Henri Lefebvre: Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment

Written in 1973 but not published until 2014 after it was discovered in a private archive, Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment continues Lefebvre’s theory on urban space into the realm of architecture. For Lefebvre, architecture is not about construction (architect as engineer), nor about monuments (architect as artist). Architecture should instead be thought of as the “production of space at a specific level,” from furniture to landscapes.

The text itself was originally a research document into the Spanish Mediterranean leisure industry, specifically Benidorm, exploring the idea of tourist centres as “laboratories of the employment of free time.” With this study Lefebvre is reacting to the left’s ascetic understanding of such resorts and to the austere functionalism of urban planning at the time,  inherited from the Existenzminimum. Instead of functional and minimal, Lefebvre agues for “self-realisation” and “abundance,” while at the same time thinking about means of self-administration and self-management in economic and social terms. Finally there is the question, often bracketed throughout the text, of whether ‘Lefebvrian space’ — purely a space of leisure and self realisation — is at all possible in an overwhelmingly capitalist economy.

There is a long history of ideas concerning the betterment of society through architecture, from Le Corbusier to Ebenezer Howard, although these ideas always involved a top-down approach. Today a concern for user ‘well-being’ is considered best practice, but this responsibility is more and more entrusted to a group of global superstar architects, and so the model remains unchanged. Designers today are more concerned with guaranteeing a significant ‘exchange value’ for their corporate clients, rather than, as Lefebvre would have it, involving future inhabitants of the space to ensure ‘use value’ remains the priority.

But what is it that Lefebvre actually says makes the architecture of jouissance, other than all his negative examples of what it is not? What grounds and directs a production of space distinct from merely functional architecture? In his conclusions, Lefebvre gives two indications: first, the basic anti-functionalism: “No signs!”; second, the ‘theory of moments’: “the space of enjoyment cannot consist of a building … [by] places determined by their functions… Rather it will be … moments, encounters, friendships, festivals … play” (p. 152). In summary, for Lefebvre the architecture of enjoyment is “places and instants of moments” (p. 152).

Henri Lefebvre, Nicole Beaurain, and their daughter Armelle in Sitgès (Catalonia, Spain) in the early 1970s. Photograph by Mario Gaviria. Archive of Nicole Beaurain, Paris, France. Courtesy of Nicole Beaurain.