Kate Wagner spoke with the curators of the U.S. Pavilion at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale about broader issues of labor, democracy, and suburbia.
Editor’s note: As of early March, The 17th International Architecture Exhibition has been postponed and rescheduled to run from August 29 to November 2020.
On the face of it, the theme of the U.S. Pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale seems like a safe choice. It’s true that “American Framing” foregrounds the wood-framing construction system that has held sway in this country for nearly two centuries. But the exhibition’s curators, Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, also promise to explore aspects of the system other than its material attributes. Kate Wagner, the founder of the project McMansion Hell, spoke with the pair about broader issues of labor, democracy, and suburbia.
Kate Wagner: What was your reaction to the news that you’d be representing the U.S. in Venice?
Paul Andersen: Well, first of all, a little bit surprised because we had actually already been disqualified. Then we heard that we got it after all. But we’re excited because we think that we can contribute new things to the legacy of the pavilion and use it as a chance to open up some research and some discourse on this topic of “framing”—what it means ideologically, but also how it can be used and designed [with]. We want to use the exhibition almost as a starting point rather than an opportunity to showcase something that’s been done before.
KW: And it’s an interesting heuristic for this year’s biennale, the central theme of which is the question of how we will live together, which is a loaded question, right? What did it mean to you and this idea of “framing”?
PA: When Paul [Preissner] and I started talking about [the project] a few years ago, we realized that one of the things that we really like about framing is it’s the same for everybody. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, your house—at least the structure of your house—is all made of the same stuff. No amount of money can buy you a better two-by-four than the one that’s also in the crappiest house in town. I think that’s really democratic, that everybody—you and Beyoncé—has access to the same materials, and they’re the best materials. Once we got into the history of it, it became clear why Americans use this system far more than any other country.
It’s our primary building system for houses [and] pretty much any small building. And it’s not used very much in other countries, at least up until recently, partly because it was something that was very DIY-oriented. During times of expansion, or when people were moving into any new territory, they had to be able to build their houses themselves, because there weren’t established guilds or craftspeople who knew the technical details [about] how to put heavy timber together or, later on, how to build in steel or concrete. Lightweight wood framing was something [whereby] a couple of people could get together and put up a house. It’s still that way, to a large extent. That speaks to the aim of the overall theme of the biennale, which is a statement on equality.
KW: Would you say there are other facets of the American identity that “American Framing” touches on?
Paul Preissner: It was something that uniquely developed here for a number of reasons, [such as] the development of mass-produced nails or the kind of plentiful and, at the time, untapped forests surrounding the Midwest.
[Also] it developed culturally. You could figure things out on-site because it was open-ended, which seems to follow a general cultural theme with the United States that you see in other arts: a kind of boredom of tradition, a disdain for established norms or what’s considered appropriate. So it’s sloppier and looser and more rough and more up-front with the conceptual idea.
PA: [Another] part to the cultural Americanism of it is that it was developed on a kind of trial-and-error basis, which Europeans are generally not as comfortable with. That you couldn’t predict in advance how it was going to perform structurally was a bit of a hang-up [for Europeans]. But in the United States people just put it up and tried it, and if it didn’t work, they tried it with twice as many studs, or they tried nailing it together differently, which I think also translates culturally. There isn’t a proper way to do it; it is a very flexible, open thing. That kind of sense of impurity seems to be culturally American also.
KW: You mentioned equality. How else do you link wood construction in the exhibition to more political subjects intersecting race and gender, for example?
PA: There are going to be two series of commissioned photographs, one of which is going to look at the people who are involved in the industry of wood framing, who they are, how they work, what the [work] conditions are like, because the accessibility in terms of labor is pretty remarkable. If you go to a job site at the time they are framing, you will find a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds and a pretty incredible mix in terms of wealth, education, ethnicity.
KW: I feel like another thing that’s fascinating about wood framing is that it transgresses the urban-and-suburban divide. Does your work engage more with the suburbs, rather than the “urban condition” that is trendy among architects?
PA: For sure. I’m near the end of seven or eight years of doing research studios at UIC [the University of Illinois at Chicago] on the suburbs, a lot of them on houses, but some of them on different building types and form-based planning. I grew up in the suburbs, so I was always a bit thrown off by the criticism of them, in part because I thought a lot of it was totally invalid, denigrating a whole swath of development in the country that [forms] really important places for a lot of people.
PP: I’m kind of a contrarian, I guess, so once it seemed to congeal that the proper interest of architects was that of the city, it made me want to find interest elsewhere immediately. Fifty-two percent of Americans are raised in the suburbs. It’s still a big part of the country demographically, and as a result, most of the [country’s] cultural themes or visual interests are actually suburban, in a way, even if they get worked through by practices or people within a denser [urban] structure. The things people find distasteful about [suburbs] are the things that I actually find really fascinating. The suburban aspects of boredom and slowness and tastelessness intrigue me more than the fashionable, tasteful modernity that you find coming out of the city. It seems messier in a more subversive way. Like if you look through the plans of suburban houses…
KW: Or McMansions! PP: …they really seem bizarre in how they’re organized and built. Whether they’re really big—McMansions—or really small, [they’re] done outside of a master idea of what a residence should be, and that’s, in a way, really wonderful.
KW: This topic seems to straddle another artificial divide, that between “vernacular architecture” and capital-A architecture. How does your work engage that split?
PA: Well, I don’t think we’re alone in that. I think the backlash in the field against signature architecture has led people in different directions, and one of those directions is to look at the architecture that is more ordinary or familiar and to try to modify that or come up with different variations on it. We’re trying to design something that hopefully will be familiar and recognizable as buildings or houses or materials that people have seen before and see all the time, but maybe not quite in the way that we’re putting them together for the show.
KW: I saw mentioned in the press release that the project was influenced by past exhibitions. Can you talk a little more about that?
PA: So that was [a reference] to the U.S. Pavilion building itself, which was built in 1930. It’s a neoclassical building that has two wings and a central court, and the part that we’re adding in front finishes off the court so that it’ll be like an outdoor room.
There’s going to be a full-scale installation. It will be three to four stories tall. And then in the galleries, there will be the two sets of commissioned photographs I mentioned, plus a bunch of models. Some of the models are historic—they’re models of important buildings in the history of framing—and some of them are more speculative, like what we could do with framing that we haven’t been doing.
KW: What do you hope that people get out of it?
PP: One of the reasons we decided to structure the theme—and our curatorial approach—this way is to make it a different pavilion than in the past, which has always [been] set [by] the general theme [of the biennale]. We thought it would be better to make it more focused on an idea and showcase the structure that actually enables the architecture that the predominant part of America lives within and that that structure [wood framing] is also weirder; its normalcy is more sublime and more profane than people might realize. It certainly has a kind of moral baggage to it, but the way the structure works is a cultural value that is…egalitarian and open. I think Paul [Andersen] early on had a really great line: Whether the house is really big or really small, the two-by-fours always cost the same. There’s no such thing as a luxury two-byfour. In a way it’s a very democratic material to build anything out of, because it’s open-ended in how it can be used, and it’s cheap, which actually means that you’re unencumbered from it having to be special right off the bat. You can explore a broader spectrum of what architecture can do.