Lefebvre and the History of Space

Henri Lefebvre

Doreen Massey's talk was based on Lefebvre's major work, 'The Production of Space' and she proceeded to explain its central ideas.

The basis of Lefebvre's ideas was that space is socially produced: that it is not a given but produced socially. Every social formation, that is every principal type of society produces a spatiality: physical space itself and a way of organising it and a way of thinking about it. A discussion of spatiality therefore encompasses the physical world, the mental world and a social construction of space. These three worlds are both separate and have interconnections between all of them. In this way different appropriations of space can co-exist simultaneously: for example Patrick Wright in his book 'On Living in an Old Country' shows how the different populations within the inner city, multi-cultural 'village' of Stoke Newington can have quite different mental images of it and different ways of using it.

Lefebvre defined a three-fold division of space: conceived space, 'lived' space and perceived space. Conceived space might be characterised by the representations which dominant groups in society produce to define space. Thus the spatial representations which urban designers and physicists employ might all be defined as conceived space. Lived space encompasses the spatial representations which ordinary people make in living their lives, the mental constructs with which they approach the physical world. Perceived space embraces the idea of social practice; in this category space is a social product. Massey noted that the last two categories are difficult to separate and that professionals also experience space as ordinary people as well as through their professional discourse.

Massey suggested that Lefebvre had been crudely characterised as a functionalist Marxist by some authors, by this she meant that they had misread him to say that spatiality can be related back directly to economic power relations between classes in society. Massey argued that his views were more subtle and provocative. For example, Lefebvre argued that each society creates its own gender system, its own way of categorising masculinity and femininity and that these categorisations change over time. A masculine principle is produced and generally, this tends to dominate space.

In our society there has been a long history of the eradication of the body discourse and the body, in Lefebvre's view is tied to feminism. These notions of masculine and feminine are intimately linked to the dualisms which our society uses as fundamental categories, such as mind/culture and linear time/cyclical time. Physicality, nature and cyclical time have all been underplayed. Today we have a notion of abstract space. This is characterised by a tendency towards homogenisation. Abstract space, Lefebvre argues, has taken over from physical space; space is both quantified and commodified.

Doreen surprised us by asking how urban designers themselves understand space and considered that our offerings were different to those of geographers. The evening concluded with a discussion of what designers can draw from Lefebvre. The most important aspect of his work demonstrates the complexity of space and the limitations of our understandings. It also places emphasis on an orientation towards use - an aspect which in his view is neglected in training. Designers should remember that the lecture theatre inside their heads is theirs alone: the public out there is on a different wavelength #

Marion Roberts