Reconstituting the Possible: Lefebvre, Utopia and the Urban Question


  • This article was presented in earlier forms at a session on ‘What is critical urbanism?' at the Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, in London, and also at Lund University, at Roskilde University, and at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. I would like to thank Colin MacFarlane, Tom Slater, Guy Baeten, John Pl⊘ger and Christoph Lindner for organizing the events, and the audiences for comments. I would also like to thank three anonymous IJURR referees. The opportunity to discuss Lefebvre and much more with the Right to the City reading group in New York was inspiring for the article's genesis, and I am very grateful to those who enabled that, in particular Neil Smith, whose generosity, warmth and intellectual energy will be so sorely and so widely missed.


What roles can utopia play in contemporary critical urban studies? The concept has often been treated warily, sidelined or dismissed. Recent years, however, have seen a revival of interest, as writers, activists and artists have sought openings to urban worlds that are different and better. By returning to aspects of the urban thought and practice of Henri Lefebvre in the 1960s and early 1970s, this article challenges common understandings of utopia and clarifies some of its potential uses for critical urban studies today. It explores Lefebvre's emphasis on the possible, and in particular the importance he attached to extending and realizing the possible through struggling for what seems impossible. Rather than being a free-floating or endlessly open project, however, this engagement with the ‘possible-impossible' emerged in critical dialogue with other currents of utopian urbanism, including prospective thought then influential in France. It was also rooted in long- standing concerns with the critique of everyday life and with experimentation through projects with urbanists, architects and others. By attending to these often neglected aspects of Lefebvre's utopianism, a series of provocations emerge for addressing the urban question in ways that take seriously not only what urbanization processes and urban life are but also what they could become and how they might be constituted differently.

‘today more than ever, there is no theory without utopia. Otherwise, a person is content to record what he sees before his eyes.'

Henri Lefebvre (2009 [1970]: 178)

‘in order to extend the possible, it is necessary to proclaim and desire the impossible. Action and strategy consist in making possible tomorrow what is impossible today.'

Henri Lefebvre (1976 [1973]: 36)

‘What does a utopia involve? Is it utopian to believe more in a revolutionary change in society than in the eternal life of a stagnating economic system?'

Constant (1999 [1970]: a33)


Slavoj Žižek, addressing an open forum of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, New York City, on 9 October 2011, declared: ‘They tell you we are dreamers'. On the contrary, he insisted, the ‘true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers; we are the awakening from the dream that is turning into a nightmare'. He was speaking during what he has since termed ‘the year of dreaming dangerously', a year that saw ‘the revival of radical emancipatory politics all around the world' (Žižek, 2012: 127). Others have referred to the protest movements and occupations that spiralled through North Africa, the Middle East and many parts of the world as constituting a potential ‘re-birth of history' (Badiou, 2012). They have heralded them as ‘new global revolutions' (Mason, 2012), and the occupy movements specifically as opening a ‘new global landscape of revolt' (Davis, 2012: 35). Urban spaces have been vital for the forms, expressions and claims of this awakening. From Tunis and Cairo to Madrid, Athens, Manhattan, Oakland, London and numerous other cities, people made visible their dissatisfaction with current ways of living and their desires for alternatives through mobilizing in public squares and streets. Urban spaces were struggled over and appropriated by those challenging dominant capitalist orders and emphasizing democracy, freedom and the being-in-common, as has often been the case during political insurgencies (Harvey, 2012; Swyngedouw, 2012). Yet as the clamour of that year has receded and as neoliberal orders have asserted themselves in many places with renewed vigour, the largely unanticipated eruptions of emancipatory movements and energies have left many questions for those concerned with urban politics and critical urban theory. Among them are those addressing the urban roots of recent movements and revolts, and how they relate to the economic and social crises that have shaken many parts of the capitalist world since 2007. What are their implications for a neoliberalism that some had depicted, following Jürgen Habermas's characterization of modernism, as ‘dead but dominant', while also ‘defeatable' (Smith, 2008)? What are the prospects for sustained urban projects that are post-neoliberal and even post-capitalist? What roles might visions of emancipatory alternatives play today in constructing them, and what is the potential value in this regard of meditating upon and demanding the supposedly impossible?

While I do not address these questions directly here, they provide a context for my interest in utopian perspectives that seek alternatives and ways of reconstituting what is deemed possible. My focus is on Henri Lefebvre, to whom many have referred in recent years in an effort to understand urban struggles and especially the right to the city, a slogan that itself has undergone significant revival over the past decade through radical movements from below as well as through more reformist policy and planning initiatives (Brenner et al., 2012; Harvey, 2012). My turn to Lefebvre is animated by the belief that reconsidering aspects of his utopianism, especially those manifest in his extraordinary urban writings and interventions from around the time of the publications cited at the head of this article, may prove useful for reorienting understandings of the forms and functions of utopia for a critical urban theory that, similarly, seeks to do more than record and describe urban worlds, that combines analysis with opening paths towards alternatives. The first quotation above is from an essay originating from a talk by Lefebvre at the Institut d'Urbanisme in Paris, in 1970. It was, he noted, a thesis that he often had cause to defend, both there and elsewhere. Without utopia, he continued, a person ‘doesn't go too far––he keeps his eyes fixed on so-called reality: he is a realist … but he doesn't think! There is no theory that neither explores a possibility nor tries to discover an orientation' (2009 [1970]: 178). While acknowledging the difficulty of distinguishing between the possible and the impossible once positivist philosophy has been jettisoned, he reiterated: ‘Nevertheless, there is today, especially in the domain that concerns us, no theory without utopia. The architects, like the urban planners, know this perfectly well' (ibid.: 179).

What might be made of his provocation? What is its relevance for urban studies today? In this article I explore the thinking and practices that lay behind his claim as a way of addressing the potential significance of utopia for critical urban theory. Lefebvre's statement no doubt seems scandalous to many, given the neglect if not disrepute into which utopia has sunk in the intervening years. Often viewed as exercises in idealistic dreaming, utopias are disparaged for their supposed chimerical and fanciful qualities. In setting up pre-defined ideals to which the world should be shaped, they are also commonly charged with dangerous authoritarianism. Opposition has been far from confined to conservatives and liberals wishing to maintain the status quo. Radical urban geographers, sociologists, planners and others have often been similarly wary or even dismissive of utopian thought. Given the significance of Marxism for critical urban studies since the 1970s, this is perhaps not surprising. After all, Marx and Engels were famously critical of the utopian socialists. They recognized that proposing blueprints of the good society can serve forces of reaction by harmonizing rather than critically leveraging present conditions, and by constraining future possibilities.

However, against the supposition that utopias necessarily lock down futures, my concern is with how they can embody desire for better futures through insistence that these futures are radically open, that different ways of organizing urban life and space are imaginable and potentially realisable. Lefebvre is part of a varied current of Marxist thinkers––others include Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Agnes Heller, and more recently Fredric Jameson and David Harvey––who, in different ways, have reclaimed the concept of utopia along these lines, and who in the process have revealed Marx to be more ambivalent towards utopianism than is often suggested. Lefebvre can also be related to other critical theorists, especially feminists, who have done much to reconceptualize the notion of utopia and its politics (Levitas, 1990; Hayden and El-Ojeili, 2009). What makes such utopianism vital is its opposition to claims that there is no alternative to dominant urban, political and economic orders. It stands against the loss of ‘the political imagination of a different future' that is a consequence of the concerted violence wrought by neoliberalism since the latter decades of the last century (Smith, 2009: 52). It resists specifically what Mark Fisher (2009: 2) terms ‘capitalist realism', by which he means ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it'. While recent crises and revolts have shaken such ‘realism', they have not dispelled it (Fisher, 2012). The normalization and indeed resurgence of neoliberalism in many parts of the world proceeds through renewed insistence that there is no alternative, this time to so-called austerity measures, designed to feed sovereign debt crises in the wake of vast resources being used to prop up banks and financial institutions (Peck et al., 2012; see also Peck et al., 2009; Baeten, 2012).

Lefebvre was obviously writing under different circumstances, in response to different debates and concerns. As I discuss, there is a need to contextualize the utopian impulses apparent in his work, not only in relation to other theorists and philosophers but also to urban and social movements of the time as well as to his less often discussed involvement with urbanists, planners, architects and artists.1 Doing so brings out different sides to Lefebvre's work. By engaging with aspects of his utopianism, however, my broader aim is to encourage critical urban studies to attend more closely not only to what is––for example, through analyzing and understanding processes of capitalist urbanization, urban restructuring and impacts of crisis––but also to what could be: the potentialities for more socially just, democratic and emancipatory urban spaces and ways of living. The contention is that the urban question, in addition to its focus on interpreting and explaining current urbanization processes, is also about what they could become and how they might be constituted differently. That includes alternatives to capitalist urbanization that have long been the subject of utopian visions and mobilizations within capitalist cities themselves (Pinder, 2005; Miles, 2008; Harvey, 2012).

If this demands greater openness to questions about imagination, desire and dreams alongside the more sober analysis with which urban studies has been more comfortable, then it also requires critical analysis itself to open up to the possible and what could be. Many urban researchers have ‘been hampered by a poverty of imagination, and a reluctance to use their work to dream the urban impossible and harvest that future in the present' (Chatterton, 2010: 235). In making this claim, Paul Chatterton asserts: ‘Social justice and equality, and the dreams we have of a better world, lie in exploring and making real what currently seems impossible, unknown or out of our reach' (ibid.). He thus advocates a ‘militant utopianism' concerned with the ‘urban impossible' that is ‘simultaneously within, against and beyond the current urban condition' (ibid.: 236). A risk of demanding the impossible is that it can play into the hands of those who say it is literally that, referring to what is essentially not possible or that has ‘no place' (to use one etymological root of utopia). What is needed, then, as Chatterton's reference to ‘what currently seems impossible' indicates, is a sense of the contingency of the possible and the impossible, which are open to contestation (see also Levitas, 2008). It is for that reason that I write of reconstituting the possible, for what is at stake is an active project of extending its boundaries that is different from accepting possibilities as they currently appear.

In the following I address these themes through the lens offered by Lefebvre and in particular through what he termed the ‘possible-impossible'. Before discussing that latter term, however, I introduce in the next section the contentious nature of Lefebvre's utopianism, his rejection of the pejorative connotations of the term, and his operation of ‘transduction' or ‘reflection on the possible'. In the third section I discuss how his urban studies were animated by an exploration of the possible in dialectical relation with the real and the impossible. The subsequent sections ground this in relation to his critical engagements with other forms of utopian urbanism at the time, his critiques of everyday life, and his experimental approach to utopias in relation to urban and architectural practice. In the conclusions I draw out some implications for critical urban studies by returning to the politics of the urban (im)possible.

Utopianism in question

When Manuel Castells initially set out his Marxist perspective on the urban question that had such profound influence on urban studies, not least as it developed through the pages of this journal, among his targets was the recent work of Lefebvre, who was his former adviser at Nanterre University. While acknowledging Lefebvre's importance as one of the greatest contemporary theorists of Marxism and of current urban problems, Castells was particularly disparaging about his ‘metaphysical predilections' and the ‘the resumption of millenarist utopias' in his thinking (1977 [1972]: 89). He criticized the ‘spontaneism' and ideological nature of Lefebvre's urban theses, claiming that his analyses ‘are lost in the flood of a metaphilosophy of history' (ibid.: 92). On subsequently loosening his Althusserian structuralist frame en route to abandoning Marxism altogether, Castells reappraised his criticisms of Lefebvre and wrote of his incomparable significance as a philosopher of the city. However, he still cast Lefebvre's speculative philosophical perspective as too detached from empirical matters, and he likened his remarkable intuitive insight, not altogether favourably, to that of an artist more than a researcher (Castells, 1997: 145; see also Castells, 1983: 300; Merrifield, 2002: 114).

If Castells' early intervention had a considerable impact on Lefebvre's reception within Anglophone urban studies, being translated into English years before the latter's urban writings, then a more sympathetic appraisal came in the last chapter of David Harvey's Social Justice and the City (1973). Harvey, having registered reservations about what he regarded as the overstretched nature of some of Lefebvre's formulations, noted approvingly Lefebvre's hypothesis concerning possibilities immanent in the present. Sounding a utopian note of his own, he wrote: ‘Many hopeful and utopian things have been written about the city throughout its history. We now have the opportunity to live many of these things provided we can seize upon the present possibilities' (ibid.: 313). His call for a ‘genuinely humanizing urbanism', and for a revolutionary transformation ‘from an urbanism based in exploitation to an urbanism appropriate for the human species' (ibid.: 314), continues to inspire. Yet what would constitute such a humanizing urbanism, and how could its potential contours be imagined? Those questions soon faded from the agendas of most critical urbanists. Nor were they at the forefront of Harvey's own subsequent work, at least until he returned directly to questions of utopia and to social and spatial justice more than two decades later (Harvey, 1996; 2000).

Harvey's long reticence to take utopian positions and to address possible alternatives in developing his critiques of the urban process under capitalism was no doubt shaped by conditions of the time, but it was also symptomatic of a wariness around such matters that has been widespread within urban studies. In the case of many critical and Marxist urbanists, it reflects an understandable anxiety about the escapist, reactionary or authoritarian role of utopias, and a desire to prioritize instead the analyses of contradictions and crises as well as the political openings they provide. It nevertheless makes all the more striking Lefebvre's response, when imagining an interlocutor accosting him as utopian: why not? Does utopian not designate anyone who wishes for something different, who refuses the inevitability of the existent and who seeks an opening elsewhere? Noting how criticisms, protests and demands for alternatives are frequently dismissed by apologists of the status quo as utopian, Lefebvre stated (1984 [1968]: 74–75): ‘Such was the objection raised against Marx, Fourier and Saint-Simon in the nineteenth century, for reflection necessarily involves utopia if it is not content to reflect and ratify compulsions, blindly accept authority and acknowledge circumstances; it implies an attempt to interfere with existing conditions and an awareness of other policies than those in force'.

Lefebvre therefore denied utopia's inherently pejorative connotations, or rather sought to overturn them by shifting how the concept was understood. To that end he sometimes distinguished between ‘utopist' and ‘utopian'. In contrast to abstract and transcendental ideal plans for living associated with the former, he favoured more ‘concrete' explorations of what was possible that were rooted in everyday life and space, a distinction previously made by Bloch. Lefebvre interrogated reality in terms of what could be without simply escaping from or belittling the real, as he once accused the surrealists of having done (Lefebvre, 1991a [1947]: 110–11). As a form of utopianism this did not involve prescribing an already fully formed ideal as the term utopia is often construed and, indeed, derided; nor was it, as Castells claimed, pure philosophical speculation. Rather, it was based on a dialectical process of transduction. The category or the concept of the real, so Lefebvre argued, must not be allowed to obscure that of the possible. Instead, the possible should be a theoretical instrument for exploring the real. He presented this critique as attempting ‘to open a path to the possible, to explore and delineate a landscape that is not merely part of the “real”, the accomplished, occupied by existing social, political and economic forces. It is a utopian critique because it steps back from the real without, however, losing sight of it' (2003a [1970]: 6–7). Addressing the potential realization of the urban in this way enables critical reflection back on tendencies within the present, which are addressed in terms of the emancipatory futures that they harbour or suppress.

Lefebvre's texts continue to attract bemusement and hostility, seemingly as much for their style as their content and political drive. Yet his heterodox Marxism is now much more widely recognized as a vital source for formulating the urban question. As interest in Lefebvre's urban writings has dramatically expanded, their orientation to the possible has found a more receptive audience and has been deployed productively in discussions about rights to the city, democracy, and social and spatial justice.2 A recent ‘third wave' of Lefebvre studies within Anglo-American scholarship, moving beyond more narrow political economy or cultural studies poles to explore the complexities of his ‘open-ended, passionately engaged and politically charged form of Marxism' (Kipfer et al., 2013: 116; see also Goonewardena et al., 2008), provides further opportunities for thinking through his utopianism, including in relation to more recent reconceptualizations of utopia as well as to other strands of critical theory and Western Marxism. While addressing that wider theoretical positioning is beyond the scope of this article, in the sections that follow I draw out qualities of Lefebvre's utopianism that remain particularly significant and inspiring for critical approaches to urbanism. In this I share Neil Smith's view, against Castells', that one of the attractions of Lefebvre's texts is their expression of ‘an inveterate hopefulness and openness toward the future', and that one of his strengths is his ‘indefatigable optimism that a different world is possible' (Smith, 2003: viii, xviii). Smith rightly notes how this optimism is all the more remarkable for appearing to arise ‘directly from his philosophy and from his social theory rather than from a detached, facile political ebullience' (ibid.: xviii). But to appreciate its distinctiveness it is necessary to understand not only the central importance Lefebvre accorded to the urban, but also the ways in which his utopianism was forged through critical and collaborative engagements with urban and architectural practices.

Urban revolution and the possible-impossible

When Castells dismissed ‘the resumption of millenarist utopias' in Lefebvre's thinking, uppermost in his mind was the latter's book The Urban Revolution, published in 1970, and its references to the constitution of an ‘urban society'. Lefebvre insisted that this urban society was not an ‘accomplished reality' but ‘a horizon, an illuminating virtuality' (2003a [1970]: 16–17). Posed in contrast to terms then current, such as post-industrial, leisure or consumer society, it spoke to a long-term process of urbanization through a sequence of fields and urban forms, its focus falling on the most recent ‘critical zone' characterized by the implosion/explosion of the city into a generalized urban fabric and by the supersession of the problematic of industrialization by that of the urban. Lefebvre's concern was not with conventional historical analysis of urban transformations but with identifying tendencies and orientations, continuities as well as ruptures or relative discontinuities, in which the virtual enables examination of the realized, and in which the ‘blind fields' that prevent the emergent reality of the urban from being adequately understood are challenged. While aspects of his text struck many at the time as outlandish, it is remarkable how prescient some of its formulations now seem. Notable among them are its hypothesis about the complete urbanization of the world and the significance it ascribes to the ‘world city' (ville mondiale), to use the term he attributes to Maoism; its appreciation of the street as a site of play, festival and revolutionary ferment; its concern with how warfare as well as political revolt become inscribed in urban space; and its insights into the significance of the conquest of space for capitalism, including through real-estate speculation and the operations of a ‘second circuit' of capital paralleling that of industrial production. Sketchily presented, that last thesis was one that Harvey initially treated warily but developed in his own studies of capitalist urbanization over the following decade (Harvey, 1985).

Lefebvre's concept of urban society was an attempt to open a path, a trajectory, at a time fraught with danger. It was oriented towards a different space and a different life whose realization would involve the supersession of the industrial period's ‘reality principle' of work that ‘fetishized productivity and the destruction of nature', by the ‘pleasure principle' and jouissance (2003a [1970]: 32, 85). Also critical was an anticipated move from uniform-homogeneous space-time to the simultaneously ‘differentiated-integrated' or the ‘differential' (ibid.: 37). Elsewhere he contrasted ‘minimal' or induced difference, in the form of the expression of existing individual and group identities, to ‘maximal' or produced difference that ‘points to festive, creative, affective, unalienated, fully lived forms of plurality and individuality that assume rich social relations unfettered by forms of “indifference” (individualism, pluralism, imitation, conformism, naturalized particularism)' (Kipfer, 2008: 203; see also Lefebvre, 1970). That maximal difference is, as Stefan Kipfer notes, ‘incompatible with the alienations of private property, the state-like, decorporealized knowledge, linguistic abstraction, phallocentrism, and neo-colonialism' (ibid.). But there was nothing inevitable about the direction and outcome of urban revolution, and Lefebvre highlighted how it could take different paths, open to critiques from both left and right. As he was writing in the wake of the uprisings of 1968, when those events were already being buried under an avalanche of mystification and distortion, his optimism could hardly fail to be tempered by an intense awareness of difficulties and challenges ahead. The trajectory he outlined was recast in subsequent writings, specifically in The Production of Space (1991b [1974]) that charted a sequence from absolute to abstract space, with prospects for a differential space to be produced (see also Gregory, 1994).

The importance that Lefebvre attached to the disjuncture between the actual and the possible is characteristic of much critical urban theory that seeks to recover and reappropriate possibilities embedded or repressed within current conditions (Brenner, 2012: 19). In Lefebvre's case, this demanded a historical understanding of conditions of possibility as well as opening them up to what could be (Elden, 2004: 243). Powerful forces limit or suppress what seems possible, constituting it in terms of current conditions and presenting what is beyond them as unrealistic and utopian in the derogatory sense. Lefebvre argued that to realize the possible in the form of the urban ‘we must first overcome or break through the obstacles that currently make it impossible' (2003a [1970]: 17). Hence the importance of the ‘possible-impossible', as he argued: ‘Political analysis of a situation has no bearing on the “real”, in the trivial and most frequently used sense of the term, but on the dialectical relationship of the three terms: the real, the possible, and the impossible, so as to make possible what appeared to be impossible' (ibid.: 145). Yet he also cautioned: ‘Any analysis that approaches the real must accept political opportunism. Any analysis that diverges and moves too close to the impossible (toward the utopic in the banal sense of the term) is doomed to failure' (ibid.). Struggle and contestation need to embrace all three terms, extending the possible by proclaiming and desiring what is currently defined as impossible. It was during the revolutionary struggles of May 1968 that the walls of Paris were inscribed with the slogan: ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible'. As people reclaimed spaces that had been taken from them, Lefebvre heralded the events as a ‘concrete utopia' (1965 [1968]: 118). He drew certain parallels with the Paris Commune of 1871, when people took back the city through an urban revolution and when ‘opaque veils of customary social life' were rent asunder through a ‘basic will to change the world and life as it is, and things as they are' (Lefebvre, 2003b [1965]: 189). During that brief period, he wrote, there was a ‘vital and absolute wager on the possible and the impossible' (ibid.).

When all are utopians: contesting urban visions

Lefebvre's outline of urban society in The Urban Revolution (2003a [1970]) has proved stimulating for urban theorists developing critical responses to recent processes of urbanization. Many have remarked on its prescience in an era of ‘planetary urbanization' and global movements for change (for example, Cunningham, 2005; Merrifield, 2006; Brenner, 2012). Although the book and Lefebvre's other writings around that time have generated considerable commentary, less often discussed are dialogues with contemporary as well as earlier modernist and avant-garde urban practices that run through their pages. Lefebvre made clear that utopias are not inherently critical, progressive or subversive, and that traces of utopianism are found in all kinds of forms and materials. This was particularly apparent at the time in urbanism and architecture. The same year that The Urban Revolution was published, the architect Pierre Riboulet, writing in the first issue of Éspace et Société, founded by Lefebvre and Anatole Kopp, asked rhetorically: ‘Who doesn't have a drawer overflowing with designs for an ideal city?' (1970, cited in Busbea, 2007: 100). Lefebvre charted a path that, in contrast to more recent times, abounded with utopian proposals, plans, images and schemes. ‘Who is not a utopian today?' he asked himself a couple of years before. ‘All are utopians, including those futurists and planners who project Paris in the year 2000 and those engineers who have made Brasília!' His point was that there were multiple utopianisms. ‘Would not the worst be that utopianism which does not utter its name, covers itself with positivism and on this basis imposes the harshest constraints and the most derisory absence of technicity?' (Lefebvre, 1996 [1968]: 151).

Lefebvre therefore demonstrated the need to draw out and examine the utopian impulses at play within urban plans and schemes, the visions of the good life and the good city that they depend upon and promote. This included schemes whose utopianism was denied; indeed, especially those cases. His concern may be likened to what Ruth Levitas (2007: 61–64), in a discussion of utopia as a method, terms its ‘archaeological' dimension. By that she refers to excavating and uncovering the implicit utopia or utopias buried within a project or programme. This involves piecing together fragments, completing missing elements, and identifying and interpolating silences. Although her focus is on the utopian aspects of political programmes, both right and left, it is relevant for examining the interests and ideologies that underpin urban projects. Among them are those that appeal to the public interest, such as the state spatial planning that played such an important role in shaping the landscapes of France within which Lefebvre was working, as well as more recent conceptions of the good city based on neoliberal models of competitive globalization. Visions targeted by Lefebvre included modernist planning ideals formulated in earlier decades and adapted for the production of compartmentalized and ordered new towns and grands ensembles in France during the 1950s and 1960s, and the ‘world of the pavillon', an individual urban or suburban house whose utopian level was ‘mythic' and in need of analysis (Lefebvre, 2003c [1966]: 132–33). They also spanned a host of speculative, predictive and future-oriented technologically driven programmes associated with and seeking to direct French modernization, in particular those concerned with technically forecasting the likely or what became known as the ‘prospective' (Busbea, 2007: 15–16).

The latter programmes, based on scientific attempts to imagine future technological and social changes, typically extrapolated from situations the fundamentals of which they left unquestioned. Their reductive technical utopianism and shaky premises were skewered by Lefebvre in ‘Perspective or Prospective?', a chapter in Right to the City (1996 [1968]), while he later criticized a science of space that ‘embodies at best a technological utopia, a sort of computer simulation of the future, or of the possible, within the framework of the real––the framework of the existing mode of production' (Lefebvre, 1991b [1974]: 9). It was not only in capitalist states that such impoverished urban imaginations were to be found, for when socialism attempts to imagine or predict the future, it ‘provides us merely with an improved form of labor' and ‘soon finds itself confronted by the urban problematic, armed with nothing but childish concepts and ideologies' (Lefebvre, 2003a [1970]: 110). Even the remarkable architectural experimentation that followed the Russian Revolution, to which Lefebvre was often drawn, informed in particular by Anatole Kopp's studies, had failed to found a significantly distinct conception of the urban compared with that of capitalist societies (ibid.: 111). Far from opening paths to the possible, then, in Lefebvre's view urbanism ‘masks a situation' and ‘blocks a view of the horizon' (ibid.: 160). It ‘prevents thought from becoming a consideration of the possible, a reflection of the future' (ibid.: 161). Yet he argued that even a ‘deformed image of the future and the possible' could be productive, containing telling ‘traces and indexes' (ibid.). As he put it: ‘The utopian part of urbanist projects (generally masked by technology and the abuse of technicism) is not without interest as a precursor symptom, which signals a problematic without explaining it' (ibid.). This underlined the importance of reading prospective urban imaginaries critically and symptomatically, attending to their blockages and failures as much as to their positive content. It also demanded researching how utopian visions and impulses become grounded in particular places and forms, and how their spaces become adapted, appropriated and lived. Important in the latter regard were the urban research projects and discussions in which Lefebvre participated during the 1960s and early 1970s, among them those studying practices of dwelling through the Institut de Sociologie Urbaine (ISU), which he co-founded and directed (Stanek, 2011).

Along with the Situationists, with whom he had an intense association from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Lefebvre understood urbanism to be a strategic instrument through which capitalism and the state manipulate urban reality and produce a controlled space. He was highly critical of the alienating spaces of the new towns and grands ensembles that concretized hierarchical capitalist social relations, that reduced inhabitation to habitat, and that constrained encounter, play and spontaneity. Yet he insisted that, to avoid only conjuring images of despair, critiques of unfulfilment and alienation implied a continuous appeal to what is possible and that this, in turn, should be centred on the everyday (Lefebvre, 2002 [1961]: 45–46). A concern with uncovering the potentialities of better futures currently dormant or repressed characterized his dialectical ‘everyday utopianism' (Gardiner, 2013). This involved attending to the debased conditions of everyday life under capitalist modernity as they have become colonized by capital, as well as to spaces of desire, resistance, struggle and possibility within them that point towards their potential transformation. Crucial to discerning these possibilities was interrupting the routinized and taken-for-granted, for example through what Lefebvre termed the ‘moment'. Through such moments of presence within everyday life, glimpses of a transformed world could open up.

Lefebvre's approach contrasted to those prospective models in which utopia ‘attaches itself to numerous more or less distant and unknown or misunderstood realities, but no longer to real and daily life' (Lefebvre, 1996 [1968]: 163). In such cases, the ‘gaze turns away, leaves the horizon, loses itself in the clouds, elsewhere' (ibid.). Through emphasizing everyday life and the right to the city, Lefebvre envisioned the city instead as an oeuvre, a disalienated collective work. This would be a ‘place of encounter, priority of use value, inscription in space of a time promoted to the rank of a supreme resource among all resources' (ibid.: 158). His utopianism arose from everyday life, from the streets and from public squares; it found value in festival, in revolutionary movements and moments such as the Paris Commune, the dream of which he believed needed rehabilitating along with a renewed idea of creative praxis (Lefebvre, 1965: 40). His open conceptions of possibility and totality speak to recent efforts to rethink utopia in more process-oriented ways and, against a background of diverse contemporary political struggles, this ‘dialectical utopianism continues to provide an extraordinarily useful orientation for the activities of radical scholars, even in a dramatically different political conjuncture' (Brenner, 2008: 245–46).

While acknowledging Lefebvre's ‘devastating critique' of dominant conceptualizations and definitions of space, David Harvey registers his frustration at how he leaves undefined ‘the actual spaces of any alternative' and refuses ‘specific recommendations' (2000: 183). According to Harvey, there is a need for specificity and closure. To fail to engage with the closure necessary for materializing a space and for realizing an alternative in this way is ‘to embrace an agonistic romanticism of perpetually unfulfilled longing and desire' (ibid.; cf. Minuchin, 2012). While Harvey's claim rightly gives pause to readings of Lefebvre that simply celebrate openness to the future, it neglects aspects of his urban thought and practice, including how he expressed related concerns himself. Lefebvre called for a ‘total project' that ‘expressly proposes a radically different way of living' (1976 [1973]: 34). He imagined this not as a plan or programme but as a path. He noted, however, that transgressions, while able to point towards such a project, cannot realize it for they ‘leave it in the realms of ideality (as opposed to reality) and of desire, which turns out to be “mere” desire, i.e. verbal desire' (ibid.: 34–35). As he asserted elsewhere, a transformation of the everyday requires certain conditions if it is to endure. He stated: ‘to change life, society, space, architecture, even the city must change' (Lefebvre, 1987 [1972]: 37). It was in response to that challenge that he participated in a range of urban practices and advanced the idea of ‘experimental utopia', as I discuss in the next section.

Experimental utopias: architecture, space and politics

If Lefebvre's understanding of utopia ‘precluded any totalitarian synthesis or controlling a priori vision', as Mary McLeod (1997: 16) argues, then it was not endlessly open. Lefebvre emphasized the significance of ‘proposing alternative possibilities, conducting endless experiments, and constructing new futures', construing these as means by which ‘individuals and groups could actively initiate the process of social transformation' (ibid.). Lefebvre was intrigued by the prospects of an experimental approach towards utopia. He noted how this included studying ‘its implications and consequences on the ground', for example, through considering the criteria by which places are judged ‘successful', and ‘the times and rhythms of daily life which are inscribed and prescribed in these “successful” spaces favourable to happiness' (Lefebvre, 1996 [1968]: 151). In this and much more, Lefebvre was informed by his close involvement with a range of urban and architectural institutions, networks and practitioners, among them academic departments and interdisciplinary research institutes such as the ISU; numerous competition juries and projects; contemporaneous modernists and avant-gardes; and collaborative urban planning projects (Stanek, 2011). Lefebvre was writing his main urban texts at a time of increasing attacks on state urbanism, from both left and right. His Marxist critiques of urban planning and architectural functionalism played an important role, with aspects being taken up and institutionalized by planning authorities themselves, although often without attribution (ibid.: 68–80). But he was also drawn more positively by projects working across theory and practice.

Experimental utopia was a term Lefebvre presented while assessing a new city designed by Ernst Egli and others in the Fürtal valley, near Zurich. The concept referred to ‘the exploration of human possibilities, with the help of the image and the imagination, accompanied by an incessant critique and an incessant reference to the given problematic in the “real” ' (Lefebvre, 1961: 192). He introduced it alongside transduction as a contribution towards a new vocabulary and methodology that might avoid two pitfalls in conceiving the possible: one that entailed projecting the future based on circumstances already accomplished, registering and extrapolating from the given; the other a priori construction and an abstract utopia, which attends to ideal cities disconnected from specific situations. Lefebvre's interest in experimental utopias was fuelled by the widespread challenges arising in Europe to modern movement orthodoxies. In France, much architectural avant-gardism during the 1960s was prospective, involving technology-centred efforts to manage and channel processes through the projection of new spatial forms. In prominent cases such as that of architect Yona Friedman, who had moved to Paris from Hungary in 1957, flexible space-frames raised from the ground would facilitate circulation and allow the endless rearrangement of environments (see Figure 1). Lefebvre was drawn by the promise of mobility and creative adaptation within some of these projects, seeing in their dynamism and ephemerality a powerful contrast to segregated and repressive planning schemes. Inspired by recent architectural innovations enabled by technological developments, he looked towards the mobilization of space, a ‘space taken over by the ephemeral', with places becoming ‘multifunctional, polyvalent, transfunctional' and ‘where groups take control of spaces for expressive actions and constructions, which are soon destroyed' (Lefebvre, 2003a [1970]: 130–31). He sometimes cited the case of the Montreal Expo of 1967. Lefebvre also noted how Friedman's work specifically, with its flexible and portable units, might seem to suggest a generalization and democratization of the nomadic lifestyles of the super wealthy (ibid.: 95).

Figure 1.

Yona Friedman, Spatial City, aerial perspective, 1958, ink on tracing paper, 21.3 × 27.3 cm (source: The Museum of Modern Art/Scala, Florence, gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, digital image © 2012, reproduced by permission)

Lefebvre's architectural references might on occasions seem surprising, the spectacular Montreal Expo being a case in point. But he ‘never abandoned the ambition of changing the world', nor separated aesthetic dimensions ‘from real practices and appropriation' (Kouvelakis, 2008: 722). He criticized the idea that the invention of spatial forms could provide adequate solutions to the urban problematic, for example, disputing assumptions that mobile architectures were in themselves liberating. Without addressing social relations and their transformation, these projects represented a superficial mobility, one that was an extreme form of individualism (Lefebvre, 2003a [1970]: 97–98). Of particular concern to Lefebvre was the way they paradoxically tightened constraints as the mobility they vaunted was held in a frame whose foundations were left unquestioned, and as the urban became increasingly programmed with contradiction and class struggle supposedly transcended. The issue, then, was not simply that otherwise radical utopian schemes were co-opted by the state and dominant social forces, nor that they have since been recuperated by the machinations of the culture industries. Rather, Lefebvre pointed to a significant congruence of interests such that many French projects for spatial or prospective urbanism during the 1960s, and by extension others like them, might be seen ‘not as revolutionary utopias but as programmatic expressions of a particular spatial culture' (Busbea, 2007: 104).

However, despite Lefebvre's wariness of technocratic visions, he did not renounce utopian experimentation. Among utopian projects from that decade which he viewed more favourably were Ricardo Bofill's City in Space, and Constant's New Babylon (Lefebvre, 1975: 246–47). Lefebvre visited Constant in Amsterdam during the 1960s as the latter, following his resignation from the Situationist International, developed his project for a transformed urban life and world in which people would be liberated from work and able to freely create their environments. Constant later recalled these encounters, their discussions about ‘moments', their shared interests in Marx and in revolutionary events such as the Paris Commune, and how he read Lefebvre's books, which were still prominent on his shelves.3 Lefebvre, in turn, frequently referred to the significance of Constant's work for his own ideas, for example, for thinking about the construction of situations in relation to ambiance and emotion, and for addressing a post-capitalist urban society and how technologies, practices and spaces could be re-appropriated towards that end (Lefebvre, 1975: 157; see also Ross, 1997; Kofman and Lebas, 2000). Lefebvre described New Babylon as a ‘concrete utopia' based on potentialities within current material conditions that were not yet realized (1975: 243–44). Constant, for his part, was ambivalent about describing his project as utopian because of the term's common negative connotations and, like many utopians, insisted on its realizability (Pinder, 2005). However, his commitment to revolutionary transformation and his opposition to designing for current conditions distinguished his project from many architectural and megastructural schemes commonly associated with it, including by Friedman, with whom he debated and exhibited, but whom he criticized for lacking a sufficient social critique.

Cities must be changed not only at the practical and technical levels but also at the social and cultural, so Constant wrote to Friedman, and he contrasted the latter's work to his own efforts to envisage ‘a type of city completely different from the functional city of today', one that would involve ‘a new use of social space' and ‘the integration of collective creativity in everyday life' (1961). He argued that Friedman was neglecting possibilities for a transformed urban life based on freedom and play that were opening up in an era of automation, something he envisaged through the figure of Homo Ludens (see Figure 2). In an essay on urban planning published the same year as Lefebvre's The Urban Revolution, Constant disputed how the lines between the utopian and the realistic are drawn (Constant, 1999 [1970]: a33–34). He asked: What is the true meaning of utopia, and has it become a derogatory label for any urbanist and planner who declines to comply with government and business directives? Is it more utopian to put trust in revolution than to assume that society will forever remain the same, and to develop plans for that projected future? Are there options beyond the dilemma of either operating within current conditions and becoming complicit with them, or rejecting them and remaining in the domain of the ‘merely' imaginary or utopian? He concluded by refusing those categories as currently defined and advocating a revolutionary project, towards which his New Babylon was meant to contribute.

Figure 2.

Constant, Homo Ludens, 1966, pencil on paper, 134.5 × 138.5 cm (source: Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, © DACS 2012, reproduced by permission)

If Lefebvre and Constant shared perspectives, the former was more open towards efforts to build within current conditions and often collaborated to that end. He attracted ire from some quarters for doing so, for example, from the Situationists who, in their journal, cited his article on ‘experimental utopia' (1961) to argue that his criticisms of the plan for Fürtal failed to go sufficiently far in questioning the social framework within which its architects and sociologists operated. They argued that authentic liberation depended upon contesting the whole of society, pointing to the ambiguity in his title: ‘in order to really correspond to its project, the methodology of experimental utopia must obviously embrace the totality, that is, its implementation ought not to lead to a “new urbanism” but to a new use of life, a new revolutionary praxis' (SI, 1996 [1961]: 110). Lefebvre himself wrestled with questions about the prospects of radical architecture and urbanism vis-à-vis wider social transformation. He noted that urbanism would come from the revolution, not the other way round, just as, pace Walter Gropius, it ‘is not the architect who will “define a new approach to life”' but rather ‘the new approach to life that will enable the work of the architect' (2003a [1970]: 99). But in presenting it as a dialectical process he kept space open for critical experimentation and intervention.

Many radical critics, especially around 1968, nevertheless saw that space as receding, and increasingly viewed utopian architectural and urban projects as complicit with, rather than critical of, dominant interests. Manfredo Tafuri (1976 [1973]) famously understood utopian architectures––even those of the oppositional avant-gardes––in ideological terms as contributing to capitalist development. Others, such as the theorists, architects and urbanists of Utopie, founded in Paris in 1967, who included Lefebvre's former assistants Jean Baudrillard and Hubert Tonka, and who were initially inspired by him as well as by the Situationists, also targeted ideologies of technocratic planning and tools of urban repression and alienation. In the first issue of their magazine, an anonymous article stated: ‘It is only through dialectical utopia that we can elaborate, outside and within the present system, an urban thought' (Utopie, 2011a [1967]: 63). Early on their analyses were accompanied by, if not bound into, architectural experimentation involving inflatables and pneumatic architectures that challenged conventional forms through the construction of events and situations. The focus later shifted to theory and critique and, if they retained an interest in utopias, these were oriented less towards better futures than to exposing what cities lacked. Their utopian reference points tended to be derived from the past, as suggested by the title of one of their collective articles: ‘Utopia is not written in the future tense' (Utopie, 2011b [1969]). In their view, a common function of utopias was, as the Situationists had argued in relation to New Babylon after Constant's resignation from the group, to integrate people into the dominant social and spatial order, and so to consolidate it. As a consequence, they pledged neither to propose a utopia nor to acquiesce to one, asserting: ‘The only “utopia” is the complete emancipation of the proletariat' (ibid.: 242). They also sought to escape from institutionalization by repudiating an ideology of positivity, and by refusing ‘to propose concrete “critical” solutions that would only solidify the existing order' (ibid.: 244).

Lefebvre largely kept his distance from Utopie, despite his influence on its foundation and his contribution of a substantial essay to its magazine (Lefebvre, 2011 [1969]). He regarded its position as a ‘negative utopia' in which everything is constrained by the dominant mode of production. In contrast, he reaffirmed his belief in the capacity of theoretical thought, with imagination, to break through limits and ‘to clear a path leading to real rupture' (Lefebvre, 1975: 246). His continuing faith in the ability to make a difference through urban intervention was apparent in various projects and collaborations, including an entry for the International Competition for the New Belgrade Urban Structure Improvement that he wrote with the architects Serge Renaudie and Pierre Guilbaud in 1986. Regretting the need to be ‘very realistic', they worked with the given situation through principles of complexity, imbrication and respect of specificities through a design that sought to enhance the capacity of the population for self-management or autogestion (Renaudie et al., 2009 [1986]: 6, 23–8). Despite the competition stipulation that the focus remain on spatial planning, they referred from the start to the ‘right to the city' that ‘presupposes a transformation of society' and that ‘leads to active participation of the citizen-citadan in the control of the territory, and in its management, whose modalities remain to be specified' (ibid.: 2). They found in Yugoslavia, with its history of such self-management, a space conducive to posing ‘the problematic of New Urban' (ibid.: 3). Their refusal to offer a fixed and definitive plan, and their insistence on social and political critique, is a likely explanation for why their proposal was rejected at the first stage of the competition (Blagojevic, 2009: 123).

From these debates, which have historical and geographical specificities that need further elaboration than can be undertaken here, arise questions that run through much utopian thought and practice concerned with intervening in present urban conditions. How can projects provide openings to different spaces and ways of living? How can they enable ambitions of social and spatial transformation? Must they be compromised by working with processes of capital accumulation and state power, even co-opted for other ends (Harvey, 2000)? Are there ways beyond the dilemma of complicity on the one hand, and the ‘merely' utopian and impossible on the other? What further lessons may be drawn from the recuperation of earlier radical groups and the ‘strange respectability' they have accrued in the society of the spectacle (Swyngedouw, 2002)? Without offering easy solutions or escaping from such difficulties, Lefebvre's dialectical utopianism––his attempts to engage the possible-impossible through understanding urban revolution as a mutual transformation of space and social life, combined with efforts to explore possibilities though interventions in the present––is a compelling attempt to move beyond impasses that threaten the search for the possible.


In the prevailing anti-utopian or post-utopian climate of recent decades, it is not surprising that utopian dimensions of Lefebvre's urban thought have frequently been sidelined or met with incomprehension or derision. Equally it is understandable that, for those seeking to challenge the closing of political horizons, the dynamic and lyrical qualities of his approach have often proved alluring, if at times prone to being decontextualized and romanticized. In exploring aspects of his work here, my aim has not been to fix his positions and definitions, a strategy that would in any case be misguided for a writer whose Marxism was plural and open (Elden, 2004: 18) and whose style has been said to be ‘between flexibility and vagueness, where thinking is like strolling, where thinking is rhapsodic' (Trebitsch, 1991: xi). Nor have I sought simply to project his ideas into different historical and geographical circumstances. Instead I have drawn out utopian lines of thought and practice that productively challenge and re-orient common ways of thinking about utopia within urban studies and, in the process, can contribute to critical thinking today that, in its own ways, refuses to acquiesce to the inevitability of current conditions. In concluding, I highlight six points of particular significance for addressing the urban question.

The first is the need to attend critically to utopian impulses currently at play within conceptions of cities and urban spaces, and to uncover the desires and dreams that underpin conceptions of urbanism. When Lefebvre was writing in the 1960s there was a proliferation of urban utopias within France and western Europe. But what of the visions of urban worlds embodied in current projects and landscapes, reactionary as well as progressive? How are ideals of the good city and good urban life, including those of urban elites, being mobilized now and to what ends? How might uncovering these enable the specific interests they embody to be criticized? The second point is the significance of the operation of transduction, which ‘goes from the (given) real to the possible' (Lefebvre, 2002 [1961]: 118). However, the openness of Lefebvre's approach does not mean that this amounted to pure philosophical speculation. That is evident from the third point about his utopianism, which is its focus on everyday life and its critique. Everyday life is ‘the inevitable starting point for the realization of the possible', wrote Lefebvre (1984 [1968]: 14); meanwhile, for the Situationist Guy Debord, contributing to a seminar organized by Lefebvre on the subject, it is ‘the measure of all things: of the (non)fulfilment of human relations; of the use of lived time; of artistic experimentation; and of revolutionary politics' (Debord, 2006 [1961]: 92; see also Goonewardena, 2008).

That Lefebvre's approach involved more than projecting abstract utopias is further evident, fourth, in the significance he gave to experimentation and invention within present conditions. This entailed extensive and frequently contentious debates and collaborations at the level of urban practice as a means of exploring possibilities, including through the concept of experimental utopia, the difficulties of which remain as instructive as the ambition. But the fifth point is that Lefebvre presented the search for the possible in dialectical relation to the impossible, a move that demanded analysing conditions of possibility as well as finding openings to what could be. His project ‘straddles the breach between science and utopia, reality and ideality, conceived and lived' as it seeks ‘to point the way towards a different space, towards the space of a different (social) life and of a different mode of production' (Lefebvre, 1991b [1974]: 60). Reaching for the impossible is crucial for extending and reconstituting the possible, since a utopian project is about more than fulfilling potentialities as currently defined. As Žižek (2004: 123) puts it: ‘The “utopian” gesture is the gesture which changes the co-ordinates of the possible'. Rather than ‘idle dreaming about ideal society in total abstraction from real life', utopia is ‘a matter of innermost urgency' when ‘it is no longer possible to go on within the parameters of the “possible” ' (ibid.: 123–24, see also Swyngedouw, 2009).

This leads into the final point, which is no doubt the most challenging for contemporary orthodoxies that, even in more utopian guises, generally accept as ‘realistic' the need to work pragmatically within processes of capital accumulation. It is suggested by Lefebvre's retort to Utopie citied earlier about the continuing capacity of critical thought to ‘clear a path leading to real rupture' (Lefebvre, 1975: 246), for he insisted on the possibility of rupture and qualitative difference at the level of the totality. This should not be mistaken for the complete break and discontinuity of traditional utopias, in which an alternative world is juxtaposed against the present. The seeds for the different world, as Marx previously stressed, lay within the conditions and contradictions of the present. Nor was it about positing a final fixed destination. But when Lefebvre called for a total project that proposed a radically different way of living, he stressed that it aims ‘to produce a “difference” which is different from any that can be inferred from the existing relations of production' (1976 [1973]: 35). That is, he invoked a maximal right to difference that lay claim to a self-determined urban society beyond capitalism. If Lefebvre recognized that the form of this society could not be fully defined in advance and could only emerge through actions and struggles by groups and social movements, he turned around claims that this was inherently utopian in the colloquial sense of unrealistic. He wrote: ‘The project has meaning only by virtue of an impossibility: the impossibility of the existing social relations being adhered to indefinitely. The project finds out what this impossibility makes possible and, conversely, what the “real” obscures and blocks at present' (ibid.: 36). His words resonate at a time of systemic urban, social and economic crises, when the long-term feasibility for things to continue as they are is increasingly thrown into doubt, and when the lines between what is ‘impossible', ‘possible' and ‘realistic' are being struggled over and redrawn. In such a situation, calls to reconstitute the possible take on particular urgency. Demanding the impossible may be, in this sense, as realistic as it is necessary.

  1. 1

    An increasingly rich English-language literature on his theoretical and philosophical engagements includes Gregory (1994), Shields (1999), Elden (2004), Merrifield (2006) and Goonewardena et al. (2008). A substantial and very important move to rectify the lack of discussion of his involvements with urbanists and architects is now provided by Stanek (2011); see also McLeod (1997), Kofman and Lebas (2000) and Milgrom (2008).

  2. 2

    See, for example, Mitchell (2003), Purcell (2008), Marcuse et al. (2009), Cunningham (2010), Soja (2010), Brenner et al. (2012) and Harvey (2012).

  3. 3

    Interview with the author, 18 September 2000, Amsterdam.