Space Syntax: Making sense of spaces

1 November 2011

Space Syntax - Computer forecast of visitor circulation pattern. Higher flows in red then orange and yellow to lower flows in green and blue

Sector-leading company Space Syntax has deep roots in pioneering UCL research. It applies an evidence-based approach to explain why people use spaces as they do, providing valuable knowledge to architects, planners and developers.

Theoretical beginnings

The company’s story began over 25 years ago, at a time when public sector housing was beset by failure. Architects tried to explain problems according to the physical properties of buildings, but this couldn’t answer why one high-rise block might fail and another of the same design be a great success. And it wasn’t just demographics, there was more to it.

Researcher Bill Hillier, a Space Syntax founder, realised that people judge a building according to its relationship with other buildings and the space around it, not just by its appearance.  And the way people judge a place affects how they use it.

The technology

Space Syntax uses computer technology to examine spatial patterns. A plan is divided into portions and the relationship of each portion with all the others is analysed. This creates a map showing how deep or shallow a space is from all other spaces. If for example you’re developing a shopping street, you want it to be accessible – shallow – and you opt for a plan that achieves that.

The growing company

In the 1980s, the company offered free consulting on public sector housing. Professor Alan Penn, Dean of the Bartlett and founding Director of Space Syntax said, “We explained why one part of London’s Broadgate development worked and another did not. The developer, Stuart Lipton of Rosehaugh Stanhope, was hooked.”

Stuart Lipton said, “Space Syntax understand the science of people movement, planning lively, safe and well-used spaces – prime requirements for a successful city. I‘ve worked with them for 25 years – I wouldn’t work without them.”

Space Syntax now gets a stream of business from architects and developers.

A success story

Ten years ago, Trafalgar Square was unpleasant, unsafe, and overrun by traffic. It didn’t do justice to its grand history. Space Syntax diagnosed the problem and helped architects find the solution. Now 13 times the number of pedestrians use the space– a huge success for UK tourism.

Close UCL links

Space Syntax has had intimate links with UCL from its inception. UCL Business advised Space Syntax on the establishment of the company. UCL is a current shareholder and has a nominee on the board, helping to ensure that company and university objectives are aligned.

The benefits of Space Syntax are also academic. UCL’s Advanced Architecture MSc programme has strong links with the company: Space Syntax staff lecture to students. There’s a programme of internships for students and many company staff are UCL Alumni.

UCL is a recruiting ground, providing expert employees for short-term projects, with the company providing a solid career structure for these employees. It’s win-win.

Jean-Francois Goyette, MSc student in Advanced Architectural Studies, said “My internship with Space Syntax provided valuable practical experience, was a great way to get to know academic staff and fantastic for getting acquainted with other architecture firms in London. It was the highlight of my masters programme.”