Henri Lefebvre's “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” (1973): Toward an Architectural Research
A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, 2011–2013
“Vers une architecture de la jouissance” is an unpublished book manuscript by the French Marxist philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre (1901–1991). The book was written in 1973 as a report within the framework of a commissioned research study focused on issues of urbanism emergent in new tourist towns in the latter years of Franco’s Spain, but it was never published because the commissioner considered it too far from the topic it was intended to address. The manuscript was nonetheless an important step within Lefebvre’s theorizing of space as socially produced and productive, which was formulated in six books, published from 1968 (Le Droit à la ville) to 1974 (La Production de l’espace; in English, The Production of Space, 1991), and developed further in De l’État (1976–1978). At the same time, “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” was inscribed into Lefebvre’s effort to challenge functionalist urbanism and to test various paths within, beyond, and against the legacy of the architectural avant-gardes of the 1920s and 1930s. The book continues his attempt to theorize the production of space from within specific empirical research projects in rural and urban sociology that he carried out and supervised in a range of French research institutions and universities beginning in the 1940s.
The impact of these engagements on “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” comes to the fore in Lefebvre’s argument that “architecture today implies social practice in a double way”: on the one hand, the professional practice of architects, defined by their position in the division of labor, and, on the other, the practice of inhabitants. The former reflects Lefebvre’s interventions into architectural culture in the 1960s and 1970s as a critic, educator, editor, advisor, and member of juries in architectural competitions. The latter relates to the studies of the Institut de sociologie urbaine, founded by Lefebvre in 1962, which focused on the practices of habitation in collective housing estates (grands ensembles) and individual houses (pavillons). In these studies, the practice of habitation was theorized as the production of space: a half-real, half-imaginary distribution of times and places of everyday life. This understanding of habitation provided a platform for Lefebvre to rethink the possibilities of architecture and to reimagine its sites, operations, and stakes.
In my research I argue that “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” explores architectural imagination as negative, political, and materialist. First, architectural imagination is negative in the sense of contradicting fundamental premises of postwar everyday life, in particular the division between work and “nonwork.” For Lefebvre, spaces of leisure were privileged case studies, seen both as sites of reproduction of postwar capitalism and as its “other.” Defined by “nonwork” rather than production, excess rather than accumulation, gift rather than exchange, spaces of leisure allow reconsideration of the fundamental divisions that structure times and places of everyday life.
Second, architectural imagination is political because for Lefebvre the stake of every political project is an alternative everyday. At the same time, “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” can be read as responding to the Common Program of the Union de la gauche, an agreement signed in 1972 between the French communist party and socialist party. Discussed in several colloquia, in particular “Pour un urbanisme . . .” (Grenoble, 1974), the Common Program postulated a new type of urbanism around the themes of the right to the city and solidarity between social groups.
Finally, architectural imagination is materialist; that is, it starts with the materiality of the body and its rhythms. This idea leads Lefebvre to revisit precedents of architecture understood as an assemblage of senses, forms, discourses, bodies, and ideas: the abbey of Thélème, described by François Rabelais (1494–1553) as a community of people educated in the “gay knowledge” of pleasure; or the phalanstery, a utopian community described in the writings of Charles Fourier (1772–1837) as based on a combination of diverse people and their passions, producing new relationships of love and labor.
If Lefebvre’s concept of the production of space as a heterogeneous and political process has become an essential reference for rethinking architectural history, theory, criticism, and practice in the last two decades, “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” contributes to its adoption by embracing architectural imagination. The exercise of this imagination is often the unsolicited part of an architectural project; in Lefebvre’s words, an “implicit” commission, delivered regardless of what was expected and sometimes in spite of it, much like “Vers une architecture de la jouissance” itself.