“The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space…”
“The everyday can therefore be defined as a set of functions which connect and join together systems that might appear to be distinct.”
The work of Henri Lefebvre looms large in my thinking, though I have to be honest and admit that it has not been easy engaging with his work. Though he has influenced the way I look and think about architecture and space, I cannot claim to have mastered his work or even to be able to confidently summarise what he has done. The lack of my ‘mastery’ means that his work is more of a continuous challenge rather than something that I have read and absorbed. Here I will simply outline two areas, perhaps his two most well-known contributions, which I have incorporated into my own thinking. The first is his well-known contribution to the theorisation and philosophy of space. It is worth noting that my engagement with Lefebvre on this topic came via the work of Michel Foucault. This unlikely connection stemmed from my interpretation of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge as a highly spatialised thesis. In discussing knowledge Foucault often invokes terms like grids, vectors and fields and I found myself drawing spatial figures in the margins as I read this book. I brought this up with Ed Soja after a lecture he gave at the Architectural Association in London and he said ‘if you think Foucault is spatial you have to read Lefebvre.’
The key work on space is Lefebvre’s The Production of Space translated into English in 1991, seventeen years after its first publication in French. It is not an easy text to get through and I relied a good deal on Soja’s interpretations. The main contribution is his development of space into three categories; physical, mental and lived. These are shorthand categories extracted from his more elusive labels spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces. And to be honest the shorthand labels are not very precise translations. In short, physical space is what architects are generally concerned with, space as a thing manipulated, organised, and portioned to become useful in some way. Mental space refers to the ways in which we think about and conceptualise space such as infinite space, abstract space, gridded space, and so on. Lived space is the space as practiced, lived by its users and inhabitants. More important than the precise or correct interpretation of the categories is the way in which these different dimensions interrelate and affect each other. The main lesson for me was to see that physical space was always in relation to the other categories. In fact, what is critically important is that these aspects of space are not easily separated from each other. And it is this inextricability that reminds one that we should always question the way we have conceptualised space in the first instance while we pretend to focus on space as a physical material that we manipulate.
Overlaid on this is the realisation that space (along with its conceptualisation and lived aspects) is historically determined and therefore something that has not remained constant or fixed. For someone trained in the formalist tradition (seeing the space of the Parthenon or St. Peter’s in the same abstracted manner as one might look at the space of the Villa Savoye) this was a challenge. Lefebvre’s text was a critique of this historical flattening of space but rather than seeing this as a negation of the role of space in the development of the history of architecture, it actually strengthens it. What changes is one’s understanding of how space was thought, how it operated and how it was perceived and lived. And this only adds richness to the one understands architectural history.
His second key concept was that of the everyday. Superficially, this can be seen as a focus on the lived aspect of space, the ways in which our routines, rituals and habits both derive and simultaneously create our spaces. The aspect of Lefebvre’s ideas on the everyday which has most resonated with me has to do with his diagnosis of its emergence – or rather, how the everyday became something invisible or of lesser value than the extraordinary. While I have been engaging with this text for over twenty years the analysis has only become more potent with the emergence of reality TV, binge culture, adventure holidays, extreme sports, Twitter and Instagram to name but just a few ways in which the extraordinary has eclipsed the everyday. To be clear, what is disappearing or being denigrated is the idea that the more mundane aspects of our lives (cooking a meal, playing with our children, reading a book, going for a stroll, having a conversation, etc.) are no longer places where we construct the meaningful aspects of our lives. Instead the pursuit of the Warholian ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ has become the dominant means by which we construct our individuality, our sense of self, our identity. A meal is not significant unless it is Instagrammed, preferably with a retro filter to lend it some aura. In the realm of architecture it’s not difficult to see how the pursuit of the extraordinary fuels the iconology of buildings at the expense of how its spaces respond, enable and support everyday life.
It’s worth pulling out two different ways of reading what Lefebvre has to say about the everyday. One the one hand he is critical of modernity and the way in which it carves our lives into bureaucratic and rationalised pieces that make its commodification easier. We buy packaged holidays, leisure is contained within the structure of the workweek and the weekend, holidays are parcelled out and codified in employment contracts, we buy lifestyle magazines to improve our homes, and so on. For Lefebvre, modernity is part of the process of emptying the everyday of its potential for spontaneity and meaning. But on the other hand, his analysis reminds us that everyday life is everywhere and that it cuts across the rationalised spheres we have constructed. We negotiate our way through contemporary bureaucracy with our personal routines, habits and rituals. And for architecture this offers a way to consider space and the design of buildings in a way that can resist the constant pressure to separate, label and commodify the messy fluidity of our lives.
Like his work on space, his writings on the everyday will not tell us how to design but it can change the way we think about what designs are for, how they might work, and how they can be absorbed into the fabric of lived and everyday life. It raises the possibility of producing architecture in which meaning can be constructed rather than represented.