A New Way To Understand the City: Henri Lefebvre’s Spatial Triad

Space is all around us. We move through it, live within it and think in terms of it. Therefore, to think of the city is to think ultimately in one way or another, of space. Now, when I speak of space in the following words and paragraphs, I do not mean outer space, the realm of NASA and astronauts, but rather space in the sense of that which everything exists within. Cities are limited entities, although it may feel like it, cities do not go on forever; even LA, Tokyo, London or the Pearl River Delta have their limits where the sprawl ends and the rest of the world begins. So, as cities are not infinite, the space within them is contested. We can’t all live in the so-called ‘nice’ neighbourhoods, hence the housing market exists as a means of differentiating and limiting access to the space. As a result of the contestation of space, different spaces carry different meanings which mean different things for, well, different people. It both exists objectively, but is subjectively shaped by our experience to the extent that its meaning can be completely divergent from person to person. So, how can we make sense of something so urbanly intrinsic, yet untenable as space?

Henri Lefebvre is one of the most significant urban scholars to have ever put pen to paper. He featured on the fringes of the legendary Parisian intellectual scene of the third quarter of the 20th century and would have been in the company of Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. He was the author of over 70 books and 200 articles, many of which covered the city. This vast anthology is certainly impressive, yet for the purposes of this essay, we are going to focus on just one book, in fact just four paragraphs within one book. The book is Lefebvre’s magnum opus, 1974’s The Production of Space, which wasn’t translated into English until 1991 and the four paragraphs can be found on page 38. It is on this page that Lefebvre returns to three concepts mentioned a few pages before in the Production of Space called the ‘spatial triad’: spatial practice, representations of space and representational space. This essay argues that the spatial triad offers up a fresh perspective for anyone to understand the spaces which comprise their city, and thus urbanism in general.

Spatial Practice: Perceived space

The first concept of the three is what Lefebvre refers to as ‘spatial practice’ (perceived space). In his characteristic, if not confusing prose, Lefebvre describes this concept as:

For Lefebvre — amongst many, many others — the social setting within which we live, influences the individual in many ways. This is what is meant by ‘propounding’ and ‘presupposition’, i.e, the space which is presented before an individual is loaded with symbolism and stimuli, with a visual essence infused with the social reality from which it exists.

Conversely, whilst the modes and experiences of society produce the spaces we inhabit, it also affects how we perceive that space. Take the image above, what do we see. Well, a big set of stairs, some low rise buildings, well maintained green space, two big trees, a number of fences and two lunch tables. What we see shows an open space, perhaps a business park or a high school. In fact, it is the latter. This is El Toro high school in southern California.

There is something about the stilted quiet embodied within this picture — there are no people present. The quiet essence of this space exists as such because this image was taken outside of school hours, outside the socially constructed norm of this space which we have previously experienced either through personal experience as students or through culture — the highschool being a classic setting for numerous tv shows or movies. We look at this picture and perceive it in a manner which fits our own experience. Our perception of this picture also alters when we know the origin of it. The fact we know it is a picture of a school, by virtue of textual description, reinforces what we see and thus perceive.

Representations of space: Conceived space

The second segment of Lefebvre’s spatial triad concerns so called conceived space, the:

This type of space is concerned with the existent properties of a location. If we refer once again to the example used above, we can see (if we squint) that there are 20 stairs in the stair set, two trees and, although not perceptible to the human eye, there are set dimensions for everything present in this image. For instance, the slope on which the stairs sit is x high, x long and will have a gradient that is x steep, the trees are x high and have x number of leaves and so on. The physical makeup of a space is the only essence of space which can be replicated and thus mapped; hence why Lefebvre describes it as the space for town planners and such.

The physical properties of space influence how we experience it but only in conjunction with our own perception of it. For instance the 830 meters which make up the height of the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building — form an element of its, for want of a better term, impressiveness, but without how we perceive this height, the sense of vertigo instilled by staring up from ground level to its pinnacle for instance, this height is nothing but a statistic. This example shows how the perception and conception of space are inexorably entwined. We perceive the physical reality of space through a lens grafted vis-a-vis personal experience and a priori reasoning. So far we have discussed how we perceive space and how it is constituted, what follows is how we live in it.

Representational space: Lived space

Space exists within our cities and therefore exists within proximity with human use of it. Urban spaces are often clarified within regard to human use, the public spaces of suburbia as an example, are often referred to as quiet or lifeless whereas the streets of a city’s downtown may appear busy, hectic or overcrowded. Either way, what is perceived is often inaccurate. A tourist will see in Las Vegas, for instance, the glittering strip of casinos and other hedonistic venues but won’t see the reality behind what they, well, see. Within perceived and conceived space is a lived space, where

The lived space concerns how human beings use the space and, most importantly, retrofit and mold the space for their own use. Once again we refer to our image of the high school. We know it is a school, we know it has a set of 20 stairs but how are these stairs used/lived? The obvious answer would be they are traipsed up and down by students and teachers. This is undoubtedly true, but these stairs are also used for a wholly different purpose all together.

There is a reason for using this innocuous image of a high school stair set to demonstrate this essential theory of understanding our cities. These stairs are famous, they even have a name. They are the El Toro Stairset, one of if not the most famous action sports locations in the whole world.

The 20 stairs which comprise this set offer up one of the biggest challenges for any prospective skateboarder (BMX and scooters also use them) and in many ways represent a right of passage for any aspiring pro. To highlight how this space is used is a screenshot (from YouTube) of Dave Bachinsky landing the first ever kickflip down the stairs. It’s absolutely crazy to even attempt such a trick, but after a few hard slams into the El Toro concrete he rode away into action sports folk law.

What to Make of This?

What this example shows is a space or location in a city is multifaceted, it doesn’t just exist physically or how we perceive it or even solely in how we use it, but in a perpetual combination of all three. In this example we know this stair set consists of 20 stairs, we know it is set in a high school, but now, we also know it is used for skateboarding and is globally famous, the meaning of these non-descript stairs in an average high school is drastically altered. Now, we perceive these stairs as a challenge to be overcome by either stupid, brave or gnarly skateboarders; this depends on your own opinions on skateboarding. Simply put, by knowing how others use this space, its essence has completely changed, and this is why Lefebvre’s spatial triad is such a useful concept to use when thinking about, or trying to understand our cities.

As referred to at the beginning of this essay, urban space is not an infinite entity, but rather is contested between different individuals, groups and entities for ownership or use. This is certainly the case with the El Toro stair set. It may not be a surprise to find out that the school isn’t super keen to have skateboarders and the like throwing themselves down a big set of stairs on their property. As a part of their response to this extreme use of the stairs, the school has modified them over the years. Up until 2008 there was a central rail which split the stairs in half, as you can see above, which was removed in an attempt to deter people ‘grinding’ down the rail.

The school also has security patrolling the site in order to prevent people using the stairs as an obstacle. This is perfectly encapsulated by Justin Gautreau tail whipping the stairs on his BMX. As you can see in the picture below, he pulled off this trick with a security guard present — despite her best efforts he still used the stairs in the unofficial sense. Eventually the school had had enough of action sports enthusiasts using the stairs in this way and has subsequently removed them. Even with the stairs removed, Dylan Stark — a former El Toro student — used a mountain bike to ‘drop in’ from the roof next to the stairs, using the dirt which replaced the steps as a down slope landing. A fitting send off from the action sports community.

It seems that the perception of this space differed from the authorities and the skateboarders, the stairs went from innocuous to a burden for the school, as did they shift from unique to legendary in the skateboarding community. The ‘living’ of these stairs altered their perception and ultimately destroyed them. Yet, even after the fact, the stairs still are perceived in different ways. Good riddance for the school, RIP for the skateboarders. The story told by the El Toro stair set perfectly encapsulates Lefebvre’s spatial triad. It demonstrates that space in cities is objective, but depending on how it is perceived and lived, completely alters its meaning to such an extent that a set of stairs in a suburban high school can become a battleground for the use and ownership of urban space.

By Will Brown

Doctoral Researcher Loughborough University


I am a PhD researcher from Loughborough University and this is my page where I write about how we live within our urban world. I hope you enjoy reading it!

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