Henri Lefebvre, from The Production of Space, 1974.
In his introduction to Lefebvre’s text, Hays disclaims, “The Production of Space is a philosophy of history, not an architecture theory. Yet contained within it is an architecture theory properly understood as a mediation between architecture…and social practice.” While Lefebvre’s text is very much a social theory of space as a capitalist product, he is making a dual offering of “space”: space as historiographic means, and space as the means to exercise a fascinating criticism of early 1970s architecture theories. The former provides an interesting and, according to Hays (c.1998) an unexplored history of architecture. To clarify the latter, Lefebvre’s analysis of space and spatial production manages to lump both semiotic and verbal theories of architecture into a single category, one that cheapens architecture (and obscures politico-economic realities, i.e. fascist power, capitalism, &c.).
Lefebvre’s history of space begins at the Bauhaus, c.1920, with the realization of the space between interrelated, designed objects, and the compositional space around them (or around a single object). This space managed to govern both the composition of objects within it as well as the accumulation of [things]. (Here we see the entrance of a social critique of capitalism or capitalist space.) Consequently, design had to deal with a few transitions: a new consciousness of space as a physically inhabitable area around objects/architecture, the façade disappeared, and the idea of global space emerged—the ‘natural space’ between all objects on the earth.
More importantly for our purposes, the design process itself became dualistic: objects and buildings were designed/produced and the space around them became designed/produced. By the 1950s, architecture theory became more interested in the production of space and its investiture with meaning. We need only to remember the semiotic communicative fields of Baird, Scott Brown, Rossi, and even Scolari, to see examples of architecture conceived as communicative medium, which brings us into the early 1970s. In fact, it might even be useful to keep in mind the ‘communicative field’ as an approximate synonym for Lefebvre’s ‘space.’
Some important notes can help in an effort to clarify Lefebvre’s semantics. First, it is noteworthy that Lefebvre’s specific morality of ‘truth,’ in terms of social and political realities, is what is driving his criticism of abstraction, visualization, verbalism, and semiotic ‘readings.’ It is equally noteworthy to point out that, while his terminology is vague, Lefebvre’s space is social, political, economic, and architectural. These meanings are not separate but are simultaneous, which allows the equal application of his social morality. In short, the equation of architectural space with social (and political and capitalist) space allows for his criticisms born of social purpose to have architectural implications.
Lefebvre’s offers questions to guide his analysis of space and the use of space by architects and theorists. I’m specifically interested in the first and second: 1) Do spaces formed by “practico-social activity, whether landscapes, monuments or buildings, have meaning?” 2) Can that space be treated as a message; what is its readability? Here we encounter Lefebvre’s fabulous common sense realism: obviously space has meaning. It cannot be encoded or forced by semiotic architecture or interpretations of space. There is no single meaning, nor should a space be made encoded with a single meaning. The meaning of a space comes from the people in it, who inhabit it, fill it with their lives and believes and their socio-political structures. (This is reminiscent of Bruno Zevi, but only partially.) All of these “over-inscribe” space with a profusion of meaning. To produce a space with a single message is to exploit and hide politico-economic structures, to sublimate fascist realities, and is an exercise in meaning for meanings own sake—an egregious sin for someone with social agenda.
Here we enter the specifics of Lefebvre’s critique of contemporary architecture theory in a fascinating maneuver. He reduces space as a communicative field (the semiotic axiom) to space exploited by signs, by visual abstractions for the sake of meaning. This is the same critique leveled against verbalism: the articulation of architecture theory and meaning for meaning’s own sake. While obviously words themselves are considered visual signs, in terms of semiotics, that is only half of Lefebvre’s scheme. Verbalism and semiotics (two significant strands of theory in the early 1970s) are the equated through the medium of signs and through their endeavors to produce meaning disconnected from reality.
Lefebvre, on Post-Modernism:
The architect is supposed to construct a signifying space wherein form is to function as signifier is to signified; the form, in other words, is supposed to enunciate or proclaim the function. According to this principle, which is espoused by most ‘designers,’ the environment can be furnished with or animated by signs in such a way as to appropriate space, in such a way that space becomes readable (i.e. ‘plausibly’ linked) to society as a whole. The inherence of function to form, or in other words the application of the criterion of readability, makes for an instantaneousness of reading, act and gesture—hence the tedium which accompanies this quest for a formal-functional transparency.
In addition to this he delivers an equally devastating additional history: the history of weightiness. Beginning with Brunelleschi, Lefebvre sees the eventual conquest of weightiness by architecture, which consequently dissolves volume and mass. This has led to the “iconological” reduction of architecture; all that is left of architecture is the shell, the image, the sign of function without any content within or without.
On two fronts then, architecture’s transition into the production of space, its interpretation and investiture with meaning, has led to the weakening or cheapening of architecture. It is a critique that is powerfully pitted against architecture as image, as visualization—not necessarily of architectural graphics, but of architecture (and architecture theory) as graphic, and therefore as pure words. Preempting the accusation that he advocates the return of ‘content,’ Lefebvre responds that he merely does not believe the current reductive theories of architecture are the whole picture, that formal development has a future outside of the current trends.
On a personal note I am also fascinated by the potential relationship between Lefebvre’s history of the origin of space and Brian O’Doherty’s narrative for the origin of space from art. But Lefebvre’s 1970s theory has fascinating and exciting connections to architecture in the 21st century. Obviously his interpretation of space and architectural imagery has implications for how the imagery and graphics of the first half of the 20th century can be interpreted even now, as well as applied to our own contemporary architectural graphic processes. Lefebvre also indicates the space of the façade, itself maintained as a purely 2D visual element, as a potential space for social meaning yet to be explored in 1974. I might propose that developments in the conversation of performative ornamentation and deep facades in the past ten years might be appropriately interpreted as exploring this very idea. Lastly, current conversations about the value of academic writing and its debatable responsibility to connect to society, to be accessible, are clearly debating the same issue that Lefebvre was in terms of verbalism.