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Troubles in Theory IV: the social side

Techno-fetishists may have argued for a scientifically determined architecture in the ’60s and ’70s, but at the same time more politically engaged voices were calling for the reinterpretation of space as an arena for the lived experiences of the everyday

The last instalment of Troubles in Theory (AR August 2012) was concerned with what Reyner Banham termed the ‘science side’ of architecture that he hoped would lead Modernism to transform itself into a truly ‘autre’ architecture conforming to the technological achievements of the age. Equally potent for the late 1960s and ’70s was what might be called the ‘social side’, exploring ways in which architecture might address questions of community in an age of alienation. Perhaps the foremost theorist of this ‘side’ was the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose studies of ‘everyday life’ beginning during the war developed into a fully-fledged theory of social space.

In 1969, a year after the Parisian uprising, a young architecture student named Philippe Boudon published a slim book. Ostensibly a dry sociological investigation, replete with interviews and photos of the post-history of two 1920s housing projects near Bordeaux, its influence was immediately felt in architectural circles. These circles, and especially in Europe, were ready for it. The survey had been prepared for his diploma thesis at the Institut d’urbanisme, Université de Paris entitled ‘Étude socio-architecturale des quartiers modernes Frugès construites à Pessac par Le Corbusier’.


Diagram mapping the movements of inhabitants of Paris by ethnographer Paul-Henri Chombart, whose work had a strong influence on Lefebvre

Pessac had been built for a sugar manufacturer Henri Frugès, who had, some six years earlier, commissioned a dozen houses at Lège, near Arcachon. Both estates were built up of prefabricated reinforced-concrete panels, and were, according to the Purist principles LC had developed during the Esprit Nouveau years 1918-23, unornamented, pure cubic forms. Boudon, 40 years later, was concerned to trace the fate of these cubes in the hands of their inhabitants.

He followed the reactions of the contemporary press in the late 1920s as, horrified by these little boxes, it compared them to North African huts, although it was generally favourable to the modern conveniences provided − running water, toilets, kitchens etc. He laid out Le Corbusier’s aims and analysed his possible sources − Adolf Loos, JJP Oud − and praised their concise planning without corridors, their standardisation, and ended by citing LC himself speaking to the visual pleasures of rational cubes: ‘Rational cubic construction does not destroy the initiative of each.’ And indeed, no initiative for alteration and ‘improvement’ had been missed by the inhabitants.


Constant Nieuwenhuys’s ‘New Babylon’ project, an anti-capitalist rehabilitation of the biblically cursed city, which influenced Lefebvre’s spatial theory

This study, in the wake of the social movements of the early ’60s and their bias against the vast post-war housing developments that had rapidly become slums and ghettoes, quickly became the oft-cited proof that modern architecture was not only dead, but deadly, representing a fundamental failure in its social utopian objectives.

On the one hand it provided ammunition for those architects who were already reacting against the anonymous ubiquity of International Style abstraction − the endless glass boxes of corporate USA − who began to argue for a richer vocabulary taken from vernacular and historical examples (what we now know as postmodernism); and on the other for those who would prefer to get rid of architects altogether; implying the people don’t like abstraction, they want something that looks like a home: we should allow them to design their own houses.

Charles Fourier

Nineteenth-century French socialist Charles Fourier proposed massive communal buildings or ‘phalansteries’ to house his utopian communes. This plan shows the cells in which visitors would stay, segregated to avoid contamination

Already in 1961 Nikolaus Pevsner had complained of what he called a ‘return to historicism’ in what he for the first time called ‘post-modern’ architecture, and three years later maverick architect Bernard Rudofsky curated a popular exhibition at MoMA: Architecture without Architects. The case of Le Corbusier’s Pessac was taken as sufficient indictment of the failure of Modernism. In 1972 in Saint-Louis, the first block of an infamous housing estate, Pruitt-Igoe, was blown up, an event that architecture critic Charles Jencks later claimed announced the death of Modernism and the birth of Postmodernism.

Nevertheless, not everyone felt that the transformations 40 years ago in Lège and Pessac were indications of modern architecture’s total failure. Indeed, while Philippe Boudon’s aim had been to advance the social study of architecture − something I will return to − his book was careful to balance the original social aims of the project with their long-term results, more concerned to show the differing tastes and shifting economic fortunes of the inhabitants as exemplified in their alterations over time than in a full-scale attack on the iconic architect who had died three years before. And, more importantly, his book was prefaced by a terse two-page introduction by the 68-year-old philosopher Henri Lefebvre.*


Marxist Thought and the City (1972)

Lefebvre opened his review of Boudon’s study − ‘an apparently thin and light “cas”’ but one ‘in fact weighty in meaning’, as it assessed the work of ‘the most celebrated architect-urbanist of modern times’, a functionalist, who had conceived of this ‘pre-formed space, geometric, composed of cubes and sharp corners, voids and solids, homogenous volumes’. And perhaps by design or by accident, Le Corbusier had produced a ‘receptacle’ that provided ‘a space that was relatively plastic, modifiable’. The inhabitants had taken advantage of this, and had ‘demonstrated the nature of inhabiting − they had inhabited actively, worked, modified, and added to what had been offered to them. What had they added? Their requirements [exigencies], qualities.

In so doing they had produced a special kind of space: “a socially differentiated space”.’Boudon had demonstrated, summarised Lefebvre, that there was more than one level on which habitat could be measured:

  • The level of theory mingled with ideology.
  • The level of the architect and urbanist − urban ideology, the ideology of the plan (Boudon had shown the risks and perils of ideology).
  • The level of requirements and realities in the application of the first level − a level that tended towards the confusion, the unsettling of theory and ideology.
  • The level of urban practice − the effects of a way of life, of a style or the absence of style − the social work, the work of the collective.

This last level, Lefebvre concluded, showed itself as a ‘topology, a meaning, a concrete rationality higher and more concrete than abstract rationality’. Boudon had shown the intersection of architecture and urbanism as an abstract idea and ideology with urban praxis. His study developed the ‘elements for a clear formulation of the urban problematic and for a critique of all urbanism’.


The Urban Revolution (1967)

Lefebvre had made his intellectual reputation before the war in a series of works dedicated to the critical explication of philosophy from a Marxist perspective, and had, just after the war, published the first of three studies on ‘everyday life’, had become interested in the social implications of habitat, first in rural areas, then in urban contexts from the 1940s on. His dissertation research was carried out under the Occupation in the Campan Valley in the Pyrenees. This sociological study of rural France became the subject of his doctorat d’état in 1954. He then joined a research group of the Centre National
de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Centre d’etudes sociologiques (CES), together with a roster of interdisciplinary scholars including Henri Wallon the psychologist (who was to influence the young Jacques Lacan), Marcel Mauss, Roland Barthes, and most importantly Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe, who was developing his group study of the neighbourhoods of Paris, and the typologies of housing, with the central aim of mapping social space.

Chombart was an interesting character. A pilot and an ethnographer, he had specialised in mapping territories through aerial photography. His study of Paris and its region was devoted to the identification of specific urban neighbourhoods, characterised by the everyday lives and movements of the inhabitants. Although Chombart was a great supporter of Le Corbusier, and had headed a sociological study of the Unité d’habitation at Marseilles, his neighbourhood studies, which had been influenced by Lefebvre’s writings on everyday life, had in turn a great influence on Lefebvre, who published his Everyday Life in the Modern World in 1968.


The Right to the City (1968)

Gradually turning from rural to urban studies, Lefebvre and a group of sociologists founded the Institut de sociologie urbaine in 1962, dedicating the first studies to the problem of the ‘pavilion’ habitat, and then as professor of sociology at Strasbourg, lecturing on urban theory. As Łukasz Stanek has traced in his remarkable study of Lefebvre (from which I am drawing heavily in this account), it was at this time that the sociologist came into contact with Guy Debord, the radical leader of the Situationists. Debord, a filmmaker and critical left-wing writer, had broken with the Lettristes to found the Situationists in 1958 − the first number of the Internationale Situationniste appearing in that year. Debord’s theory of ‘unitary urbanism’ in opposition to modern CIAM planning as applied to the grands ensembles, appealed to Lefebvre, as did Debord’s interest in the idea of everyday life situations − and indeed Debord was to publish an image from Chombart’s study in his first issue. Through Debord, Lefebvre also met Constant in the Netherlands, visiting his studio in Amsterdam and viewing his models and drawings of New Babylon, then in progress (and published in the IS before the inevitable break with Debord).

But there was yet another model for Lefebvre’s spatial theories that proposed itself in the late 1960s − one that also intrigued André Breton, and Roland Barthes who brought it to Lefebvre’s attention: Charles Fourier, the early 19th-century utopian thinker whose phalanstère had become an icon for architects’ imaginaries of the collective dwelling, through to Le Corbusier, whose Unité was a direct − vertical − response to it. Lefebvre even organised a conference to celebrate the bicentennial of Fourier’s death in 1972. As Stanek has it: ‘For Lefebvre, the starting point of Fourier’s project was the discovery that each social group has consistency only in its proper space and that to invent a group and a social relation is to invent, or produce, a space. In that sense the concept of the production of space itself suggests the possibility of a society beyond alienation, that is to say above and beyond work in the modern sense’.


Lefebvre’s magnum opus, The Production of Space (1974)

The final move that confirmed Lefebvre in his concept of space production was his appointment to the chair of sociology at the University of Paris 10, Nanterre, in 1965. A recently opened campus, it had been planned with all the rigour of debased functionalist Modernism. There he supervised a range of theses devoted to the study of contemporary global urban conditions, including that of Baudrillard. There Lefebvre wrote The Right to the City (1968), The Urban Revolution (1970), Marxist Thought and the City (1972) and many others in preparation for the magnum opus, The Production of Space (1974).

When asked why the events of 1968 happened at Nanterre, Lefebvre simply replied − look out of the window. ‘The Faculty buildings were designed for the function of education: vast amphitheaters, small “functional” rooms, drab halls, an administrative wing − the meaning of this morphology will soon become apparent. All this becomes the focus of political rebellion.’ This quotation is from the film The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution (1968) originally titled L’irruption de Nanterre au sommet.

Finally, completing the run up to The Production of Space, in 1970 Lefebvre together with the architect and educator Anatole Kopp, author of the first serious book on Russian revolutionary architecture and urbanism, Ville et révolution (1967), founded the review Espaces et sociétés, a journal that had a major influence on architecture, urbanism and research over the next two decades and which highlighted urban conditions from Paris to Latin America and Africa.

The Production of Space begins with Lefebvre’s premise that ‘space’ as a concept, an ideology, and a practice, has a ‘history’, just like all other ideologically freighted terms. That history develops from what he calls ‘absolute space’, a space lived and developed in coincidence with social and religious life − what we might call ‘traditional’ space − to the modern version which he calls ‘abstract space’ construed according to the developing technologies of vision from the Renaissance on: geometrical space, visual (perspectival) space, and the space of power, or phallic space. Modern space is abstract, but not for all that unified − it contains discontinuities, disruptions, contradictions − it simply has the will to be unified. And when abstract space is ‘constituted’ − represented in real space − it does so in its most reduced form, fragmented and broken according to class divisions and class experience, contradictions that tend to be ignored or illusorily resolved in architectural projects. When considered as social space, space divides into space dominated and space appropriated, where the latter − as in the appropriation or ‘détournement’ of Les Halles before their demolition − has potential for the creation of new social spaces.

Lefebvre will never relinquish the possibility of a space of modernity, fashioned through the interrelation of the abstract space of ideas (utopia) and the real space of lived experience − a unitary understanding of social space. It is here that we can, with David Harvey, whose article on the blighted realms of Baltimore was titled ‘The Spaces of Utopia’, conserve a hope that we can develop a praxis of space that refuses to lapse into an often demagogic nostalgia for a past that we have never experienced, and that, if truth be known, was never ever like they tell us.


* In this essay I am deeply indebted to Łukasz Stanek’s detailed study of Lefebvre’s intellectual development, Henri Lefebvre on Space. Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

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