Michel Foucault first introduced the notion of heterotopia in the preface of his 1966 book Les Mots et les Choses (translated in 1970 as The Order of Things), and further developed the concept in his famous lecture ‘Of Other Spaces’ (1967). There he says of heterotopias,
“There also exist – and this is probably true for all cultures and all civilisations – real and effective spaces which are outlined in the very institution of society, but which constitute a sort of counter-arrangement… [in which] all the other real arrangements that can be found within society, are at one and the same time represented, challenged and overturned: a sort of place that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable.”
Heterotopias exist in defined spaces, whereas utopias are those ‘placeless’ spaces that we know are inherently unreal and unattainable. Yet heterotopias are not the opposite of utopias. Rather, like utopias, heterotopic spaces make reference to other spaces/places, and relate to them by representing them in specific ways. “Their role” Foucault said on the function of the heterotopia, “is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” At the same time heterotopias “suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect” (all quotes are from ‘Of Other Spaces’). The central points to understand are that a heterotopia always represents society, yet distorts it in such a way that it reveals a culture’s ideology.