Review/Response to “Towards a Minor Architecture”

Towards a Minor Architecture

I’ve just finished reading Jill Stoner’s excellent ‘Towards a Minor Architecture’. It’s an argument for a politicized conception of architectural practice drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of ‘minor literature’ as described in their book Kafka. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Stoner conceives minor architecture as a counterpoint to the majority of cultural production in that field. Where architecture is most often the preserve of wealthy elite, and is most often the expression of – following Bataille – the physiognomy of power and capital, Stonor argues that a minor architecture echos the triumvirate established by Deleuze and Guattari in that it 1) deterritorializes a major language – in architecture a semiotic mode 2) is thoroughly political in nature and 3) has collective value.

I won’t go too thoroughly into outlining her argument, if you’re curious there are reviews here and here, though it isn’t a long work and well worth reading in its entirety. Stoner outlines and argues against three myths that pervade architectural production – the myth of the interior, the myth of the object and the myth of the subject. The myth of the interior addresses the permeability of the architectural production, against the seeming opacity of the object. The myth of the object confronts the mistaken idea of the wholeness of the architectural production and the non-relation of the object to other parts of the city. The myth of the subject confronts the ideal of the professional architect, seeking to replace this ideal subject with an anonymous fleeting figure who accepts incompleteness and rejects the language of masters.

I’m almost entirely convinced by her argument, and this work could and should serve as a manifesto of a new mode of practice for those who call themselves architects, though I’ve identified a couple of sticking points that make me hesitate to enthusiastically embrace the argument of the book. These two sticking points are: First, that Stoner stumbles on the question of the agency of minor architecture, that the agency at work in minor architecture is not adequately conceptualized or investigated, particularly in the actual works of minor architecture that Stoner identifies, often obscuring the (small-a) architect(s) at work, and still preferring to maintain the boundaries of the profession. Second, she describes minor architecture most often as an act of destruction, erasure or clearing. True, it is often an act ‘against,’ but the terminology deployed by Stoner colours the act as a kind of negativity, where I’d argue both that this does not resonate with D&G’s conception, that, rather than a clearing, minor architecture is an unfolding of multiplicities, a spray of vectors, that rather than operating against or through operates beside or in-between.

She outlines the operation of minor architecture by recourse to a number of works of 20th century literature, including Kafka, but also Carver, Bienek and many others. As well as these works of literature, Stonor identifies various ‘real world’ examples of minor architecture, including Torre David in Caracas, the Michigan Theater parking garage in Detroit, the act of tearing down the Berlin Wall, and the informal space that developed in the Corviale building near Rome. In my opinion, it is the built works that offer more resonance and which are better arguments for the potentiality of minor architecture than the works of literature that Stoner has chosen.

The first misstep in Stoner’s argument is in not identifying and fleshing out the agency behind minor architecture. She barely brushes past this topic in the discussion of the myth the subject of architectural production. She acknowledges, following Deleuze and Guattari, that minor architecture would emerge from the bottom of the power structures

Michigan Theater, Detroit

In some portions of the book, the architect is expressly singular and expressly concerned with the production of buildings (is a capital-A architect), and takes on a minor persona and point of view in their practise, somewhat like the protagonist of Pulp’s – and William Shatner’s inimitable cover of – ‘common people’. That is, choosing a position that is “intentionally impoverished,” as if playing at being poor. Am I arguing that an architect cannot produce minor architecture? no. But it would be even more difficult for one so fluent in the language of masters to pick up another patois. It might seem, at best, an affectation. All the built examples Stoner mentions, and many more we could all think of, are examples outside/beside the discipline of Architecture, as much as they are out-/be-side the systems of power they challenge. They are works that emerge within major structures, whether cities, infrastructures, neighbourhoods or other gaps in the texture of the majority production, but the agency at work is often multiple and mutating. The fall of the Berlin Wall was orchestrated by a collective. Torre David is occupied and maintained by a community. Calling such an architectural production impoverished re-inscribes a value system of the majority onto minority production.

Stoner does begin to explain who it is that makes minor architecture. She discusses Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ and also Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the authorship of their own A Thousand Plateaus, “To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.” This territory is already somewhat well traversed in architectural theory by Bernard Tschumi, in his discussion of the agency of space, arguing that space is recreated by its users, that, to borrow to Stoner’s terminology, each user participates in a minor architecture, and she does admit that “it is the object that tends towards creating the subject,” but this relationship is tenuous and evolving, or performative.

Torre David, Caracas

The figure that makes minor architecture is somewhere on a trajectory between the everyday user and the architect. She writes: “to practice architecture in a minor mode requires not only the partial deconstruction of buildings and the structures of power that lead to their incessant reproduction, but also the deconstruction of the architect/subject. Minor architectures not only register a minor voice upon the major one, they also cause identities to collapse into one another”. It is not that minor architecture is explicitly denied to architects, they too may participate. Its just that minor architecture emerges from a collective or multiplied voice in individual articulations that constantly re-animate the corpse of majority/capitalist architectures. The minor architect is a monstrous figure whose subjectivity is barely coherent, intersecting with other multiplicities, and constantly mutating.

Stoner chooses to locate the site of minor architecture in the disused hinterland of American mid-century capitalism, in abandoned malls, factories and infrastructure. As such, minor architecture, for her, is an act of erasure, an act through or against the material fabric of the existing structures, becoming an act of clearing away. She casts this act as something of a negativity, or an erasure. Following Walter Benjamin, who argued for a destructive character, an act of clearing, Stoner argues that minor architecture is an act of removal, of creating space as an act of deterritorialization. However, the act of minor architecture is not so much of erasure, but of recasting an existing spatial formation in a different light, through temporary and ephemeral procedures that are open to continuing re-negotiations. Torre David, in Caracas, is not an attack on an existing structure, it is doesn’t erase. It is actively partitioning, rezoning, recasting spaces, albeit in a different materiality, and with different aims. It takes an incomplete structure and mutates the vectors of development into divergent courses, not disrupting/interrupting them altogether, one might call this an act of reterritorialization. The same is true of minor acts that recast, even temporarily, the infrastructure of the city.

Stoner ends her book with an appeal to the forces that actively disrupt architectural (re-)production, namely ‘nature,’ not as separate from the urban environment but as integral too it. It is familiar to those who’ve followed arguments for urban ecology, landscape urbanism or cyborg urbanism. This is one agency of several that can combat the hegemony of ‘major’ architecture. Just as disruptive are acts which spring from specifically non-capitalist, non-hierarchical sources, everything from a pick-up game of street hockey, to a protest march, to the complete destruction of the Berlin Wall. Each are acts in the collective nature of performative urban agencies that exceed or displace the narrative hegemony of capitalist power. Perhaps the most potent call in the book is for the playfulness of the act of minor architecture, the call for the minor architect(s) to treat architectural objects as a field of play, constantly open to new imaginings and new, fluid configurations and relations.

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joel letkemann

Sometimes I make things, sometimes I think about making

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