American Framing: The Same Something for Everyone
Edited by Paul Andersen, Jayne Kelley, and Paul Preissner
Park Books, 2023

A recent resurgence in the architectural use of timber has arisen as a means of combating carbon-intensive material sourcing in construction practices. While accurate, industry media have failed to recognize its deep-rooted use in the United States. American Framing: The Same Something for Everyone masterfully explores the importance of, and reliance on, timber as the primary form of construction in American homes, a topic which was explored in Andersen and Preissner’s Pavilion of the United States, which was on display at the 2021 Venice Biennale’s 17th International Architecture Exhibition.  

The structure of the book is distinctly symmetrical, with two essays at the beginning, two more at the rear, and 188 pages of photographs and drawings in between. Paul Andersen’sSomething Else for Everyone” is the first of the four essays and is constructed as a series of separate thoughts and stories covering diverse topics ranging from the sturdiness of wood stick-frame houses—referencing The Wizard of Oz and other lore—to the origins of this building method. Andersen points to the abundance and accessibility of lumber from the upper Midwest, which promoted Manifest Destiny migration. Stick-frame homes were, and often still are, made of softwood planks, which, despite their relative weakness compared to old-growth woods, are framed in redundant distribution to yield a strong collective body. Andersen draws a direct “connection between wood framing and democratic principles [ranging] from symbolic to actual.” He points out: “Almost everybody in the U.S. lives in a wood-framed house of the same quality. No amount of money can buy a better 2×4. And framing’s irrational structural behavior—an unpredictable durable assembly of weak materials and poor connections—has both mirrored and influenced equally irrational American models of exceptionalism equality, of the individual and the multitude.” 

Similarly, Dan Handel, in his essay, “American Hutness,” also discusses the importance of stick-frame housing on the traditional American psyche, stating that the prairie house “was the perfect cultural relic of [living off the grid], as it embodied [the] pioneer spirit” that is still reflected in present-day Americana.

In the first collection of photos, spanning forty-one pages, Chris Strong captures the warmth of lumber and its active implementation on residential construction sites. While there are relatable photographs of sawmills and laborers collecting materials, his most striking images are of half-constructed houses where sunlight delicately penetrates the monotonous frame and casts deep shadows on the exposed slab. 

Following Strong’s work are fifty-three pages documenting the built installation in Venice through photographs that perfectly capture the wood-framed structure within the context of the sunny Giardini della Biennale. The center of American Framing contains six folding plates (an illustration too large to fit on one page so it is folded neatly into the book) that reveal five floor plans, one section, and four elevations, along with diagrams of framing scenarios typical of the project.

The Biennale pavilion provided a visual understanding of historical American timber construction references through the display of physical models, which are chronicled on the pages after the folding plates in the book. Built of miniature wooden framing members and placed on wooden tables in the middle of the white gallery spaces, these models provided a deeper exploration of the vernacular architectural styles of the United States—from the unique geometry of the Blockhouse (to ward off native Indian invasions on the plains) to Henrik Bull’s famous A-frame of 1950s Vermont (which is formally similar to many original Whataburger locations across Texas). The sizes of the models varied from one to the other and, therefore, so did their proportion to the overall gallery space. One of the smallest models, Spike’s Doghouse (1952) from the popular children’s cartoon Tom and Jerry, was vastly out of scale with its table and room, which garnered immediate attention and furthered the playfulness of the program. 

The second section of photography depicts abstract, atmospheric images of forests, bark, and the rawness of nature prior to its production through the lens of Daniel Shea. The black-and-white photography heightens the sense of curiosity elicited by Shea’s work as it almost entirely blends into the gallery to avoid competing with the physical models. While Strong and Shea’s photography subjects vary from one another, both are instrumental to the exhibition. 

The book closes with two essays by Penelope Dean and Paul Preissner. Dean’s “Architecture Americana” further emphasizes the conventionality of wood-framed construction: “Because it is characterized by a distinctive lack of ownership: anyone—contractor, critic, designer, developer, DIY-er, historian, theorist—can use it, deploy it as a medium of innovation, an emblem of mass production, an instrument of specification, an icon of sustainability, or a building technology.” Along the same lines, Preissner’s “How Framing Works” explores the crudeness of framing: “It’s easy, it’s cheap, everyone can learn it, and anyone can do it. Framing works by allowing for participation at every level and offering a way to act out architecturally.” This sameness and equity offered by wood-framing is highlighted to explain the remarkable vastness of a standardized, rather cheap building material in a country that famously has immense economic inequality. 

The installation’s relationship with the neoclassical U.S. Pavilion—designed in 1930—was one of both similarity and difference. The obvious contrast in the material color and texture—warm, soft yellow timber versus weathered, pink-hued brick—provided a clear distinction between the two structures even as the installation visually enclosed the courtyard of the original three-sided building. The form and proportions of the two were wildly different also, as the installation’s narrow, multilevel half-A-frame (over four times as tall as it was wide, and doubly long as tall) towered over the pavilion’s low-profile single story. In similarity, though, the two primary materials reflected the adaptability and technological advances of the United States, as homes were initially constructed of brick then later timber as it became significantly more popular. This American vernacular was particularly noticeable due to the U.S. Pavilion’s location: it is sandwiched between Sverre Fehn’s famous Nordic Pavilion and Zeev Rechter’s Israeli Pavilion, both built of white concrete, which allowed Andersen and Preissner’s large timber structure to emerge from the landscape.

American Framing is a beautiful book that relies on an appropriately heavy amount of photography to transport the reader to the pavilion installation. The drawings bestow simple and communicative linework while the essays are rich in thought, all leading to a book that successfully chronicles Andersen and Preissner’s stunning contribution to the Venice Biennale. 

The book’s structure is deliberately intertwined with its reading experience as its symmetry directly embodies the inherent equity of a conventionally used building material, adding to its ease of read. Having experienced this installation in person, I think it is unfortunate that not a single photograph of the completed built structure contains a human for scale comparison, and while the barren photos are artistically attractive and highlight the rawness of the structure, a handful of photos of visitors interacting with the work would have provided a more complete understanding of the installation. The four essays are quite academic in nature; they are therefore heavily geared towards those with a robust architectural vocabulary and could be prohibitive to anyone who mistakenly thinks, for example, that American Framing will unfold the entire history of wood-frame housing in the United States. 

Andersen and Preissner designed not only a profoundly alluring and timeless installation but, with Kelley, also a rather lovely publication that furthers the understanding and reasoning of the long-standing tradition of wood-framed housing in the United States.  

Cole Von Feldt is a designer, photographer, and writer educated in Austin and Copenhagen and trained in New York and Houston. He currently lives and works in New York.

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