14 February 2011

Review: The Production of Space

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was a French social theorist and philosopher who has been appropriated into the world of urban studies by a generation of geographers, architects, planners and academic intellectuals in the Anglophone world (Merrifield, 2006: xxxii). The Production of Space is often cited as Lefebvre’s best known work despite the first English translation not being issued until 1991, seventeen years after the publication was first issued in French as La production de l’espcae (1974). In his native country, France, Lefebvre is best known as a “Marxist philosopher cum rural-urban sociologist” who “brought an accessible Marx to a whole generation of French scholars” (Merrifield, 2006:xxxvii). During his prolific career Lefebvre penned 67 books (1934-1986) however, the majority, to this day, have not been translated into English and the French editions remain out of print, so it is not difficult to see why The Production of Space is his most influential work in the English speaking world. The book itself takes in a vast array of ‘disciplines’ and the whole time it is informed by the “project of a different society, a different mode of production, where social practice would be governed by different conceptual determinations” (Lefebvre, 1991:419). Seeking to bridge the gap between theory and practice – mental and real space – Lefebvre faces up to the complexity of the capitalist contemporary city and attempts to define a “unitary theory of space”.

The Production of Space, Donald Nicholson-Smith trans. (Wiley-Blackwell, 1991)

In the Anglo-American world of urban and spatial ideas a new interest in the social and political organisation of urban environments was being formulated by emerging Marxist geographers. Concerned with an entirely new set of research themes – trade unions, political activists, ideological fields, the dynamics of capitalist accumulation, how the economic structures of a city were intertwined with its political institutions – these urban geographers were inspired by the writings of Engels, Lenin, Marx and Lefebvre (Latham, McCormack, McNarama & McNeil, 2009:12). The beginnings of this shift in focus in interpreting the city came with David Harvey’s ‘Social Justice and the City’ (1973) in which he argued contemporary, liberal, social science was "incapable of understanding the causes of the many inequalities and social injustices that structured the experience of the modern city”. Furthermore, Harvey “asserted, first, that geography was absolutely central to the dynamics of the capitalist system and, second, that cities in particular were key sites for the realisation of surplus value – that they were money-machines” (2009:12). Harvey, among others (including Ed Soja, Fredric Jameson, Mark Gottdiener, Derek Gregory, Kristin Elenore Kofman, and Elizabeth Lebas), credited Lefebvre with re-inventing urbanism (Aronwitz, 2007:134); he was also instrumental in pushing for the English translation of La production de l’espace and as such can be seen as directly responsible for Lefebvre’s posthumous fame and influence (Merrifield, 2006:104). This has lead Andrew Merrifield, in his book ‘Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction’ (2006), to question that “rather than Lefebvre influencing English-speaking geography and urbanism, it’s perhaps been the other way around: maybe it has been Anglo-American spatial theorists who've resuscitated Lefebvre’s lagging spatial career” (2006:104).

Lefebvre was born in 1901 in Hagetmau in the Pyrenees, to a “passionately, even fanatically, Catholic” mother and a father who was “urbanely anticlerical”; this was the “sort of contradiction he was to relish for the rest of his life” (David Harvey in Lefebvre, 1991:425) and is reflected in the contradictions he explores in The Production of Space. Influenced by the dramatic events of 1910 (which he eludes to in the book), the First World War and the Russian Revolution, he would go on to join the French Communist Party in 1928 and “by the outbreak of World War II he was already established as a major intellectual figure in the French Communist movement” (1991:427). His association with the party would continue until his expulsion in 1958, in the wake of the Khruschev Report (1956). It was then that he became associated with the Situationists who, despite differences with Guy Debord reducing the length of his ‘relationship’ with them, “are located in a certain space; their existence and contributions to the revolutionary movement are neither ignored nor over-emphasized” in The Production of Space (Not Bored, 1999). The Production of Space came as the culminating work in a series of seven books, between 1968 and 1974, examining the “nature of urbanization and the production of space” (Harvey in Lefebvre, 1991:430). One other significant observation to make, before closer examination of the text, is that Lefebvre, as already alluded to, was first of all a Marxist (today he held up as a member of the Neo-Marxist school). As Merrifield observes, “texts that discuss his concept of everyday life tend to make short shrift of his dialectical method and utopian 'total man,' thereby severing parts of an oeuvre that coexist in dynamic unit” (Merrifield, 2006:xxxiii).

The Production of Space is divided into seven chapters however the distinctions between each are, at times, hard to distinguish. In each chapter similar issues are raised, “eruptively and disruptively unfolding” (2006: 117) as the reader moves through the pages. With this in mind the analysis that follows will look to each of the general themes discussed by Lefebvre as he attempts to uncover a “differential space” that can deny abstract space any further progress in homogenizing the city. (2006:113). Furthermore differential space itself “isn’t systematic” reinforcing how the book flows “unsystematically through a Nietzschean process of ‘self-abnegation’” (2006: 117). Also, as it is important to remember when analysing the text that just as Lefebvre’s ideas were heavily influenced by Marxist thought, the word ‘space’ has a slightly different meaning that the French ‘espace’ – the English-speaking world though does “have a corresponding fondness for such spatial terms as ‘sector’ and ‘sphere’” (David Nicholson-Smith in Lefebvre, 1991:8).

History of Space

Until the sixteenth century the town was not considered a “subject” in its own right. The rise of the medieval town (founded on commerce as opposed to agrarian practices) “turned the space which preceded it, the space of the ‘world’ upon its head” (Lefebvre, 1991:256) and the subsequent “establishment of ‘urban systems’ in Italy, Flanders, England, France, Spanish America, and elsewhere” created the town as a “unified entity” (1991:271). However, “the centre-periphery split that would occur later, as cities fell apart under the impact of industrialization and stratification, was not yet in the offing” (1991:272). The cause of these changes is fundamentally the shift in mode of production at that time – agrarian feudal space dismantled eventually by industrial capitalism which in turn is replaced by late capitalism (Merrifield, 2006:107). Thus “the shift from one mode [of production] to another must entail the production of a new space” (Lefebvre, 1991:46) and as such modern urban space is a reflection of the dominant modes of production today.

Spatial Practice, Representation of Space and Representational Space

The conceptual triad between spatial practice, representation of space and representational space is a recurring theme in book. Spatial practice “embraces production and reproduction, and the particular locations and spatial sets characteristic of each social formation” (1991:33). The representation of space is “conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers” whom “identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived” and is the “dominant space in any society (or mode of production).” Representational space on the other hand is “space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’” (1991:38-39).

Perspective, in particular its application in Tuscany by architects and artists, is held up as arriving, during a “historic change in the relationship between town and country” (1991:41) - as the town emerged as subject in its own right. This new representation of space contrasts with the idea of representational space which is an image of the world. This divergence continued into the 20th century where “it is arguable, for instance, that Frank Lloyd Wright endorsed a communitarian representational space deriving from a biblical and Protestant tradition, whereas Le Corbusier was working towards a technicist, scientific and intellectualized representation of space” (1991:43). This contrast helps to further reinforce the new relationship between town and country.

Further examples of this dialectic concept are examined through historic Venice, “a space which is fashioned, shaped and invested by social activities during a finite historical period", although here they are seen to be mutually reinforcing (1991:73-4). Theatrical space is also used to highlight how space can be neither and both concurrently, scenic space implying a representation of space, “corresponding  to a particular conception of space, that of the classical drama”, whilst “the representational space, mediated yet directly experienced, which infuses the work and the moment, is established as such through the dramatic action itself” (1991:188).

Is this city (Venice) a work or a product?
Today, products have replaced the work of the city.

The triad of the perceived, the conceived and the lived is Lefebvre’s attempt to move away from the dualisms so often found within philosophical debate and return it to the freedom set in place by Hegel and Marx (1991:39). Despite these attempts the inherent contradictions explored by Lefebvre within the notion of ‘space’ often give rise to dualisms themselves although he attempts to reconcile these through the conceptual triad as a grid.


Fragmentation of space is linked to the divisions among specialised professions that have grown up to explain and tackle the city which, in turn define a truncated space as their own private property. This in turn sets up “mental barriers and practico-social frontiers” (1991:90) that have to be overcome if any unified theory of space is to be defined and ultimately implemented. The tendency towards reductive models, simplifying the complexity of space is necessary at first, but it must be quickly reversed otherwise “one of the misfortunes of the specialist is that he makes this methodological moment into a permanent niche for himself where he can curl up happily in the warm” (1991:107). In so doing the specialist also constructs a mental space that allows them to interpret space “according to their particular principles” and also allows them their own specific representations of space (1991:104). Architects are held up as good examples of this practice because they have a trade that needs to establish its own legitimacy but as they attempt to impose these models based on reductive practice it causes the working class, in particular, to suffer (1991:107). "Separation ensures consent and perpetuates misunderstanding; or worse, it props up the status quo" (Merrifield, 2006:104).

The Body

Lefebvre compares the social body of society and social body of needs to the "fleshy body of the living being" and that they "cannot live without generating, without producing, without creating differences" (1991:396). These organic references are used to explain social space, with other references to the language of hydrodynamics when talking about flows and rhythms within this space. Space then is not an inert thing but organic and alive (Merrifield, 2006:104).

Dominated Space and Appropriated Space

There is a distinction between those spaces that are dominated and those that are appropriated. The dominated space is a “space transformed – and mediated – by technology, by practice” and is usually “closed, sterilized, emptied out”. Examples of dominated space proliferate in the ‘modern’ world, such as motorways that slice “through space like a great knife”. The concept of dominant space “attains its full meaning only when it is contrasted with the opposite and inseparable concept of appropriation” (Lefebvre, 1991:164-5). The dominant space can become a self-fulfilling circle, as seen in the case of Goodman’s ‘Asphalt Magic Circle’ where the United States federal government collects a tax on petrol sales to spend on urban highway construction which, in turn leads to higher car sales, more journeys, higher petrol consumption, higher tax revenue, more roads, and so on. (1991:374). Lefebvre theorizes that dominated and appropriated space should, ideally, be combined “but history – which is to say the history of accumulation – is also the history of their separation and mutual antagonism. The winner is this contest, moreover, has been domination” (1991:166).

Abstract Space

Abstract space is the space of capitalism and neocapitalism, “which includes the ‘world of commodities’, its ‘logic’ and its worldwide strategies as well as the power of money and that of the political state” (1991:53). Founded “on the vast networks of banks, business centres and major productive entities, as also on motorways, airports and information lattices” this abstract space has lead to the disintegration of the town (1991:53). Other authors, most notably Jane Jacobs, demonstrated the destructive capabilities of this space “and specifically how urban space, using the very means apparently intended to create or re-create it, effects its own self-destruction” (without ever directly incriminate neopcapitalism as Lefebvre does) (1991:363). Abstract space though, despite what is implied, is “not homogeneous; it simply has homogeneity as its goal” (1991:304) as it seeks to establish the capitalist trinity of land-capital-labour that is global, fragmented and hierarchical (1991:282).

Social Space

Lefebvre’s social space is “not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity – their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder" (1991:73). Just as with any reality this space is composed of three concepts: form, structure and function that are open to analysis. It if this tripartite analysis that Lefebvre subjects social space to and as a result what is at first “impenetrable” (1991:147) becomes more coherent, being deciphered and decoded through yet another grid (1991:160).

“Everyone knows what is meant when we speak of a ‘room’ in an apartment, the ‘corner’ of the street, a ‘marketplace’, a shopping or cultural ‘centre’, a public ‘place’, and so on. These terms of everyday discourse serve to distinguish, but not to isolate, particular spaces, and in general to describe a social space” (1991:16). Contained within this social space, at differing scales, are a great diversity of objects (natural and social) and networks (facilitating material and information exchange). Lefebvre refers to a split between how micro and macro levels of the city/space are dealt with by the specialised professions (between ‘architecture’ and ‘urbanism’) and how this should have led to increased levels of diversity. However, for him “repetition has everywhere defeated uniqueness, that the artificial and contrived [the abstract space] have driven all spontaneity and naturalness from the field, and, in short that products have vanquished works” (1991:85). This observation of repetitiveness in the capitalist city echoes the concept of ‘Generic City’ that would emerge in the mid-1990s through Rem Koolhaas’s ‘S,M,L,XL'. Compare for instance the comments of Lefebvre that “there is no need to subject modern towns, their outskirts and new buildings, to careful scrutiny in order to reach the conclusion that everything here resembles everything else” (1991:75) with those of Koolhass that "convergence is possibly only at the shedding of identity" (Koolhaas, 1995:1248).

This social space simultaneously: plays a part among the forces of production; it appears as product of singular character (consumed or productively consumed); it is politically instrumental, facilitating the control of society whilst being a means of production; underpins the reproduction of production relations and property relations; it is equivalent to a set of institutional and ideological superstructures that are not presented for what they are; alternatively it assumes an outward appearance of neutrality, insignificance and emptiness (absence); it contains potentialities – of works and of reappropriation. (1991:349)

Differential Space

If the town then has been blown apart, “has been ‘privatized’ – no less superficially – thanks to urban ‘décor’ and ‘design’, and the development of fake environments” (1991:293) through neocapitalism’s abstract space what is the remedy? Differential space is held up as the solution to the “vast machine, an automation, capturing natural energies and consuming them productively”, that is the city that can be “appropriated to a certain use – to the use of a social group” (1991:345). This differential space then is “the space of what socialism ought to be, a space that doesn’t look superficially different but that is different” (Merrifield, 2006:113). Lefebvre holds up the failure of the Soviet constructivists of 1920-30 as one particular group who failed to produce a new appropriate space that took account of new social relationships (Lefebvre, 1991:59). Differential space then “celebrates the bodily and experiential particularity as well as the nonnegotiable ‘right to difference’” (Merrifield, 2006:113) and “acknowledges the centrality of embodied experience to the production, reproduction and contestation of urban space” (Latham, McCormack, McNarama & McNeil, 2009:111) by forging its own appropriated space. By doing so a new spatial code can be constructed “that is, of a language common to practice and theory, as also to inhabitants, architects and scientists” allowing the recapturing of the “unity of disassociated elements” (Lefebvre, 1991:64).


To bring things to a close then if differential space is not allowed to counter abstract space then Lefebvre can see no alternative other than the continuation of the space’s homogenisation. There must be a forced “radical break between the historical and economic realms” (1991:75) that have controlled the production of space up until this point. The Production of Space “seeks to ‘detonate’ everything, to readdress the schisms and scions” (Merrifield, 2006:104) that are the result of the specialized fragmentation of space – both mental and real – to bring together a unified production of space. Lefebvre is able to make this observations through his epistemological shift that moves from conceiving "things in space" to that of the "actual production of space" - Merrifield holds this up as the "same quantum leap Marx made in his colossal, all-incorporating analysis of the capitalist mode of production" (2006:106). Building upon a Marxist idea of ‘production’ he demystifies the dynamic relationships of captialist commoditization and acknowledges that space itself is an “active moment” that needs to be “actively produced” and not just left to its own devices.


This review was originally prepared for 2nd Caribbean Winter School 2011 Programme.

Lefebvre, H. (1994), Nicholson-Smith, D. trans., The Production of Space, First English Edition (1991 – first French edition 1974), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Merrifield, A. (2006), Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction, First Edition, New York: Routledge
Latham, A., McCormack, D., McNamara, K. & McNeil, D. (2009), Key Concepts in Urban Geography, First Edition, London: Sage Publications Ltd
Koolhaas, R. (1995), S,M,L,XL, First Edition, New York: The Monacelli Press
Aronwitz, S. (2007), Situations Journal, Vol 2, No1, ‘The Ignored Philosopher and Social Theorist: on the Work of Henri Lefebvre’ [Accessed Online] [First Accessed 12th February 2011]
Not Bored (1999), ‘Henri Lefebvre’, [Accessed Online] [First Accessed 12th February 2011]