking cues from Greg Lynn and Hani Rashid’s 2000 U.S. Pavilion, which gave students from Columbia and UCLA the opportunity to take part in the Biennale, the Pauls have enlisted two seminars of UIC students to design and build models of key historical wood-framed buildings, as well as speculative models experimenting with the forms and logics of the system.

“As Paul and I were both part of the 2000 U.S. Pavilion as students at our respective universities,” Preissner said, “we are happy to be able to share this same opportunity with current UIC students, and proud to show their work to the world.”

UIC students will also work alongside faculty including Ania Jaworska, Thomas Kelley, co-founder of Norman Kelley, and his design partner Carrie Norman, to produce site-responsive furniture.

AMERICAN FRAMING was made possible by The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. Support was provided by Glen-Gery Corporation/Brickworks and MADWorskhop Foundation.

The opening of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, including the U.S. Pavilion, has been postponed to August 29 and will be on view through November 29, 2020.