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Henry Lefebvre, Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment

Edited by Łukasz Stanek

Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2014, 191 p., 22 b & w ill.

ISBN: 9780816677191 (cloth),  $84.00

ISBN: 9780816677207 (paper) $27.95

 

 

Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment is the first publication of Henri Lefebvre’s only book devoted to architecture. Thanks to the efforts of Lefebvre scholar Łukasz Stanek, who discovered the manuscript in a private archive, this important and challenging text is now available in an elegantly translated and excellently edited volume that demonstrates the relevance of Lefebvre thinking on urban space for the more specialized field of architecture. An unorthodox Marxist, Lefebvre (1901-1991) is best known for his ideas on the notion of space, which he considered a socially and politically constructed space and as such the locus of a permanent conflict between the rationalizing and dehumanizing impulse of capitalism and the creativity of daily life in urban communities. In this approach of space, the crucial level is that of the city, for it is at this level that the tension between building and planning on the one side and lived experience on the other side is most directly present. Architecture, in this perspective, seems to be less decisive, too overtly linked with merely aesthetic or functionalist issues while inevitably falling prey to the social dichotomy it eventually reproduces, with aesthetic concerns in the case of the individual houses of the elite and purely functionalist preoccupations in the case of communal housing of the working class.

 

The very existence of this text comes therefore as a surprise, and the fact that this study, which resulted from a commission, had never been published in its time confirms its singular status. Apparently, this was an essay that nobody was expecting and that perhaps contained the risk of weakening the status of its author as key theoretician of urban life (as opposed to individual building). Written in 1973, it does reflect however the spirit of the times, strongly marked by the libertarian dimension of the student revolts and its foregrounding of pleasure, individual freedom and the body, all elements blocked the conventional Marxism of these days and only introduced in the strongly politicized debates on the future of the city by non-conventional thinkers such as Lefebvre, who accepts to broaden the debate on space and urban planning to the domain of architecture, longtime discarded as having no meaningful relationship with the key issues of the city as lived experience, and that of the body, equally put between brackets in the name of collectivist ideals.

 

Lefebvre’s very personal take on the problem of architecture is not limited however to the very shift of emphasis from urban thinking to a philosophy of dwelling. His reading of architecture is throughout political and his politics if, from the very beginning, a politics of the joyful body (the French term used by Lefebvre is the “untranslatable” jouissance, and the book opens with a dramatically useful note on the multilayered meanings and uses of this typically May 68 notion). Just as the goal of the building of a city should be the production of urban life, the ideal of good architecture should be the opportunities it offers to a happier development of the body and its craving for pleasure and joy. Lefebvre analyzes this link between architecture and enjoyment in several ways. First of all, he explores the connection between body and building, no pun intended, in a wide range of disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology, history, economics, and eventually architecture. In this discussion, which hovers between the scholarly text and the political manifesto, he clearly displays the materialist underpinnings of his analysis, which lead him to criticize the puritan stances of traditional Marxism. Under the aegis of Nietzsche, a major influence on many French thinkers of that period (Barthes, Deleuze, Guattari, among others), he makes room for personal hedonism and individual liberation. Second, Lefebvre analyzes also concrete forms of modern and modernist architecture, which contrary to most leftist thinkers of these years he does not automatically rejects as the result of capitalist speculation. The savage, but actually perfectly planned, transformation of Spain’s coast line into a gigantic touristic resort, with new forms of architecture that seem to be the apparent negation of all possible ideals of urban life and shared experience, is interpreted by Lefebvre in a much more ambivalent way. Places meant to be devoted to only entertainment and reproducing straightforwardly the existing boundaries and dichotomies between labour and leisure, between real constraints and the illusory freedom of commodified escapism, are seen by him not only as instruments of mass deception but also as windows to forms of enjoyment that other types of architecture and urban life do not always allow. They function for him as the sign of a different life, or at least of the possibility of such a life, and not only as one more symbol of capitalist alienation.

 

The introduction by Łukasz Stanek does a wonderful job to contextualize as well as interpret Lefebvre’s thinking in this unusual text. Stanek restores the genesis of the work, he discusses the theoretical and political issues that Lefebvre’s shift to architecture actually involved, he complements the text with the visual documentation Lefebvre’s is only hinting at, while also stressing the stakes of the manuscript for contemporary debates on architecture, urban planning, and ecological thinking. He does it in an graceful style and with a keen sense of what is key, but also what is debatable and perhaps no longer pertinent in Lefebvre’s text and idiosyncratic way of thinking and writing.

 

Jan Baetens

 

 


Last Updated 28th November 2014

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