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Review> Literary Unbuilding
Jeffrey Hogrefe reviews Jill Stoners new book, Towards a Minor Architecture.
Courtesy MIT Press

Towards a Minor Architecture
Jill Stoner
MIT Press, $20

In the intersection of literature and architecture resides the uneasy correspondence between the relative ease of writing a space (or filming a space) and the comparative difficulty of actually realizing a space through the time consuming and complicated procedure of constructing built form. Certainly literature (including film) and architecture have been involved in an intricate pas de deux since the advent of the modern subject, centering on the negotiation and alienation of the fragile body (and soul) and a hard, obdurate building system of stones and bricks and Euclidian right angles. To this conversation Jill Stoner, Chair of the Graduate Program in Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, offers Towards a Minor Architecture, a finely written, intelligent thesis that is unapologetically aligned with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s literary project that maps new forms of performance into, around, and through architecture from a literary foundation that asks us to take apart existing architectural form and allow the literary form to enter into it in a productively subversive way. “Architecture can no longer limit itself to the aesthetic pursuit of making buildings; it must now commit to a politics of selectively taking them apart,” writes Stoner.

Courtesy MIT Press

In Stoner’s aptly titled manifesto (a nod, of course, to Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, which heralded a century of formalism) she locates new potentials for architectural spaces that can emerge from the minor literatures that Deleuze and Guattari identified in Franz Kafka’s discovery of language formations in the circular, warren-like spaces of the dispossessed and marginalized subjects of early twentieth century urbanity. Deleuze and Guattari say of minor literature: “its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics.” In each case, the same condition that precludes political action also authorizes a new space in which such action can occur. The proliferating spaces of minor literatures exist within major literatures; hence Kafka, the Jew and Czech, as outsider in the fervent Germany of the early twentieth century. Similarly, the proliferating spaces of minor architectures exist within major architectures—or rather within major failed architectures. The sites of interrogation for the minor architecture project are the abandoned and foreclosed structures of late modern capitalism—the sick malls and office parks along the webbing of Interstate highways and inside and outside the rings of global cities.

Following in the tradition, perhaps, of Christopher Alexander, an earlier Berkeley thinker on the topic of architecture as a right of the inhabitant, Stoner is playfully anti-formalist, insisting that a minor architecture is becoming space rather than becoming form. Her own architectural projects are illustrated in the final pages of each chapter of the slim volume—in fact the book was conceived as a guide to her own architecture. There is architecture, to be sure, in the literary critical language of Deleuze and Guattari—in the emergent space of lines of flight, the twisting skeins of the rhizomes, the demarcations of the smooth and striated, blocks and strata. Stoner is not the first architect to locate a thesis in the against-the-grain philosophy. However, her thoroughgoing appropriation of the literary critical lens of the Deluzian analyst are skillfully deployed in a vivisection of the “myths”—of the interior, of the object, of the subject, and of nature.

Courtesy MIT Press

In the reading of the subtle distinctions between the adroit interpretations of various literary texts and the sly images of her own projects, one senses a call to a more personal response to architecture from within the practice that will be increasingly valuable in the age of the Unsolicited Project and the Occupy movement. Writing as a lexical activity that can be privileged alongside drawing and show what photography cannot show is the main achievement of this book. Stoner cites some obvious but still compelling examples of the minor architecture responses to already built spaces. These include the squatter occupations of Corviale, the groundscaper outside that has been receptive to Situationist-inspired interventions from The Stalker Group for several years with results that are not easy to document because the residents have forbidden outsiders from coming into the politicized spaces with their iPhones and sound bites, as well as the storied Torres del David, an abandoned high rise in Caracas that has become home to activist squatters—clearly examples of the theory of minor architecture as it is being performed out in the world in keeping with Stoner’s theory.

Still, a deeper and more complete presentation of Stoner’s own projects and those of her students would have provided a more satisfying realization of the political project. A collective graduate thesis project at Berkeley that undertook to dismantle and rewrite a chain of Circuit City stores that were recently abandoned due to bankruptcy would have been interesting to consider in greater detail in light of the compelling presentation of the theoretical foundation of the project, especially since Stoner has provided a relentlessly personal and potent response to the tragedy of the interior, the exterior, the object, and the subject as it has played out in the new nature of entropy, foreclosure, and bankruptcy. “In their deceptively simple spatial strategies and in their many guises as intensely complex theoretical constructions, minor architectures will alter and dematerialize the constructed world,” Stoner forecasts. In the writing, they already have in this finely realized text.

Jeffrey Hogrefe

Jeffrey Hogrefe is a professor of architecture, humanities, and media studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.