In examining current urban realities, including the range of cities, dispersed peripheries and suburbs, plus the archipelagoes of abandoned and marginalised territories that make up the interstitial spaces among these different living environments, we come constantly across forms of utopia. One of the basic premises of this course is that utopia does exist, in all sorts of forms and sizes.
From the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 to the collapse of the unregulated global financial market in 2008, most strategies dealing with large scale population shifts, migration, refugees, and their impact on urban growth, urban renewal, and peripheral spread of impoverished shantytowns have progressed in piecemeal order. Instead, the broad structural strategies dealing with social reform, utopian theories on the city, modern social housing programs and other strategies for social advancement have over the course of the last several decades been largely been discredited, leaving an ideological gap that has yet to be fully understood or effectively reinterpreted against the current crisis. Moreover, this gap has eroded precocious if not potential projections for new or alternatively structured societies.
This ideological vacuum is gradually giving way to a myriad of innovative micro and local urban and extra-urban social strategies, though they remain uncoordinated among themselves. There still lacks the prospect of a more generalised vision, one that could be consolidated into a single research and educational format.
Henri Lefebvre had a hand in setting out some of the International Situationist’s principle dogmas, which were mutually contributing to the making of the derive, the events, the moments that formed the strategies behind the collective’s early unitary urbanism projects. “This was a fundamental text,”—as Lefebvre noted in an interview–“…based on the idea that architecture would allow a transformation of daily reality. This was the conception with Critique of Everyday Life: to create an architecture that would itself instigate the creation of new situations. So this text was the beginning of a whole new research that developed in the following years…”[i]
Lefebvre considered the minor actions in daily life as the means of social transformation, the events through which society could significantly change, or even revolutionize. Over time, Lefebvre sought alternative social constructs that were more supple and more collectivized that could still respond to the scale of activities he felt were so critical to the making of a community.
Lefebvre recognized that shantytowns, spontaneous settlements and the like were interesting models for self-government. But he was strongly attracted to Yugoslavia, a nation going its third way during the Cold War and where Tito promoted ‘autogestion’ small self-management worker cooperatives as an answer to the larger mass social organizations.
As Lefebvre would define it, “Autogestion is born and reborn at the heart of a contradictory society, but one that tends, through various actions towards a global integration and a highly structured cohesiveness. Autogestion introduces and reintroduces the only form of movement of efficacious contestation, of effective development, in such a society.”[ii] But what most significantly comes from this form of self-management is, according to Lefebvre, the drive towards freedom.[iii]
If one takes a big step back, it is possible to see that Lefebvre was moving between two philosophical poles emerging in Situationism: Debord’s Unitary Urbanism that acted to coalesce a revolutionary self-emancipatory community within the graspable dimensions of an existing territory, and Constant’s nomadic platforms, that in New Babylon, established an unlimited infrastructural system that permitted communities to move freely without impediments.
The way Lefebvre negotiates between these currents is by constantly paying attention to the commonplace, the many small residual moments that form together our understanding of the larger non-illusory empirical world. For Lefebvre, society’s transformation begins with the demonstration that “the everyday is not an immutable substance,”[iv] and that this conscious understanding of what consists of the everyday is itself the mechanism for transforming it. Lefebvre understood this as a double bound action, so that the everyday can “…catch up with what is possible and that the processes which have been distanced from it (the everyday) return and reinvest themselves within it.”[v] The terrain of the everyday, then, is the ideal place for understanding and experimentation.
[i] “It was an extremely interesting and active group, which came together in the 1950s, and one of the books that inspired the founding of the group was my book Critique of Everyday Life. That’s why I got involved with them from such an early date.”… http://www.notbored.org/lefebvre-interview.html
[ii] Henri Lefebvre, “On the Unity of the Workers’ Revolutionary Movement” in Neil Brenner, Stuart Elden ed.s, State, Space, World: Selected Essays Henri Lefebvre, (Minneapolis, University of Minneapolis Press, 2009) 149. Originally published essay in 1966, translated by Gerald Moore, Neil Brenner, Stuart Elden.
[iv] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 2, (New York, Verso, 2002) 63