Nature, Better: Reconstituting Wood In American Architecture, 1927-1941

Erin Putalik, University of Pennsylvania


In the decade preceding America’s entry into the First World War, a fascinating range of experimental houses were constructed out of wood-based materials. These houses reflected larger trends within the practice of architecture, during a time in which architects eagerly engaged and experimented with the wide range of new or improved materials that were finding their way into the architectural market. Many of these products were made of wood, with their specific materiality and composition profoundly affected by simultaneous changes in how American forests were valued, managed, and harvested. This project examines a selected set of these experimental houses, and seeks to demonstrate the degree to which their emergence was imbricated in, and to a large degree arose from, seemingly unrelated discourses of resource conservation and the scientific management and improvement of American forests. Furthermore, it explores how the construction and taste culture of American domestic architecture transformed, specifically with regard to how wood-based materials were used and valued, in tandem with transformations in the quality, type, and availability of the wood that was coming from American forests during the 1930s. It argues that the potent myth of the frontiersman and the log cabin can be shown as participant in the same reciprocities between forests, building materials, and taste culture as the postwar family in their low-cost and prefabricated plywood house.