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Troubles in Theory VI: from Utopia to Heterotopia

The sixth instalment in the series turns to the theory of ‘space’ as it was reinterpreted from its Modernist origins to serve political analysis and practice, and focuses on the work and influence of Michel Foucault

The recent occupation movements have revived memories of decisive moments in the history of spatial politics, among which the events of 1968 in Paris still stand out as much for their revolutionary activism as for the spate of theoretical texts that preceded and followed the month of May. The preoccupation with ‘space’ was almost universal, whether as an architectural force for social change, or as a repressive force for social order.
For the re-conceptualisation of the idea of space in the late 1960s was informed by two, apparently contradictory, intellectual references. The Modernist tradition had celebrated the idea as a liberation from the closed academic world of the 19th century − ‘Space − protagonist of architecture’, noted Bruno Zevi in 1948, summing up over 50 years of spatial theory and practice that marked out architecture from the other arts as a functional and experiential accommodation of the moving body and the perceiving subject. Loos’s raumplan, Le Corbusier’s ‘espace indicible’, Schindler’s ‘space-architecture’, were only three of the varied propositions that were advanced to justify the erasure of the Beaux-Arts parti and the load-bearing wall, the opening up of the street, and the unlimited territory of  an expanding modernity.

With the increasing interest in space from the social sciences, however, this open-ended vision was subject to critical revision. Opposed to the rationalised space of postwar housing developments, the Situationists explored alternative modes of spatial occupation, inventing the dérive, based on a psychogeography that proposed an aleatory exploration of existing urban realms, and in a momentary alliance with Constant, an architectural equivalent to an urbanism of psychic desire. They were, as demonstrated in the first issue of the Situationist International, supported by the analyses of more orthodox geographers, such as Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, the intrepid pilot and pioneer of aerial photography who, in his study of Paris, became convinced that space was a powerful social flux: ‘We speak, not only of a geographic space, but a social space; of a demographic space, a cultural space, a juridical space and a religious space … the limits within which the life of a group of humans unfolds cannot be defined by a single criterion. It is the same for the divisions of space comprised within its limits. In reality it is a series of juxtaposed spaces whose structures sometimes cover each other and sometimes escape any superposition.’1

Paris riots

636_may_68_2The events in Paris in May 1968 stand out in this history of spatial politics

It was inevitable, given these and many other propositions, not ignoring the close relations between Lefebvre’s academic courses at Nanterre and the student movement, that the uprisings of 1968 would be permeated with spatial rhetoric − couched both in terms of the ‘liberation’ of urban space, but also in its strategic and ‘military’ potential.

‘Over 50 years of spatial theory and practice marked out architecture from the other arts as a functional and experiential accommodation of the moving body and the perceiving subject’

Here, however, the dominant voice of caution came from a former medical historian and philosopher who had in the early 1960s turned his attention to the institutional forms of medical practice in a series of studies beginning with Histoire de la folie [Madness and Civilization], 1961, and continuing with Naissance de la Clinique [The Birth of the Clinic], 1963. Michel Foucault, expanding his idea of discourse to embrace the spatial characteristics of these newly re-constituted institutions, began to consider their architectural distribution as contributory factors in their establishment of order and exercise of power.

In retrospect we can trace the emergence of Foucault’s spatial turn in a series of investigations into the history of psychoanalytical and phenomenological thought, and by way of Husserl, and specifically in his Introduction to the French translation of Ludwig Binswanger’s 1930 essay ‘Traum und Existenz’ (‘Dream and Existence’), where, taking modest issue with Binswanger, he claimed that the spatial interpretation of dreams was as significant as their temporal understanding; their ‘forms of spatiality’, he wrote, were intimately connected to and a key to the ‘meaning and direction of existence’.2 This spatial phenomenology was supported by Eugène Minkowski’s 1933 study: Le Temps Vécu − the last chapter of which was entitled ‘Vers une Psychopathologie de l’Espace Vécu’ (‘Towards a psychopathology of lived space’). This treated the ‘space-of-the-environment’ that, in Minkowski’s terms, localised and contained the regions of the interior, the exterior, and their separation. In a metaphor that was to prove seminal for Foucault, Minkowski here distinguished between two interrelated and potentially opposed, kinds of space − ‘dark’ space and ‘clear’ space.

Constant's New Babylon

Constant’s New Babylon Paris, 1963

In 1964 Foucault transferred these insights to the analysis of literary texts, and particularly those that themselves utilised spatial metaphors. In a book review entitled ‘The Language of Space’, he wrote, ‘If space is the most obsessive of metaphors in the language of today’, it was because it offered a fundamental structuring device that ‘determines its choices, draws its figures and its translations’, constructing ‘digression, distance, the intermediary, dispersion, fracture, and difference’. As an example Foucault took the recent publication of Michel Butor’s Description de San Marco.3 In this work, which is by no means a ‘description’ in the normal, tourist or art-historical sense, Foucault discerns an attempt to construe systematically all the spaces ‘that are connected to a building of stone’ that language might conjure: ‘[those] interior spaces that it reconstitutes (sacred texts illustrated by frescoes), spaces immediately and materially superimposed on painted surfaces (inscriptions and legends), prior spaces that analyze and describe the elements of the church (commentaries in books and guides), neighboring and related spaces that come together by chance, evoked by words (the reflections of tourists who regard), closed spaces of those whose gazes are turned one to the other (fragments of dialogs). These spaces are their proper place of inscription: scrolls of manuscripts, surfaces of walls, books, tapes of tape recorders that one cuts up with scissors.’

In Butor’s book, these spaces of the basilica, the verbal spaces, the place of writing, are composed to provide what Foucault detects as a double system: first, ‘the sense of the visit (itself the resultant condition of the space of the church, the path of the stroller and the movement of his gaze)’ described by the large blank page, laid out in the manner of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, with horizontal bands of words cut by the margins, others dispersed in fragments of verse, others in columns. And, second, one that seems closer to photography than writing, a space that evokes an: ‘immense architecture of the orders of the church, but absolutely different from its space of stones and paintings’.4

These insights into textual spatiality were developed two years later in Foucault’s 1966 study, Les mots et les choses, with its much commented upon analysis of Velásquez’s painting Las Meninas. Reflecting on the surprising juxtaposition of apparently dissimilar terms in a ‘Chinese’ encyclopaedia cited by Borges, Foucault finds in the heteroclite, the incongruous nature of these inappropriate ‘mis-placings’, a key to the difference between the consoling order of Utopia, and the disturbing nature of Heterotopia.


aerialAerial photograph by the pilot Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe

Utopias afford consolation: although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold; they open up cities with vast avenues, superbly planted gardens, countries where life is easy, even though the road to them is chimerical.

Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy syntax in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite one another) to ‘hold together’. This is why utopias permit fable and discourse: they run with the very grain of language and are part of the fundamental dimension of the fabula; heterotopias … dessicate speech, stop words in their tracks, contest the very possibility of grammar at its source; they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences.’5

In the same year, in a radio talk for children, Foucault transferred the concept of heterotopia into spatial terms. In this talk, he evoked the idea of ‘other spaces’, those ‘countries without place, histories without chronology, cities, planets, universes, untraceable on any map or heaven, simply because they do not belong to any space’. These were the traditional utopias that formed the dream worlds of societies.

There were, however, Foucault went on, certain kinds of utopic spaces that could be situated in real space and real time: ‘one does not live in a neutral and white space; one does not live, die, or love, within the rectangle of a sheet of paper’. Rather, ‘one lives, loves, and dies in a space that is gridded, cut up, variegated, with light and dark zones, differences in level, stairs, holes, bumps, hard and fragile regions, penetrable, porous. There are regions of passage, streets, train, subways; there are regions open to momentary pause − cafés, cinemas, beaches, hotels, and then there are the closed regions of rest and being at home. Yet, among these places that are distinguished from each other, there are those that are absolutely different: places that are opposed to all the others, that are destined in some way to efface them, neutralize them and purify them. These are in some way counter-spaces. These counter-spaces, these localized utopias.’6

For the child, these spaces reside in secret places − under the covers, in the attic, on the ‘ocean’ of the parents’ bed. For the adult, ‘there are gardens, cemeteries, there are asylums, brothels, prisons, Club Med villages, and many others’. These ‘counter-spaces’ are not utopias because they can be situated in real space, but, as Foucault now introduces the word, hetero-topias, the scientific study of which would be named heterotopology.
Having isolated and defined the theory that might characterise his previous studies of institutions, Foucault then defined the varied ways in which societies, historical and present, invented their specific heterotopias: the forbidden spaces of ‘biological crisis’ in so-called ‘primitive’ societies − spaces set aside for the attainment of puberty or giving birth; and spaces in modern societies, more concerned with deviation: ‘the places that society establishes in its margins, in the empty beaches that surround it (…) reserved for individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the mean, or the required norm’. Besides hospitals, that retain something of the space of biological crisis, these might take the form of psychiatric clinics, prisons − even retirement homes for the ‘lazy’ deviants who no longer work in a busy society. And there is an almost natural order of establishment and disappearance, as old heterotopias are suppressed (brothels), and some continued in use (cemeteries). The guiding principle, Foucault concluded, is the juxtaposition in real space of many spaces together that would normally be incompatible. In these terms, even the theatre, with its combination of stage, rectangular scene, and auditorium, or the cinema, a ‘great rectangular scene at the end of which on a two-dimensional space is projected a new space in three dimensions’, would qualify.

Un coup de dés

The experimental textual spatiality of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés

Between 1966 and 1969, the critical influence of Lefebvre’s and Foucault’s spatial ideas was evident in both theory and practice. Lefebvre joined forces with his assistant, Hubert Tonka, together with Jean Aubert, Jean-Paul Jungmann, Antoine Stinco, Isabelle Auricoste, Catherine Cot, Jean Baudrillard, and René Lourau, to produce a series of pamphlets to be distributed at assemblies and events − La Logique de l’urbanisme, L’argent de l’urbanisme, L’Utopie n’écrit pas au futur, Des raisons de l’architecture, Urbaniser la lute de classe − together with the short-lived journal UTOPIE: Sociologie de l’urbain, described by Craig Buckley as developing ‘new promises of liberation to new forms of repression’. Here, in July 1968, Hubert Tonka published his Critique of Urban Ideology, and Henri Lefebvre ‘From Urban Science to Urban Strategy’.

Foucault’s work, as we know, was very soon to play a fundamental role in widening the scope of architectural history, through the extension of his studies on institutions with Bruno Fortier’s team of researchers encompassing the architecture of 18th-century hospitals, Les machines à guérir (aux origines de l’hôpital moderne) and the design of arsenals and ports (Les vaisseaux et les villes); and Robin Evans’ magisterial work on the history of the English prison, The Fabrication of Virtue.

Foucault’s own research into the nature of the ‘prison’ led him to visit Attica in 1971, where he made a distinctly architectural observation: ‘What struck me first of all was the entrance, that kind of phony fortress à la Disneyland, those observation posts disguised as medieval towers with their machiolis; and behind this rather ridiculous scenery, which dwarfs everything, you discover it’s an immense machine.’7

And of course it was the machine itself that interested him, with its long corridors, defining ‘specific trajectories’ ‘calculated to be the most efficient possible and at the same time the easiest to oversee’.

Foucault was later to apply the same reasoning to another semi-panoptical plan, that of Ledoux’s saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, which he visited in the autumn of 1973. Here he found, as he wrote in Surveiller et punir, published two years later, what he thought to be ‘the perfect disciplinary apparatus that would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly [from] a central point that would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known: a perfect eye that nothing would escape and a center towards which all gazes would be turned’. And while this vision of a total Benthamite panopticism was dubious when applied to a Ledoux whose symbolic preoccupations were as strong as his proto-functional rhetoric, for architects intent on radicalising the discipline the message was clear: either submit to a reformist ‘architecture or revolution’, or attempt to subvert the established power structures embedded in institutional space by inventing ‘other spaces’, alternative heterotopic forms to contest those already existing.

Las Meninas

Foucault made a much commented upon analysis of Velasquez’s famous painting Las Meninas in his 1966 study, Les mots et les choses

Yet Foucault had already demonstrated the complexities of ‘revolutionary space’, in a 1972 conversation with the Maoist group led by Benny Lévy concerning the formation of popular tribunals. For Lévy, these tribunals, of Chinese inspiration, were the best way to ensure justice according to proletarian correctness. Foucault, however, disagreed, pointing out that historically, in the French Revolution, the Revolutionary tribunals had served more as the agents of repression than the arbiters of justice. To demonstrate his point, Foucault went on to analyse the spatial distribution of the contemporary French tribunal, and arrangement of the actors behind and in front of the table: ‘What is this disposition? A table; behind this table, which separates them the two suitors, the thirds who are the judges; their position indicates firstly that they are neutral in relation to the one and the other and secondly, it implies that their judgment is not determined in advance, that it is going to be established after an enquiry through the hearing of both parties, in function of a certain norm of truth and a certain number of ideas on the just and the unjust, and thirdly, that their decision will have the force of authority.’ This order, was, Foucault concluded, very far from the idea of ‘popular justice’ enacted by the ‘masses’ against their ‘enemies’.8

‘For architects intent on radicalising the discipline the message was clear: either submit to a reformist “architecture or revolution”, or attempt to subvert the established power structures embedded in institutional space by inventing ”other spaces” to contest those already existing’

For his part, Lefebvre was sceptical: Foucault, he complained, unquestioningly applies the spatial metaphor to knowledge and discourse, but ‘never explains what space it is that he is referring to, nor how it bridges the gap between the theoretical (epistemological) realm and the practical one, between mental and social, between the space of  the philosophers and the space of the people who deal with material things.’9


Foucault found the semi-panoptical plan of Ledoux’s saltworks at Arc-et-Senans to be ‘the perfect disciplinary apparatus that would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly [from] a central point that would be both the source of light illuminating everything, and a locus of convergence for everything that must be known’

In the end the space-as-power thesis was to be quickly absorbed in political critique on both the left and the right, functionalised in behaviourist studies, and translated into images by counter-architectural dystopians. It was a supreme irony that much intended ‘subversive’ architecture, dedicated to undermining panopticism, was to be couched in terms that were more reminiscent of the Attica entrance than any disruption of spatial orders themselves − the symbolic masking of the machine continued under other guises.

If there was to be a single master-trope for architecture retained from Foucault, it was the concept of heterotopia. In the postscript to the newly translated text of the radio talk, Daniel Defert provides a useful timeline of the successive phases of Foucault’s elaboration of this idea that has proved so influential in architectural theory.10 Beginning in 1966 with the radio broadcast, Foucault then developed the concept in an address to the Cercle d’études architecturales de Paris, hosted by Ionel Schein, excerpts from which were translated into Italian in L’Architettura the following year. The edited version was only to be published in full 16 years later, significantly enough, in Berlin, accompanying the exhibition of the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA). Here, ‘of Other Spaces’ was adopted as the leitmotif of the general approach of JP Kleihues and OM Ungers who saw the notion of ‘heterotopia’ as informing and supporting their own version of rebuilding the city as a series of ‘archipelagoes’.


1. Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe, ‘L’Etude de l’Espace social’, Paris, essais de sociologie 1952-64, Paris: Editions Sociales, 1964, p22 ff.
2. Michel Foucault, Introduction to Ludwig Binswanger, Le cas Suzanne Urban. Étude sur la schizophrénie (1952), French translation J Verdeaux, R Kuhn et M Foucault (Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1957), p60.
3. Michel Butor, Description de San Marco (Paris: Gallimard, 1963).
4. Michel Foucault, Dits et écrits (1954-1988), Vol I: 1954-1975 (Paris: Gallimard, 2001), pp439-40.
5. Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966; translated The Order of Things. An Archeology of the Human Sciences (London: Pantheon Books, 1970), ppxvii-xix.
6. Michel Foucault, Le corps utopique − les hétérotopies, presentation by Deniel Defert (Paris: Éditions Lignes, 2009).
7. John Simon, ‘Michel Foucault on Attica: An Interview’, Social Justice, vol 18, no 3 (Fall 1981), p26.
8. Foucault, Dits et écrits, vol II, p1214.
9. Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’espace (Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1974); translation Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp3-4.
10. Foucault, Le corps utopique − les hétérotopies.


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