Looking at Images of Urban Space: A Lefebvrian approach

  • 25th June 2019
  • Blog
Reading Time: 4 minutes

For a long time I have been obsessed with urban space. The obsession has, perhaps, been brought on by spending my twenties living and working in Dublin city during a period of immense urbanisation as part of the Celtic Tiger. In that time, and through the proceeding austerity and recovery, I witnessed a growth that led to improved living standards for some, but also gentrification and a decline in living standards for many others. As part of looking at urban space I became interested in those visualisations that are wrapped around many constructions sites that littered the city and also appear on the newly created websites that many new building developments now deploy as part of marketing their sites. I wanted to get a better understanding of how digital visualisations constructed imaginary urban space and the relationship they have to society. I think as a photographer and image-maker it is always good to look at other fields of study in order to gain a better understanding of what we photograph and why. My curiosity with urban space drew me to Henri Lefebvre’s ‘The Production of Space’ and I started using his theories to read digital visualisations of urban space.

Lefebvre’s spatial triad, which he outlined in ‘The Production of Space’ can be used to demonstrate the image’s influence on one’s memories and perceptions of space. The spatial triad consists of representational space, representations of space and spatial practice. Representational space consists of the imagination and memories that overlaps physical or real space. Representations of space are conceptualisations of spaces such as maps or drawings while spatial practices are the everyday or the daily routines that occur in spaces. Images are deeply entwined in the processes of how space is defined and using Lefebvre’s triad assists in demonstrating how the image is deployed to control and define spaces.

Fig 2 – The Grange, Stillorgan, Dublin, Ireland,
© https://www.flickr.com/photos/redagenda/, 2008.

Through the image, there is an attempt to project meaning on the spaces of the city and frame them in order to make them readable within a certain discourse; the discourse of capitalism. For instance, on a construction site it is usual for the outside perimeter to display images in order to assist in defining a new place and its uses, making it more readable, thus influencing representational space. Representational space is, according to Lefebvre, “space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate.”[1] The images posted on the perimeter wall in the above photograph at a construction site in Dublin, Ireland (Fig 1) aim to become part of representational space. The images attempt to have their meaning adhere to the space. An individual experiencing these images must, of course, understand the cultural signs used within the images. The cultural signs are things we have learned to recognise as symbolising something as we have grown up in western culture. Once understood, they become part of the experience of the space.

The images in the photograph above also imitate spatial practices;  how we behave within and the relationships we have with space. These images, therefore, are meant to be understood as part of the everyday, which Ben Highmore has posited as “the landscape closest to us, the world most immediately met.”[3] The everyday, therefore, is the familiar and the images in the photograph above strive to be part of that by imbuing ‘everydayness’. While these photographs remain just images, they disclose to us a set of spatial relations which influences representational space.

Fig 2. Photograph of a digital visualisation installed at 1 Windmill Lane, Dublin, Ireland. 2017

Representations of space, on the other hand, are imbued with ideology according to Lefebvre. He asks: “What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and links it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?”[4] Therefore, an ideology requires spaces and manipulates them. Lefebvre draws on religious representations, such as the church, but equally when thinking about capitalism we can draw on, for instance, the glass skyscraper. Representations of space are also conceptualised spaces, such as maps and drawings. If we consider a digital visualisation a drawing, which at its foundation it is despite the digital version appearing to resemble a photograph, then these are representations of space. They are types of images that represent concepts of what a space should be used for and how it should be seen.

Fig 3 – Detail from Fig 2, 1 Windmill digital visualisation, 2017.

In a digital visualisation of a scene shown above (Fig 2), we see a street lined with buildings and trees on either side. The image of the space alone cannot define what it is or what its social relations are and, thus, it must be populated with individuals. Each individual represents a spatial relation. The routines or everyday actions they are captured in the midst of are projected onto the space in a similar way as those images in Fig 1 were attempting to influence a physical space. For instance, examining a detail from the visualisation in Fig 3, we see on the right a man in a suit standing outside a glass walled building while to the left another man in a suit on a mobile phone enters the building. These figures form an important part of the overall image in defining the spatial relations and the building itself. While in terms of technological advancements some aspects of Lefebvre’s work  may be dated, his core theories still hold true. Part of my work is to examine the role these types of images play in the definition of space. Lefebvre is key to these arguments as he demonstrates the ‘constructedness’ of the city and the ideological forces behind the productions of space.

Pictures alone cannot tell the whole story and the facades of buildings hide much behind them. Cities have always been constructed in order to support an ideological structure. For instance, when I look around at my home city Dublin I see an effigy to colonial rule. In regard to how ideology is expressed through the built environment in Dublin Justin Carville has noted that;

the visualized and visualizing effects of colonial urbanization, ensured that colonial rule was not just represented in the architecture and monarchical statuary dispersed across Dublin’s streetscapes, but was also reproduced through the ocular experiences formed through the reorganisation of the city’s historical and mnemonic topographies.[4]

Therefore, we can understand the construction of colonial Dublin as a visual experience that enforces the ideology of colonialism and imperialism upon the viewer. Likewise, we can understand the construction of modern Dublin as a visual experience of global financial capital and everything it represents.


[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford; Cambridge, Blackwell, 1991), p.39

[3] Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, (London; New York, Routledge, 2002) , p.1

[4] Lefebvre, op.cit., p.44

[4] Justin Carville (ed), Visualizing Dublin: Visual Culture, Modernity and the Representation of Urban Space, (Oxford ;Bern ;Berlin ;Bruxelles ;Frankfurt am Main ;New York ;Wien, Peter Lang, 2014), p.8