by Devanshi ShahAug 25, 2021
American Framing, an exhibition now on view until July 30 at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, is on a mission—two, to be precise—it concisely tells the history of softwood construction in the United States and through its original installation triggers our imagination for how this ubiquitous building system that rarely deviates from reliable building industry standards could be diversified and reinvented by architects and homeowners. In late June, while visiting the city, I had a chance to attend this beautifully assembled provocative show.
Right upon entering this Tadao Ando-designed private gallery in Lincoln Park, which since 2018 consistently has been staging the most photogenic exhibitions focused on architecture and socially engaged art, visitors are greeted by a full-scale exposed wood-frame structure made up of standard studs and beams. The frame, a trapezoid in its plan, takes much of the perimeter of the gallery’s soaring three-story atrium formed between a gorgeous amber-colour brick window wall on one side and an object-like exposed concrete stair on the other. The frame is topped by an inverted gable roof that either did not fit in its traditionally upright position under the building’s own roof or intentionally was turned upside down to try something extraordinarily novel.
What looks like an unfinished single-room house can be entered through a wide portal. A few pairs of Shaker-inspired chairs designed by Chicago-based design collective Norman Kelley and made from 2” x 4” (5 cm x 10 cm) wood studs with varying degrees of finish and assembly are congregated in corners and provide a welcoming repose for visitors and a chance to calmly inspect the frame from within. Lit from every direction, it appears to be airy and graceful, even though it is unpretentiously rough in how its parts are nailed together. Look up and you may think you are looking down on what could be a typical American house right before being covered by a mundane asphalt shingles roof. And when you look down at it from the top of the stair it may seem as if you are looking up to the ceiling from the inside. This ambiguous playfulness encourages us to think not merely about what meets the eye but what a typical house potentially could be if we were not as conservative when it comes to building a family house.
The exhibition continues on the third floor, adjacent to the top of the stair, and is sandwiched between other simultaneously held exhibitions on the floors directly below and above. The third-floor gallery features several structural scale models of historical wood-framed buildings—a round barn, a church, a suburban house, and a tiny doghouse—all reproduced by students at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Architecture (UIC), benches designed by local architect Ania Jaworska, and a series of photographs by visual artist Daniel Shea and photographer Chris Strong. These process-depicting photos illustrate various wooded scenes in North America; they document the techniques, contexts, and labour that typically goes into fabricating the wood framing.
This open-plan gallery, distinguished by an elegant stair in the back that leads to the top floor, is now enclosed and framed by a straight open-stud wall that brings here the aesthetics from the structure in the atrium. The see-through wall contextualises the material on display and, in a way, brings closer the refined gallery space and the construction industry matters that are questioned here. Some images are attached directly to the studs. Being visible from both sides they are turned into curious artifacts. Many other photographs that hang on white walls are uniquely framed and can also be viewed as three-dimensional objects; one has a corner that splits open, another has a corner missing, and yet another one has its bottom edge peeling down. These provocatively artistic frames send a message—expect the unexpected and although all building components in the show are standard, they can be put together in a myriad of distinctive and artistic ways.
A few annotations throughout the gallery provide a bare minimum of factual information about the wood-frame construction that originated in the early 19th century and is still widely used today. In fact, this method of wood-house building technique represents more than 90 per cent of all single-family house construction in the United States. An abundance of southern pine and Douglas fir forests and simplicity and speed of construction make it possible to assemble wood framing easily, quickly, and economically, particularly because its construction relies on unskilled labour and the most readily available building components in the country—2” x 4” (5 cm x 10 cm) and 2” x 6” (5 cm x 15 cm) wooden studs.
Yet, however, ingenious, egalitarian, and so emblematic of one-to-three-story America, this building technique is quite banal as it typically falls into a very limited and predictable range of formal expressions and is entirely covered by tiresome vinyl siding that comes in a selection of colours that’s just as dull. By removing all these layers of finishes, the show’s curators—architects Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner—focus our attention on the hidden beauty and the potential of this overlooked but very flexible and potentially handsome building system, if only more creativity was applied. It is necessary to mention that both curators head their own practices—Andersen in Denver and Preissner in Chicago—and they teach at the already mentioned UIC, which cooperated with Wrightwood 659 on putting together this show.
The exhibition in Chicago was originally made possible by The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the US Department of State, and the University of Illinois Chicago for presentation at the US Pavilion at the last year’s 17th Venice Architecture Biennale where it was curated and designed by the same team. Having visited that exhibition as well I would add that it was among my favourite national pavilion presentations, both for its bold visual impact and the ambitious goal of the curators to revitalise America’s huge home-building industry. The wood frame there transformed the building by obscuring it entirely from its familiar neoclassical façade and the exhibition itself declared its intention to transform the most common building practice in the curators’ home country. This was the premise for both shows. In Venice, however, the result was more refined, both in its striking design and execution. The curator’s installation was built as a building addition that could be climbed extensively, reaching different levels and enabling visitors to see the original pavilion and territory around it in entirely new ways.
In contrast, the Chicago iteration is about the object itself and interacting with it purely visually. Still, it succeeds in making quite an impression due to the gallery’s own layered design. It is a building within a building—a newly constructed interior placed within the shell of a historical building. This means that the new frame is inserted within two other buildings; all three are wonderfully intertwined. Both in Venice and Chicago, the temporary interventions radically transformed their “mother buildings”—in Venice from the outside and in Chicago from within. It may be suggested that the curators used these two historical buildings as metaphors, meaning that what they really intended to challenge was the wood-frame building industry itself. And they have done it from two different ends—by transforming these buildings and by exposing the structures that they used in the process.
However, what remains unexplored in both exhibitions is the analysis of relevant precedents of engaging with standard wood frames by architects. We are not presented with any such interventions other than by the curators themselves. Yet, it is an array of examples from different times and regions that could provide a meaningful cross-section for potential directions in terms of challenging the expected geometry of forms, the solidity of walls and roofs, or, for example, mixing wood with other materials. It is by comparing and contrasting these unorthodox case studies, either subtle or cutting-edge, that the building industry can be truly reinvented. That challenge is the curators’ homework for all practicing architects, which is to work creatively around all standards, whatever they may be.