A rediscovered manuscript from the early 1970s finds the French philosopher fighting modernists and postmodernists alike on the beaches, writes Daisy Froud
Many have heard of Henri Lefebvre. Far fewer I suspect have read him for themselves. In most cases not published in English until decades after they first appeared, his texts have nonetheless been received as current, resisting filing as historic artefacts, with his theories of “everyday life” (1947), the “right to the city” (1968) and the “production of space” (1974) remaining popular among activists as well as academics.
This newly discovered manuscript, written shortly before The Production of Space, ostensibly as a study of the newly developing Spanish seaside tourist industry, is no exception. Although an appropriate subtitle might be “Or why everything you learned in architecture school is wrong”, this is not particularly a book for architects or, indeed, about architecture.
Lefebvre uses “architecture” as a category of the “production of space” by any human, professional or non-professional, at a direct level, in contrast to the strategic “hands-off” activity of spatial planning. It is a book about bodies, beaches and being alive.
As ever with Lefebvre, it is also a bloody difficult, yet delectable, read that places as much value on feeling as it does on the intellect, stressing their inextricability, and criticising Western culture for trying to force them apart.
Within its 100-odd pages it can thus ask us, “Who has never wanted to make love on a bed of sand or beneath the caress of waves?” before carefully dissecting some of the most famous philosophical and political theories of the past 2,000 years; stopping off en route to meditate on the details of gothic religious carvings or the cultural meaning of yurt construction.
But everywhere, the idea of jouissance (enjoyment), and the quest to understand its spatial implications, guides the journey. Enjoyment is understood to a certain extent as happiness, but, more importantly, as the act of making full, free and positive use of the spaces around us, a possibility increasingly eroded by capitalist logic.
Perhaps the enduring vitality of Lefebvre’s work, and the way in which this “new'” text has been leapt upon by aficionados (in the manner of a new Dan Brown) is due to the fact that he always asks more questions than he gives answers. And those questions remain relevant. He tends to be described as a philosopher-sociologist – a reflection of his interest in both the material realities of human existence and the way in which these shape, and are shaped by, language and thought.
Insatiably curious, and by no means negative, he nonetheless believes in the importance of negation as a political and intellectual act. So it is no coincidence that this book evokes in its title, and goes on to implicitly critique, Le Corbusier’s manifesto of the modern. Lefebvre’s text however, is intentionally more enquiry than manifesto.
What you don’t learn in architecture school, Lefebvre would say, is how to “inhabit”. As he explains in The Right to the City – perhaps a better introduction to his work than this book – inhabitation involves not only occupying space, but also being able to find one’s own meanings in it; most importantly, it means actively participating in making meaning through the ongoing shaping of space alongside fellow citizens.
Lefebvre criticises both major tendencies in early 1970s architectural “style” debates, as frustrated by modernist reductionism as he is by a perceived postmodern overemphasis on symbolism and the idea of building as text.
His interest in “polyvalency” or the potential of the baroque will however be familiar to readers of Venturi, Scott Brown or Jencks. He dismisses both approaches as “communicative architecture”: architecture that tries to tell us a specific thing or to dictate how we live.
Instead, Lefebvre urges, buildings and landscapes should be things that we continually create together, that we experience with all our senses and that can never be reduced to a particular aesthetic or plan. What form that architecture might take, however, is a question that he deliberately hands, with encouragement, to the reader.
Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment