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A Cracking Read: Toward a Minor Architecture by Jill Stoner

A discussion between Lindsay Bremner and Jeremy Till

Why, you might ask, is this book review written as a conversation between two people?

Our answer might be because the book itself is a series of conversations; between many authors, between architecture and fiction, major and minor, inside and outside. It is a multi-authored collaboration in which many voices have their say, none with authority. The minor architect, as Stoner describes her, is an editor, and a book of minor criticism is not written, it is composed.

If so, why does the title of the book, Toward a Minor Architecture, position itself so directly in relation to the canonical, magisterial text of modern architecture, Towards a New Architecture (Vers une architecture) that Le Corbusier published in 1923? Is it trying to offer an alternative to Modernism’s master narrative and, if so, towards what end?

The answer is more subtle than this, for while Stoner’s book offers an implicit critique of the major architectural canon, she does not operate confrontationally. Instead she sidesteps into another territory − that of the 20th-century novel. As Walter Benjamin read the elemental artifacts of nineteenth-century Paris as though they were texts, so can we read elemental fragments of twentieth-century fiction as though they were architecture.’ This act of displacement of architecture into fiction ‘offers nonvisual images of space that the camera cannot reach, and temporal/spatial enactments that lie outside the conventions of architectural representation.’

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“Benjamin contrasts the form of “house” in its Nordic sense (a structure with explicit, inviolable deomestic interiority) with the rampling tenement blocks of Baples, where the dramas of daily life exited the domestic interior onto a puclic stage” Jill Stoner

Stoner’s book reads as a novel, an architectural fiction. It is gentle, brilliantly precise and economical in its use of language. Sentences themselves open up new horizons for architectural reflection, in the manner of poetry. 

That makes it sound rather over-literary, a book written by an academic for other academics.

But that would miss the point. For reading this book is easy and compelling, if one suspends one’s disbelief, goes with the flow of writing and submits to where the text takes one. At times one becomes sceptical, for there are some unnecessary overstatements (as in the likening of suburbs to concentration camps), but these are outweighed by the momentum of the argument and its subtle articulation of new architectural strategies.  

The real strength of its argument arises from extraordinary and detailed readings of spatial episodes from 20th-century literature (Kafka, Carver, Cheever, et al), which then provide clues for reframing architecture. One of the highlights of these is Neddy Merrill’s swim through suburban swimming pools, retold from John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer. ‘Neddy’s swim is a denial set against and within a matrix of capture: the risk of revealing oneself, the loss of suburban social graces, the possibility of bankruptcy and foreclosure, and the breakdown of his seemingly ideal family structure. He wants to sublimate the private pools into a flowing river, to have these private enclosures take into full account what has happened to him, to remove from these objects their boundaries. Swimming through − that is to say, entering into − a series of private properties, Neddy attempts to draw a fluid line of force, but finds himself blocked by a sequence of ossified, fortified interiors.’

Neddy’s attempt to recalibrate the segmented space of Westchester County is ultimately futile, leaving him trapped within temporal and spatial enclosures and obstructed by architecture.

This introduces the central theme of the book − the four central myths of architecture − the myth of the interior, the myth of the object, the myth of the subject and the myth of nature. Stoner meticulously picks these apart, but does not leave architecture in tatters and walk away. Instead, she remarkably emerges with an affirmative, celebratory proposition, which she calls ‘minor architecture’.

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Opening image to the Myth of Nature chapter

What is minor architecture?

Minor architectures are lines of escape through the majority rule of architecture’s myths. They reveal the latent externalities within architecture’s enclosures, weaken its status as visible object, break the stable identity of the architect subject and expose the nature within. ‘A minor architecture is becoming space rather than being form. It hums along restlessly, turning away from the stale orders of commodity, originality, permanence, and perfection, and towards incompleteness and immanence.’ ‘Minor architectures are, in fact, opportunistic events in response to latent but powerful desires to undo structures of power.’ They are intentionally ‘improvised, fractional, stripped of decoration and even of grammar.’

What then does it mean to be a minor architect?

‘Thus to practise 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 … authorship is put into reverse, and the design process becomes editorial.’

This raises a number of questions (not always answered in the book):

‘How does an architect become minor? What ambitions must be dismantled and what expectations let go? Wherein lies the incentive to be anonymous?’ To which the answer should be: what choice do we have other than to become minor, given that the myths of architecture have failed us so badly?

But doesn’t this imply that minor might become major, and all architects condemned to be no more than tinkerers, given Stoner’s definition
that ‘a minor architect is a minor destructive character, a tinkerer and hacker, journalist and editor, alter ego and subaltern’?

She avoids this position, for she is very clear that minor architecture needs major architecture to exist − they are ‘a mixture with blurring, slippage and overlap. Minor architectures operate within that mercurial, indeterminate state that is the passage from striated to smooth, from closed system to open space.’ The minor architect does not operate by adding new, frozen, stuff to the world but by subtly, sometimes invisibly, reconfiguring what is already there. Stoner’s chosen sites are the American post-industrial landscape of suburban dross and corporate obsolescence. ‘The perceived poverty of these buildings releases us from responsibility to adhere to any laws, covenants or precedents. This is precisely what makes them vulnerable to minor experiments and valuable as another kind of “natural” resource. Open to new intensities, these graveyards of capital are the fields, forests and quarries of our present time.’

However, by limiting the argument to a very specific US context, the book may miss fulfilling the wider potential of the argument, for Stoner is dealing with modes rather than sites of operation. The wonderful strategies/tactics that she develops are as applicable to an architecture that undermines the power structures in a typical British housing estate or a refugee camp in Ethopia, as they are in the American built landscape. Her strategies are explicitly political, collective and collaborative. They ‘liberate from below’. And they creatively edit the stratified, separated spaces of political and economic power, opening cracks in their edifices and liberating architecture from capture.

This reminds me of the words of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem
‘Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.’

And that is the biggest compliment you could pay!

Toward a Minor Architecture

Author: Jill Stoner

Publishers: MIT Press

Price: £13.95

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