American Framing, a Palm Springs Art Museum exhibition by Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, contemplates the pillars of American architecture.
January 12–July 2, 2023
Palm Springs Art Museum, Architecture and Design Center
If art encompasses the vast and diverse project of exploring the human imagination, architecture is the scaffolding that upholds that project. Ask an architect whether they consider themselves an artist, and the profound ubiquity of their work may swirl behind their eyes. Architecture isn’t just about construction and design; it’s about discovering new ways to interact with and inhabit space, thoughtfully and artfully.
American Framing, on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Architecture and Design Center through July 2, 2023, celebrates the bedrock of architecture in the United States by examining its most prolific method and material: wood framing. By presenting models, furniture, photographs, and a full-scale wood structure to house it all together—American Framing peels back the layers of vinyl, aluminum, and brick that usually adorn American homes to celebrate the elegance of their uncomplicated, softwood frames. With the careful precision of a paleontologist, the two architects contemplate the bones of American architecture with elegance and clarity.
Originally exhibited at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in 2021, Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner’s eye-opening voyage through architectural time takes advantage of the simplicity of wood framing to open a window into America’s complicated psyche.
“As a material, wood is fast, cheap, and incredibly adaptable,” a docent told me while I knelt beside a model. “We don’t usually think about it that way, but exhibiting models like this gives you a chance to look closely at something that is usually covered up.”
At the moment, I assumed she was referencing the skeletal models that fill the exhibition. Looking back, I realize that gazing into the compelling simplicity of wood framing also speaks to broader American values. For example, constructing a softwood-framed building is not only inexpensive, it’s also incredibly easy to do quickly. Beyond its utility, wood framing cemented the ideals of flexibility and accessibility in American architecture.
“No matter how big or small or expensive or cheap, American houses are made of the same 2x4s,” write the curators.
In addition to the models that make up the backbone of the exhibition—all of which were completed by students from the University of Illinois Chicago—American Framing includes photography from Daniel Shea and Chris Strong that make more sense of the cultural significance of wood framing in the United States.
In one image, Shea captures contractors buzzing around the interior of a wood structure—carrying, measuring, cutting, and hammering planks. In another, Strong photographs a construction worker slumped in the driver’s seat of his truck, his eyes glazed over. On the same wall, the morning sun pours through the gaps in a not-yet-completed wall, the intricate matrix of wood and nail casting shadows on the floor.
By peering into the DNA of everything from sheds and barns to cookie-cutter houses, American Framing not only meditates on the utilitarian pragmatism of traditional American architecture; it also opens a conversation about the past, present, and future of American culture. After all, we are what we build.