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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 3, January 7, 2023

Philosophy of the City and Planning Ideology, excerpt from ’The Right to the City’ | Henri Lefebvre (1968)

Saturday 7 January 2023


[Below is an excerpt from the The Right to the City (1996) by Henri Lefebvre translated and introduced by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. The original book by Henri Lefebvre titled ’Le Droit à la ville appeared in 1968]

In order to formulate the problematic of the city (to articulate problems by linking them), the following must be clearly distinguished:

I. The philosophers and philosophies of the city who define it speculatively as whole by defining the ‘homo urbanicus’ as man in general, the world or the cosmos, society, history.

II. Partial knowledge concerning the city (its elements, functions, structures).

III. The technical application of this knowledge (in a particular context defined by strategic and political decisions).

IV. Planning as doctrine, that is, as ideology, interpreting partial knowledge, justifying its application and raising these (by extrapolation) to a poorly based or legitimated totality.

The aspects or elements which this analysis distinguishes do not appear separately in various works; they interest, reinforcing or neutralizing each other. Plato proposes a concept of the city and ideal town in Critias. In The Republic and The Laws, Platonic utopia is tempered by very concrete analyses. It is the same for Aristotle’s political writings which study the constitution of Athens and other Greek cities.

Today, Lewis Mumford and G. Bardet among others still imagine a city made up not of townspeople, but of free citizens, free from the division of labour, social classes and class struggles, making up a community, freely associated for the management of this community. As philosophers, they make up a model of the ideal city. They conceive freedom in the twentieth century according to the freedom of the Greek city (this is an ideological travesty: only the city as such possessed freedom and not individuals and groups). Thus they think of the modern city according to a model of the antique city, which is at the same time identified with the ideal and rational city. The agora, place and symbol of a democracy limited to its citizens, and excluding women, slaves and foreigners, remains for a particular philosophy of the city the symbol of urban society in general. This is a typically ideological extrapolation. To this ideology these philosophers add partial knowledge, this purely ideological operation consisting in a passage (a leap), from the partial to the whole, from the elementary to the total, from the relative to the absolute. As for Le Corbusier, as philosopher of the city he describes the relationship between the urban dweller and dwelling with nature, air, sun, and trees, with cyclical time and the rhythms of the cosmos. To this metaphysical vision, he adds an unquestionable knowledge of the real problems of the modern city, a knowledge which gives rise to a planning practice and an ideology, a functionalism which reduces urban society to the achievement of a few predictable and prescribed functions laid out on the ground by the architecture. Such an architect sees himself as a ‘man of synthesis’, thinker and practitioner. He believes in and wants to create human relations by defining them, by creating their environment and decor. Within this well-worn perspective, the architect perceives and imagines himself as architect of the world, human image of God the Creator.

Philosophy of the city (or if one wanes, urban ideology), was born as a superstructure of society into which structures entered a certain type of city. This philosophy, precious heritage of the past, extends itself into speculations which often are travesties of science just because they integrate a few bits of real knowledge.

Planning as ideology has acquired more and more precise definitions. To study the problems of circulation, of the conveying of orders and information in the great modern city, leads to real knowledge and to technical applications. To claim that the city is defined as a network of circulation and communication, as a centre of information and decision-making, is an absolute ideology; this ideology proceeding from a particularly arbitrary and dangerous reduction-extrapolation and using terrorist means, see itself as total truth and dogma. It leads to a planning of pipes, of roadworks and accounting, which one claims to impose in the name of science and scientific rigour. Or even worse!

This ideology has two interdependent aspects, mental and social. Mentally, it implies a theory of rationality and organization whose expression date from around 1910, a transformation in contemporary society (characterized by the beginning of a deep crisis and attempts to resolve it by organizational methods, firstly the scale of the firm, and then on a global scale). It is then that socially the notion of space comes to the fore, relegating into shadow time and becoming. Planning as ideology formulates all the problems of society into questions of space and transposes all that comes from history and consciousness into spatial terms. It is an ideology which immediately divides up. Since society does not function in a satisfactory manner, could there not be a pathology of space? Within this perspective, the virtually official recognition of the priority of space over time is not conceived of as indication of social pathology, as symptom among others of a reality which engenders social disease. On the contrary, what are represented are healthy and diseased spaces. The planner should be able to distinguish between sick spaces and spaces linked to mental and social health which are generators of this health. As physician of space, he should have the capacity to conceive of an harmonious social space, normal and normalizing. Its function would then be to grant to this space (perchance identical to geometrical space, that of abstract topologies) preexisting social realities.

The radical critique of philosophies of the city as well as of ideology is vital, as much on the theoretical as on the practical level. It can be made in the name of public health. However, it cannot be carried out without extensive research, rigorous analyses and the patient study of texts and contexts.

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