New Literary History 33.4 (2002) 707-723
For an enterprise that exalts the concrete, the study of everyday life is remarkably vague about its object. The everyday comprises "seemingly unimportant activities." Or it is "a set of functions which connect and join together systems that might appear to be distinct." Or it is that which is leftover, which falls outside of or runs counter to the scrutiny of power or officialdom. It is an Other of some sort, better defined by what it is not than by what it is.
The same vagueness about the nature of everyday life plagues architecture. For one architect, "The everyday is that which remains after one has eliminated all specialized activities." According to another, everyday space lies "in between such defined and physically definable realms as the home, the workplace, and the institution, [it] is the connective tissue that binds everyday lives together." But what is this connective tissue? Where can we find it? How do we recognize it? Of what is it made?
Architecture is inescapably concrete and it forms the fabric and the setting of everyday life. Consequently, to approach everyday life through architecture—architecture with a lower-case a, understood in its broadest sense to encompass the entire material world (or "cultural landscape") that people make and think—is to be forced to pin down, in ways too often lacking in theories of the quotidian, the precise ways in which everyday life is experienced and the specifics of its relationships to other aspects of life and landscape. So architecture's materiality makes it a natural conduit to the specificity of everyday life.
Over the last decade, contemporary theories of everyday life have begun to infiltrate Architecture with a capital A—the realm of high design and theory that forms one small corner of the larger world of architecture. The increasingly pervasive commodification and homogenization of life and landscape and the extreme social stratification associated with globalization seem poised to devastate both the cultural landscape and the architectural profession. As the architect Steven Harris noted, "The consideration of everyday life as a critical political construct represents an attempt to suggest an architecture resistant to this commodification/consumption paradigm, a paradigm that has come to dominate contemporary architectural practice" (EA 3).
Architectural exploration of everyday life is closely allied to the work of Henri Lefebvre, who planted the theory of the everyday squarely in architecture's bailiwick. "Everyday life is sustenance, clothing, furnishing, homes, neighbourhoods, environment. . . . Call it material culture if you like, but do not confuse the issue," he wrote (EL 21). In particular, his fascination with the spatial nature of social life resonated with a long-established claim that space should be the defining element of a modern Architecture. Thus architecture's discovery of Lefebvre following the English-language publication of The Production of Space (1991) helped to rehabilitate space after a quarter-century of the postmodern elevation of representation and language over space and materiality. Lefebvre framed his interest in space and the everyday as part of his lifelong project to examine the meaning of modernity, and modernity—what it means to be modern, what a modern Architecture might be—is also a central strain in twentieth-century architectural discourse.
In current architectural history, theory, and practice, then, discussion of the everyday takes place at the intersection of architecture and Architecture—of the study of the material settings of human life and of the narrower concerns of professional design. In the first part of this essay I will examine some ways that theories of the everyday have been used to reflect upon goals and practices in the study and making of architecture. The idea of the everyday has pushed architectural thought in important new directions, but those directions have been limited both by weaknesses in the original theories and by misreadings prompted by the intellectual history and preoccupations of Architecture. In particular, theories of the everyday have reinforced an Architectural habit of dichotomous and hierarchical thinking about the landscape. In addition, architectural writers have fit their thinking about everyday life into the discourse model that has dominated Architectural theory for thirty years. In the second part of the...