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The Role of Social Space

December 18th, 2014 by

I recently finished reading an excellent book, Architecture Depends, by a London-based architect and critic, Jeremy Till. A thought-provoking story, Till’s book features a number of passages that make me really stop and think. One passage, in particular, has stuck with me:

(Social) space is a (social) product.

This statement, written not by Jeremy Till but by the philosopher and sociologist Henri LeFebvre, seems simple on the surface, yet the apparent simplicity belies the complex and multiple readings possible with this passage. Dropping the parenthetical “social,” the passage reads “Space is a product” and defines a basic architectural condition: our efforts as architects culminate in the creation of space, which our clients typically consider a product — that is to say, a commodity to be sold or rented (in the private sector) or utilized by a specific audience for a specific function (in the public sector).

It simply acknowledges a basic truth that within the economic system architects participate in, the marshaling of the financial and political capital necessary to construct large-scale projects (such as buildings) necessitates the creation of a product or object at the conclusion of the enterprise. The end product, then, is what justifies the expenditure of capital.

social space

However, this simple statement is completely transformed if read, “Social space is a social product.” This implies that the way we engage with space and interact with one another is fundamentally defined by the social constructs we accept as being part of a distinct community. Understanding these social constructs is critical for architects and placemakers, who need to understand how people interact in specific situations and settings to create effective and appropriate design responses that encourage the types of interactions intended by the design team. Essentially, it’s our job as architects and placemakers to acknowledge and understand the subtle patterns and relationships between people and their environment if we hope to make an impact on these interactions.

social space

LeFebvre’s thoughts on social space tie into a broader mandate he described as “the right to the city”, which he summarized as a “demand… [for] a transformed and renewed access to urban life” in his 1968 book Le Droit à la Ville. LeFebvre forcefully argued that we have the capacity and the right to construct a built (urban) environment that can transform both us as individuals as well as our broader society.

social space

I’m still wrestling with the implications of this seemingly simple statement — (Social) space is a (social) product. In fact, it hangs in my office as a daily reminder to contemplate its meaning. How do you interpret LeFebvre’s statement? In what ways is space a commodity; in what ways is it not? Share your thoughts below.