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Book review: Henri Lefebvre on Space – Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of theory

Ɫukacz Stanek. Henri Lefebvre on Space. Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory. 2011. Minneapolis, London. University of Minnesota Press. 369 pp. ISBN 978-0-8166-6617-1

Reviewed by Christopher Knoll (Cultural Studies), Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt


[…] to think of space as a whole means to keep it open to everybody. (Stanek: 137)

Ɫukacz Stanek‘s book on the French urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre is a detailed, well-researched and balanced account of both Lefebvre’s intellectual biography and the development of his conceptual frameworks.

From agrarian to urban space

Stanek stresses how Lefebvre’s early intellectual interests in agrarian societies [e.g. his study of a Pyrenean village] were methodologically shaped by a combination of the Annales school and dialectical materialism, which lead him to an early insight that neither the production of territory and the production of community, nor mental concepts of spatial planning and the actual way of ‘living space out’, could be separated analytically.

After having written his PhD and becoming professor in Paris, Lefebvre’s focus switched from agrarian planning policies to urban spatial planning, partly because in the early 60s, the authorities of the USSR, Algeria and Cuba denied Lefebvre to carry out empirical research on their agrarian policies.

(Urban) Space as concrete abstraction

During this formative period, Lefebvre developed his concept of space as concrete (‘lived’) abstraction, a concept which should critically surpass and dialectically overcome (aufheben) central state urban planning as well as dismantle notions of space and housing that are perceived by Postfordist or Keynesian capitalism as mere reified objects of consumption.

On a theoretical level, this lead to Lefebvre’s critique of both functionalism and structuralism – both, according to Lefebvre, operating as closed, largely unalterable and mentally preconceived systems, either of ‘needs’ for which there are allotments of preconceived ‘satisfactions’ (functionalism), or else of preconceived sets of ‘signification processes of differentiational signs’ which can be ‘consumed’ (structuralism) – as both symptom and tool of a bureaucratic society.

As Stanek stresses, Lefebvre’s criticism aims at central planning’s ensuing depoliticization, fragmentation and segregation of ‘possible communities’, in other words, the very denial of every citizen’s right to the city as ongoing communal project of co-habitation (Lefebvre writes extensively about the Paris Commune as an attempt at collectivizing the ‘equal right’ to the city for all citizens).

He thus wanted to dismantle ‘Cartesian’-masterplan notions of l’espace conçu (expert knowledges that mentally pre-conceive space for the consumer to live in) in opposing them to notions of space as perceived – l’espace perçu (by the consumers or users), and via open discourse of their mutual incongruencies come to a dialectical understanding of what might be ‘fully lived’ urban spaces of the future – l’espace(s) vécu(s), without risking systemic closures (Lefebvre’s closeness to Derridean and Deleuzian poststructuralism seems evident here).


Lived spaces as concrete utopias

The advantages of Stanek’s book become quickly become clear: He not only embeds Lefebvre’s thinking in the larger context of postwar French thought (Lefebvre’s ongoing discussions with
structuralism, situationism, poststructuralism), but also reproduces, by way of analogy, Lefebvre’s larger dialectic of the production of space in the built-up of the book itself, thus covering the triad of Lefebvre’s immense productiveness in (open) theory, his public interventions by publicly debating and commenting on the consequences of concrete architectural planning procedures both in the present and in history (e.g. the Nanterre campus as functionalist misère playing a major role in declenching the 68′ student revolt, the IKEA -style modularized consumptive petit-bourgeois differentiation à la Bourdieu of the habitat pavillonaire, the segregationist urban planning policies leading to the peripheries of grands ensembles and HLMs; the segregationist policies of a Hausmann in the 1850s indirectly leading to the claims for a right to the city of the Paris Commune) and Lefebvre’s participation in ‘utopian projects’, meaning his co-participation in ‘utopian’ urban planning design such as Ricardo Bofill’s ‘city in space’ or Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon (and thereby demonstrating his own attempt at a praxis of an ‘Aufhebung’ of divisions of labor as regards architectural planning) as well as his analyses of historical utopian planning (e.g. his positive reevaluation of Fourier’s phalanstères as an historical architectural dream enhancing communal solidarity).

CC: [2011-9-13]

The city as œuvre: toward an architecture of communal solidarity

All the way throughout the book, Stanek thus stresses Lefebvre’s search for an urban architecture which would replace social isolationism and antagonism by opening up to possible spaces of solidarity and association. Stanek shows a Lefebvre’s whose take on ‘spaces as always unfinished œuvres in process’, in which the individual (Hegel’s concrete universal) can come into discourse with the communal collective and in this way overcoming segregations of work-space and spaces of leisure, remained true to his own humanist marxist version of fighting for an equal right to the city for all its inhabitants.

”]CC: (City in Space) [2011-13-09]

It is therefore logical that Stanek concludes, in his afterword, with an outline of a late and unpublished manuscript of Lefebvre’s with the title ‘Toward an Architecture of Jouissance’, in which he departs from both individual and social bodies (still reminscent of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology trying to surpass Cartesian mentalisms) countering their own fragmentation in the division of labor and their identification with ‘spectacular images’ referring to other images (Baudrillard’s concept of a mere simulation of the ‘real’ in consumption) in order to envisage a broadened concept of architecture as a ‘spatial pedagogy’ of the body and its multifarious rythms: an architecture of jouissance as a prerequisite for an universal formation of the senses.

Further reading:

Davis, Mike (2002). Dead cities and other tales. New York: New Press.
Davis, Mike (2000). Magical urbanism: Latinos reinvent the US city. London: Verso.
Harvey, David (2003). Paris, capital of modernity. New York: Routledge.
Lefebvre, Henri (1996). Writings on cities. Oxford: Blackwell.


… a conference about talking rubbish


Saturday 21st January 2012

Chair: Professor Nicky Gregson, Durham University

Between A and B: Reprocessing Western second-hand clothing for global markets.’
Julie Botticello (Research Associate, SOAS)

‘The World of Calamity Clothing in Mozambique.’
Andrew Brooks (Geography, King’s College London)

‘The making of Unravel.’
Meghna Gupta (Independent filmmaker)

‘Oxfam Frip Ethique – A social enterprise solution.’
Sarah Farquhar (Head of Retail Brand, Oxfam)

Chair: Lucy Siegle, Journalist & Broadcaster

‘Fashion and the Community; developing community resources for sustainable fashion and recycling.’
Lizzie Harrison (Founder/Antiform and ReMade in Leeds)

‘The potential of the fashion designer to reduce consumer’s textiles waste.’
Jade Whitson-Smith (University of Leeds)

‘A sneak look behind the curtains of a textile merchant.’
Ross Barry (LMB Business Development Manager)

‘Design for Recycling; closing the loop for textiles.’
Kate Goldsworthy (Textile Futures Research Centre, Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design)

‘Closed Loop or Wear Nothing.’
Cyndi Rhoades (CEO, Worn Again)

The talks will be open to the public on a first come,first served basis. The exhibition opens at 11am
– please arrive promptly to ensure a place.

Please contact Lucy Norris for more information
at lucy.norris [at]
Oxo Tower Wharf
Bargehouse Street
South Bank
London SE1 9PH

What’s Academia Got To Do With It? Looking for Community-Scholarly Balance in Co-developing Community-driven Research

Reflections on the relationship between universities and public audiences and communities are widely reflected in discussions of what I would call ‘Public Research’ — here’s one:

Wednesday, November 09, 2011, from 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM, Galbraith Building, 35 St. George Street, Room 119

Community Development Graduate Collaborative Program Seminar Series

What does it mean to do community-driven research?   This seemingly innocuous question is overlain with conflicting politics, tensions and ethics along with the potential for social change that attracts many activist-scholars to this form of research in the first place. During this seminar, I will attempt to conceptualize a reflexive assessment of praxis by drawing on five years of participatory action research with community groups, organizations and residents in the inner suburban region of Southeast Scarborough.

My entry to this community, and to this talk, begins with a failed struggle to prevent the demolition and displacement of public space through policy-supported demolition of a community mall. But next I tell the story of how this loss has segued into a grassroots attempt to re-spatialize the barriers of inequality between city and inner suburbs in response to processes of gentrification and suburban decline. With an emphasis on change, I focus on the imbrications between politics, research and activism through exploration of three key questions: How do we, as researchers, maintain long-term commitment to an evolving community development project? How do we build and maintain effective relationships with communities that support residents as experts? How do we deal with struggles, conflict and transition? Through reflection on shared struggles, successes and failures over the course of a long-term community development project, I hope to spark discussion over how we can best position ourselves and evaluate our work as scholar-activists.Vanessa Parlette is a doctoral student in urban geography at the University of Toronto. She has been involved in participatory planning and community projects in Southeast Scarborough for the last five years and has drawn on these experiences to question and contest ongoing processes of inequality that perpetuate the racialization and segregation of poverty in Toronto’s inner suburbs.

via Univ. of Toronto Cities Centre.

Sound Space and the City

Peterson, Marina. 2010. Sound, Space, and the City. Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia: University of Pennsylvannia Press.

Reviewed by Catherine Scheelar, University of Alberta.

In Sound, Space, and the City, anthropologist Marina Peterson explores the process of center-making in Los Angeles through multicultural performance in public space. Positing her work as an ‘anthropology of the center’, of the city rather than in the city, she traces how meaning is made in and around public performances. Based on ethnographic research from 2001 to 2003, her study observes embodied musical practices that constitute the imagining and making of a multicultural city. A free concert series, Grand Performances is situated in the contexts of historical and contemporary urban planning, artistic programming, and the city as lived and imagined.

Acknowledging that ideas of the social sciences seep into everyday life, she challenges the situatedness of disciplinary knowledge and the locations in which anthropological theory has been developed and applied. Grand Performances came into being as a multicultural arts and music project including ethnicity (but excluding class and political affiliations) for the construction of a general, neutral ‘public’, an audience as both a representation and a synecdoche of the city. She draws links between international performance and downtown development, exploring the politics of multiculturalism as part of wider social and political frameworks enacted on municipal, state, and national levels. In recounting her personal experiences of working in the organization and performing onstage with the DaKAH hip hop orchestra, she uses personal narratives and sensual descriptions of experiencing California Plaza.

The concerts are representations of a city imagined and made in practice, as Los Angeles has been perceived as a city lacking real civic life and a central space where people can come together as a public. The history of the space highlights the dynamics of gentrification; the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project removed unruly bodies, replacing particular people with a general public, both activating and cleansing the urban space. California Plaza now exists as private property on public land, the area’s former blight covered with modern sculptures. With ethnicized neighbourhoods surrounding it, the purported neutrality of downtown is brought into being through practice which supports diversity as a normative feature of city. As a civic institution, Grand Performances creates audience members as civic subjects as spaces of belonging are created through inclusion and exclusion. Peterson cites Lefebvre in discussing the urban public as both sonic and spatial processes of the city, as social and musical rhythms are heard and felt in the body.