The Production of Space

The work of Henri Lefebvre has dealt with space as a stage for social interaction. Lefebvre’s The Production of Space was first published in French in 1974 and translated into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith in 1991.

Lefebvre introduced the concept of social space, which he understood as being at once physical and conceptual.  Social space is the realm in which the ‘cultural life of society’ is enacted, but it is not a ‘form or container of a virtually neutral kind, designed simply to receive whatever is poured into it.’[2]  Instead, space is ‘secreted’ by society: it is produced by patterns of social interaction, but also imposes itself on its users and thus shapes society.  Space encourages and discourages certain forms of interaction and gives form to social structures and ideologies.  It thus perpetuates the power of dominant groups.  Lefebvre’s concern with space bears comparison with Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.[3]  Clearly, architecture can function as an agent of hegemony: buildings normalise the authority of specific social groups, set out spatial boundaries, and function as emblems of social values.  However, Lefebvre insists that the agents of hegemony – whether political, religious or cultural – are fundamentally spatial.  For example, he writes that Church and State would be mere abstractions without the spaces in which to manifest themselves and exercise their power.

Significantly, Lefebvre argues that space cannot be readily comprehended as functioning in this way because capitalism splits social space into conceptual and physical components in order to obscure its social functions.  Space is rendered into an abstraction by representing it through means such as Cartesian coordinates, Euclidean geometry, cartography, and indeed the building plans that form an important resource for the current project.[4]  These abstractions appear to make space transparent and intelligible, but as Lefebvre writes ‘this transparency is deceptive, and everything is concealed.’[5]  Much of Lefebvre’s project was concerned with undermining this division between conceptual and physical space. 

The thesis looks at the ideologies of Newcastle’s dominant groups and asks how they were given form in the spaces of the city.  This will be achieved by analysing space and the social relations constructed within it, for which a study of internal planning is crucial.  The thesis asks how social and professional hierarchies are constructed within and between buildings.  Space embodies the values of the patrons and architects who shape it and transmits these to its users.  This will direct attention to the consumers of architecture.  Census records, street directories, photographs and newspapers are used to give a sense of the lived experience of space.  Lefebvre’s theory underpins the analytical procedures used throughout the thesis, but in particular it is elucidated in the chapter on Collingwood and Mosley Streets, which analyses the evolution of social relationships within a complex, continuously unfolding space. 

[1] See Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.  A recent application of these debates to architecture and designed space can be found in Forty, A. (2000) Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

[2] Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, p94.

[3] The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the theory of hegemony as a model for understanding how ideology is propagated within societies.  Hegemony is a system of control operating through a loose coalition of agencies – political, religious and cultural – which depends not on coercion (at least not exclusively), but on soliciting the conscious or unconscious consent of subordinated groups.  See Forgacs, D. (ed.) (1999) A Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. London: Lawrence & Wishart.  For Lefebvre’s comments on the theory of hegemony, see Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, p10.

[4] According to Lefebvre, ‘Euclidean space is defined by its “isotropy” (or homogeneity), a property which guarantees its social and political utility.  The reduction of this homogenous Euclidean space, first of nature’s space, then of all social space, has conferred a redoubtable power upon it.  All the more so since that initial reduction leads easily to another – namely, the reduction of three-dimensional realities to two dimensions (for example, a “plan”, a blank sheet of paper, something drawn on paper, a map, or any kind of graphic representation or projection.’ [Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, p285].

[5] Ibid., p287.

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