Using Lefebvre’s triad

Hewitt Avenue, one of the later roads built on the Noel Park estate, North London. I used to live on this street!
Hewitt Avenue, one of the later roads built on the Noel Park estate, North London. I used to live on this street!

I did warn you that this would be a place for testing half-baked theories, so no Black Country history today, sorry. If you’re not up for critical theory and continental philosophy on a Friday morning, back away slowly now.

There’s been plenty of debates over the years about the role of theory within the practice of history. Many historians would agree that history without the theory means very little, but also with Jordanova’s point that history actually hasn’t been a traditionally theoretical discipline – that most theories used within history have been drawn from other fields. Coming in from the social sciences, I can definitely see the overlaps: Marxism, poststructuralism, cultural turns etc. – all shared across the humanities and social sciences.

Happily I have no problem with this, so I’m chewing over a theory by a French thinker, Henri Lefebvre – like Foucault and others, you’d have difficulty pinning him down to one discipline too. Lefebvre is held in particularly high regard by geographers because of his grand conceptualisations of space, but as you might expect, space is something itself that lends itself to interdisciplinarity, whether you believe in a “spatial turn” or not.

Lefebvre's spatial triad
Lefebvre’s spatial triad

Like other French philosophers of the late twentieth century, Lefebvre is extremely hard work to actually read, but thankfully plenty of people have had a go at trying to explain his work in more accessible terms. His lasting contribution to the theory of space is his spatial triad, which handily reduces the fields of thought about space to three ways of thinking about space that act together back-and-forth to produce “social space” from “absolute space” – that which is experienced out of the physical fabric of the world. Lefebvre was a (somewhat unorthodox) Marxist, so his work remains couched in dialectical thinking of negotiation and resistance between the different ideas about a space, and I think this may make it useful for thinking about the space that I’m studying.

Spatial practice

Stourbridge Clock Tower

The first element which contributes to the production of a space (I say first – this is an arbitrary triad without precedence, as we’ll see) is spatial practice, or the “perceived space”. This is the outcome of my choices and practices in space; how I use space. I can use the example of my walk from home into town. I can turn left or right out of my front door to reach town: if I turn left, I come to the main road into Stourbridge, which isn’t all that salubrious or pleasant to walk along. There are high fences surrounding the council low-rises, derelict buildings and roads to cross with no pedestrian crossings. The ring road is traversed either by pelican crossing or underpass. If I turn right, then my route is more pleasant: the low rises are surrounded by greenery, the road is quiet and there is only one option to cross the road, a regularly-stopping pelican crossing. Nevertheless, if I’m making my regular journey to the clocktower in town, I tend to choose the less pleasant route because I likely have a time constraint, and this is quicker and more direct. If I have no time constraint I take an alternative route – spatial practice seems to be about negotiation “between daily reality and urban reality“.

Representational space

Duke William, Stourbridge
Duke William, Stourbridge

This is where it gets more theoretical – this is the space of inhabitants and users, “the passively experienced space, which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate“, a combination of the many signs and symbols by which I understand my world. Think of your favourite pub. Why is it your favourite? Perhaps because you know who you’re going to find there; you know the layout and where you like to plonk yourself; you know where to stand to get the best benefit of the fire; you like the beer labels lined up on the wall, or the horse brasses above the bar; there could be a million reasons. Each of these is related to the space of the pub though – it has a ton of meaning to you, just as it would have slightly different meaning to someone else, and that’s why it’s your favourite pub. It’s related to spatial practice of course: it might be your local or you might have to travel to get there; knowing where to stand to get served on a busy evening is useful, just like being near that fire; and the negotiations you have made to get to the pub or to the warm spot have meanings themselves which may reflect wider concerns and thoughts you may have.

Because of the layers of meaning, Lefebvre refers to this as the “lived space” – life cannot be divorced from meaning and symbol, or reduced to a simple set of negotiations. Although it would make economists lives easier if they were, people just aren’t immediately rational. So this is where history is deciphered and made, where ideals and movements begin – in the realm of meaning.

Representations of space

Of course, if the world were just about our navigation of it and the meaning we ascribe to it, then life would be fairly straightforward. But Lefebvre’s third arm of the triad is his “conceived space”. For Lefebvre, obvious examples of those conceptualising space are planners, urbanists, scientists etc., making maps, models, plans; but above all conceived space gets at the heart of the history of ideology within a space.

Noel Park in 1896. The highlight shows the extent of the ALGDC as built by the 1890s; it would later be extended south.
Noel Park in 1896. The highlight shows the extent of the ALGDC as built by the 1890s; it would later be extended south.

To get at this I’m going to draw on a space I know very well, having lived there and studied it in depth: the Noel Park Estate in Wood Green, North London. As a quick intro, this was built on philanthropic principles, yet by a private company, in the 1870s to provide decent homes for the working classes of London. Like other model dwellings companies, the Artizans’, Labourers’ and General Dwellings Co. built good quality homes to offer to the industrious workers of the Smoke who were trapped in the slums and rookeries of Victorian London. The ALGDC’s USP was its suburban estates, compared to the barrack-esque Peabody blocks, or the more urban estates of the other providers. It was hoped by many at the time that this would provide a market-based solution to the seemingly intractable problem of working class housing, enabling investors to salve their consciences while making a modest return. The proliferation of municipally-built housing in the twentieth century demonstrates just how effective these private concerns were. In keeping with Victorian values of self-help and moral improvement, these houses were monitored carefully – no chance of rent arrears here, or sidelines of working at home, or unsuitable behaviour (hence the pub ban within Noel Park). All these things of course helped the poor to cope with the difficulty of their position – if you have an irregular income then an inflexible landlord, in a location requiring a commute to work, with no option to supplement your income to make ends meet, and the various paternalist, patronising rules made these sorts of estates unpopular with many of the working classes, and completely unfeasible for the poorer ones.

Noel Park then is an excellent example of conceived space. The roads were laid out with wide, tree-lined avenues, built well, and with all other facilities (minus pub) thought of. Houses were bracketed from first to fifth class, with different rents, mostly built keeping classes together on streets named after respectable individuals. There was a new church (High church, of course, in keeping with the “squires in the slums“), recreation ground, train station and so on. The whole effect was intended as improving for the character, but also perpetuating the class basis on which Society was founded – the working classes may be made healthy, but they’d better not get any bigger ideas. No wonder Engels castigated model dwellings in 1872 as a ‘Proudhonist’ tool of the petty bourgeoisie. The estate was highly planned and highly ideological.

Moving to such an estate had some obvious impacts on ones spatial practice. Unless I had work in the area, I would need to commute into London, altering not just my spatial practice, but my financial and temporal practices too, and limiting my area of operation according to the train line. I can no longer work at home of course, or meet with my friends on a regular basis, or spend the evening in the local – all this is frowned upon by the conceivers. The adjustments I make in my spatial practice, for instance shopping, also have an effect: Wood Green turns from a small village into a small town, which then requires the conceivers to route the new Piccadilly line through.

Plans for the five classes of housing on Noel Park
Plans for the five classes of housing on Noel Park

And you can be sure that just as the different types of housing were designed to perpetuate class stratification, I’m not blind to that – I can see the carters and draymen in the small houses in Moselle Ave, and the legal clerks and school teachers in the bigger houses on Gladstone Avenue, and work out where I fit in that. The size and stylings of the house fit into my layers of meaning, just as the lack of pub, the impressive church and the monolithic board school do. My representational space is very different from what I moved from, no doubt, but I’m not without agency – I will still seek to live the lifestyle I wish to live in a sort of unconscious resistance against the conceived space, adjusting my spatial practice to make the point.

So you can see how the three arms of the triad are inseparable and interlocking. I think this could be a very useful analytical tool for assessing historical spaces. It’s especially interesting because it requires a sort of reconstructive phenomenology of the space: ideally I’ll build up my environment through historical reconstruction, then ‘walk through the city’ (pace another important French thinker on the subject, Michel de Certeau) to feel just what it’s like and what it means.


Henri Lefebvre (1991 translation) The Production of Space
John Nelson Tarn (1973) Five Per Cent Philanthropy

14 thoughts on “Using Lefebvre’s triad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s