“Knowledge itself is a massive heavy object, with enormous foundations and a reliance on gravity. Religions, monarchies, systems of law, corporations—these historical patrons of architecture have provided
us with the objects upon which minor architects can write their objections.” — Toward a Minor Architecture, Jill Stoner
Among the themes of this short, provocatively discursive book is that the taint of capital runs through and distorts architecture, giving rise to celebrity practitioners and to signature buildings that, in Stoner’s view, are indecipherable. She traces back to Louis Kahn another line of practice in which architects selfeffacingly served their communities, taking for granted the beneficent nature of their civic institutions. She contrasts this with Foucault, for whom these same institutions were “mechanisms of exclusion, segregation and control” that gave rise to a dissenting minority.
Stoner’s minor architecture riffs on the minor literature of Deleuze and Guattari: “that which a minority constructs within a major language,” as they put it. “They locate ‘minor’ and ‘minority’ as conditions that exist at the bottom of power structures, yet hold an extraordinary potential for power,” she adds. This is the territory of Occupy, Marx and Jesus, but Stoner cites Kafka; he saw it as the closed world of institutions in Foucault’s sense, in which the buildings double back on themselves, and the powerful post guards at every gateway.
Part of the attraction of the book is its constant reference to novels and short stories – like Cheever’s “The Swimmer” – that view a conventional “major” landscape, like the backyards of suburban enclaves north of New York City, from the “minority” standpoint of a man who’s sinking, even drowning, in its midst. Stoner teaches a course at UC Berkeley, “The Literature of Architecture,” and the book is rich with examples.
How we relate to nature and how we integrate it is one of Stoner’s leitmotifs. In “The Swimmer,” the protagonist attempts to traverse his neighbors’ backyard swimming pools, likening them to a creek running through their town; reality proves otherwise. Noting how peregrine falcons in Manhattan perch on the ledges of older skyscrapers, Stoner says that nature “is both celebrated and excluded” in today’s green buildings. Accommodating the falcons that might perch on them wins no LEED points for their owners.
Is this a guide to becoming a minor architect? Occasionally, the book plays to that possibility by suggesting that what’s being discussed is applicable to the mainstream. The real question is why anyone would want to become a minor architect. Burnham’s “Make no little plans” immediately comes to mind, but then big plans so often disregard the vitality of communities along with the intimacy and immediacy of neighborhoods. Just as Kafka described the landscapes to which a bent and evil bureaucracy gave rise, Jacobs took on the brave new world envisioned by planners like Bacon and Moses. Theirs was not quite the landscape of terror and incarceration Stoner invokes, quoting Ballard and Timerman, but it was sufficiently dystopian to warrant resisting and overcoming.
This is the minority’s creative space. Stoner illustrates it with Corviale, a public housing groundscraper that opened outside Rome in 1982, the year when Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis was demolished. The fifth level of this 8,000-person complex was left open, a gesture toward Le Corbusier and the Marseilles Block roof. Almost immediately, it was taken over by squatters. Today, when the large, fixed apartments intended for families are sparsely occupied by the aging, the fifth level retains its vitality and potential for reinvention.
This is what Stoner is getting at when she says, early in the book, that “the overwhelming weight of an architectural object is its ability to resist change. Frozen in that illusion of being complete and remaining complete, buildings produce an ironic and subliminal longing for their different futures.” An architect of my acquaintance put it more succinctly: “After 30 years, we want them to go away. Yet we persist in building for 100 years.” So while commercial office buildings can accommodate a changing workforce, they aren’t designed to be taken down after a generation or two of use, their pieces and parts recycled and reused. Buildings provide a framework for infill, but an imperfect one. What we long for is a framework that’s good for millennia, or, if it isn’t, is designed as infill, too, with the city around it providing the long-lived frame.
Most of the time, the minor architecture Stoner posits is done piecemeal, appropriating the cityscape for new, often momentary purposes. Vacant buildings are invitations to squat. Unused land invites the favela. In her own work, she says, nothing ever looks finished. “Works assumed to be are cast back into a state of becoming,” she writes. “Authorship is put into reverse, and the design process becomes editorial, reflecting a composite of blurred identities.” It is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” she adds, quoting Barthes. “In architecture as in literature, this is language purified of style, language stripped bare."
That it’s not all chaos is implied by that word, editorial. It suggests an editor, but this is not how cities work. A relevant theorist here is Hayek, who argued that our social institutions are products of evolution, not design. If cities provide a frame for a mostly anonymous process of building and rebuilding, it’s because they are rooted in tradition. When an urban economy collapses, in whole or in part, the minority – artists, artisans, filmmakers and writers among them – provides the first signs of revival. This is because tradition hands them a surviving frame that they can appropriate and transform.
Stoner cites examples of large modern buildings, partly vacant or abandoned, that have undergone this process. The implication is that there’s no real limit to the size of the frame, but I wonder. What makes urban transformation possible is the resilience of cities, the possibility of their constant revival through myriad minor acts. In fast-growing mercantile states, cities sometimes depart massively from tradition. That hubris may leave them, like the dinosaurs, without the resilience that any positive future requires.