Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How humans ‘produce’ space

Space is one of the most intimately experienced, and probably least reflected-on phenomena of the human life-world. Like time, it is presupposed in everything we do, although – living, as we do, in an era of what Lyotard and others call “accelerated” time, and therefore constantly being aware of time – we are probably less aware of space than of its temporal twin.

It is nevertheless likely that, when prompted, people would admit that it makes more sense to talk about “spaces” than “space”, given the qualitatively different spaces that we traverse in our daily activities. Domestic spaces differ from public spaces, and even within these distinctive domains, one encounters widely differing spatial modulations. I am familiar with a house, for example, where the living room, flowing into (or out of) the kitchen, is barn-like is shape, with a high ceiling following the slanted angles of the roof, and large wooden beams overhead lending it a somewhat medieval ambience. The bedrooms, bathrooms and study branch out of the central living space, so that spaces of personal privacy feed into (or out of) a communal area. The living space also yields access to a partly closed-in porch which overlooks a sparsely built-up hill, and beyond it, the sea, in this way allowing the inhabitants a satisfying experience of interlinked communal, private, public and natural spaces.

What is it in humans that enable them to come up with these “arrangements” of private and public spaces against the backdrop of a more primordial natural space? Several theorists furnish one with the means to understand these ways in which humans are spatially orientated, or – as Merleau-Ponty might say – “intervolved” with space. Henri Lefebvre, for example, has formulated a tripartite typology of historically and socially “produced” space that disabuses one of the idea that space is always “just there” in monotonously homogeneous form. In a manner that reminds one of Kant’s 18th-century description of space and time as “forms of intuition” that (together with the categories of the understanding, such as causality) constitute human “reality”, Lefebvre regards space as nothing passively given, but, on the contrary, as actively “produced” by human beings.

In his book, The Production of Space (1991: 26-27), Lefebvre claims that a particular social organisation happens via a distinctive “production of (social) space”, and remarks further that such space “…is constituted neither by a collection of things or an aggregate of (sensory) data, nor by a void packed like a parcel with various contents…” It is therefore “…irreducible to a ‘form’ imposed upon phenomena, upon things, upon physical materiality”.

This is to say that space, for Lefebvre, is never self-identically “there” throughout history, but is instead variously “produced” through the actions of human beings. Moreover, the modality of these actions changes over time, so that space must be understood as being fundamentally historical. Instead of conceiving of space as a fixed construct, we should regard it as an incomplete, tension-filled process, always subject to the effects of the (social and political) actions of humans.

From this it should already be clear that space, for Lefebvre, is richly heterogeneous – in fact, he argues (Lefebvre 1991: 33) that such historically and socially produced space may be understood as comprising three interwoven, qualitatively different kinds of spatial production, namely “spatial practices”, “representations of space”, and “representational spaces”. To be able to explain human beings’ epistemic-theoretical access to these different spatial modes, Lefebvre names three cognitive modes, correlative to the three types of produced space, namely “perceived” space, “conceived” space, and “lived” space (Lefebvre 1991: 38-39).

The first – “perceived” space – corresponds to “spatial practices” and marks the abstract spatial counterpart of the actual process of social production (and reproduction), whether this is characterised by disintegration or by cohesion and structure. “Conceived space” – the second kind – corresponds to “representations of space”, or what most people would probably intuitively regard as space in the true sense. It refers to the way in which space is conceptualised (whether it is in life-world terms, Aristotelian, Newtonian, Kantian or Einsteinian relativity theory-terms) and it stands to reason that it is via such conceptualisation (“conceived space”) that one has cognitive access to the other two spatial modes, the “perceived” and the “lived”. The last cognitive category – that of “lived space” – correlates with “representational space(s)”, which denotes not only space in the sense in which it is passively “lived” by inhabitants of space through non-verbal symbols and images, but also as it is described by philosophers and imaginatively appropriated by artists and architects.

It would be easy to relate Lefebvre’s highly suggestive contemplation of historically and socially produced modes of space to Martin Heidegger’s reflections (in “Building Dwelling Thinking”) on the “fourfold”, as well as on “world” and “earth” (contemplated in “The Origin of the Work of Art”) with their distinctive implications for space and for architecture. Briefly, while conceived space and lived space appear to flesh out, specifically in terms of social production, Heidegger’s notion of “world” (as the realm of interpretable cultural practices) and what is subsumed under it of the “fourfold” (“sky”, “mortals” and “divinities”), “perceived space” strikes one as the socially produced counterpart of Heidegger’s “earth”, given its implication of social practices that are always taking place in full view, and are yet, somehow, under the radar of conceptual or imagined appropriations of space in cognitive terms. In this respect, as in the case of Heidegger’s “earth” (and related to what Lacan calls the “real”, or that which surpasses linguistic symbolisation), the perceived space of social practices shows itself only to the extent that it resists scrutiny aimed at complete transparency.

Just as I would claim that Heidegger’s “fourfold”, together with “world” and “earth” represents a touchstone for “sustainability” against which architecture may be judged, I believe that Lefebvre’s tripartite conceptualisation of socially produced spaces further amplifies such a set of criteria. Unless architecture heeds the normative implications of these “legislative criteria”, it would fail to be truly “sustainable”, in so far as there are certain ways of producing space through social action which pervert the very notion of the social in the encompassing, normatively human sense. These include the perverse spaces that have been produced through social and political practices such as German and apartheid-fascism – think of the (anti-)social spaces of German death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau, and the “ethnically cleansed” spaces of apartheid, in both of which architecture played a major role.

On the assumption that students of architecture have chosen to qualify for this profession because they already have a receptivity for the qualitatively different spaces that humans experience at different times, they would benefit from cultivating a more nuanced sensitivity than that with which nature has endowed them, to be able to do justice to varied human spatial needs.

Anyone interested in this topic can read my paper (of which this is a modified excerpt), available on SABINET: ‘Sustainable’ architecture and the ‘law’ of the fourfold. South African Journal of Art History, Vol. 26 (1), 2011, pp. 74-84.

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