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Henri Lefebvre's “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” (1973): A Manifesto of Architectural Research

Łukasz Stanek
, Institut für Geschichte und Theorie der Architektur, Zürich
A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2011–2013

“Architecture or revolution”: When critics such as Bernard Huet and Manfredo Tafuri, writing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, returned to this alternative proposed by Le Corbusier in 1923, the objective was no longer to promote modern architecture as instrumental for social harmony but, on the contrary, to debunk its complicity in the persistence of capitalism. While this Marxian critique resulted in such challenging works as Tafuri’s Progetto e utopia (1973), it also led to an overarching impasse in architectural culture, which was increasingly unable to conceptualize architecture’s political and social relevance.

Read in this context, the manuscript “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” (1973) by Henri Lefebvre (1901–1991) opens a different view on the debates in architectural culture in Europe around 1968. This book was commissioned in 1972 in the framework of a major research project on tourism in Spain, headed by Mario Gaviria—planner, sociologist, Lefebvre’s former student in Strasbourg, and the editor of the Spanish translations of his books. The work with Gaviria—and the exchanges with other Spanish sociologists, planners, architects, and writers, including José Miguel Iribas, Ricardo Bofill, Manuel de Solà-Morales, and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán—offered Lefebvre an opportunity to develop a critical perspective on the production of space during the later years of Franco’s regime.

It was Lefebvre’s opposition to the “colonization” of moments of delight (jouissance)—the beach, the fiesta—that energized “Vers une architecture de la jouissance.” While Lefebvre was among the first French theorists to show, in his Critique de la vie quotidienne (1947, 1961), how spaces of leisure become indispensable for the reproduction of social relationships, he also argued that “through the space of leisure, a pedagogy of space and time is beginning to take shape.” Lefebvre understood this pedagogy as a premonition of a different way of life that comes to us as a hunch during privileged moments at the beach or in a park, however commodified, fetishistic, or negligible they may appear within a traditional Marxist critique.

In this sense, “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” is an attempt at a new type of critical engagement with architecture. Rather than “repeating that nothing can be done because of capitalism, which commands and co-opts,” the manuscript begins with a call for freeing architectural imagination by “putting in parentheses” the political and economic conditions of architectural practice. It is only by thinking of architecture within the general transformations of society, labor, and the everyday, but in a relatively autonomous relationship to them, that the “forgotten, erased place of a work of architecture can be defined,” writes Lefebvre.

Within this research perspective, Lefebvre returns to the empirical studies in rural and urban sociology he carried out or supervised beginning in the 1940s, and in particular to the work of the Institut de sociologie urbaine, which he headed from 1962 to 1973. He reexamines the two most important case studies of the institute—on the suburban house and collective housing estates—as possibilities for an “urbanization of happiness” within the postwar French welfare state. Extending this focus through a transhistorical speculation on architectural experience, Lefebvre writes about the baths of Caracalla, Gupta temples, Renaissance towns, and the Alhambra, as well as about imaginary spaces such as the abbey of Thélème, described by François Rabelais, and Paris of the surrealists André Breton and Georges Bataille. Lefebvre looks also at his favored architectural examples, including Charles Fourier’s phalanstery, understood as an assemblage of bodies, senses, and ideas that produce new constellations of love and labor, and at research on the space of the body carried out by Ricardo Bofill’s Taller de Arquitectura and explored in Bofill’s experimental film Esquizo (1970).

Lefebvre’s manuscript seems to suggest that the possibilities for an architecture of delight appear everywhere, but in a distorted, ironic, or partial way. As in Walter Benjamin’s intuition that the emancipatory capacity of commodities is revealed in what has just gone out of fashion—the grotesque dernier cri of yesterday—Lefebvre uncovers the possibility of an architecture of delight in seemingly compromised utopias. They include a beach managed by the tourist industry; a garden where a suburbanite hopes to experience primordial nature; and a collective housing estate where new solidarities between social groups are imagined. It is this ability to discover condensed energy where others see unfulfilled promise that distinguishes “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” from the pessimistic climate of opinion in the emerging postmodern architectural culture of the 1970s.

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