The space syntax research programme began at the Bartlett School, UCL in the 1970s. It was born of a desire to understand whether design factors were playing a part in the social demise of public housing projects in the UK. Bill Hillier and his research colleagues at the Unit for Architectural Studies – now the Space Group – wished to understand what role, if any, architectural design had played in the social malaise that had, often rapidly, followed the opening of so many schemes. Space Syntax research skills have been taught since then through a masters degree, the MSc Advanced Architectural Studies.

The focus on space

This interest generated a new way at looking at architecture. It focused on space – the places through which people move and in which social and economic activities are enacted. The research put traditional architectural issues of materiality – surface, texture and style – to one side as it developed new techniques for describing space and spatial networks. These ideas included ways of representing what people see as they move through space: visual field and lines of sight. The aim was to draw space as people perceive it – to see architecture from the user’s perspective.

20 years after Bill Hillier’s initial work, a very simple example of this approach was used by Space Syntax to help Norman Foster win the competition to redesign Trafalgar Square in London.

We showed how someone standing on the Charles I traffic island, at the southern tip of Trafalgar Square, has by far the most strategic view of their surroundings and therefore why pedestrians were risking their lives by running across lanes of fast-moving traffic to reach it; and, ultimately why it was essential to improve access to that island, which has now been achieved in the redesign.

“Active frontages”

A second line of inquiry was the investigation of what urban designers now call “active frontages”: how space is activated by individual building entrances. Julienne Hanson’s pioneering study of Somers Town (see diagram) near King’s Cross demonstrated how modern housing design had stripped away the interface between streets and doorways by turning buildings away from the public realm.

Spatial layouts & patterns of movement

A key moment in the development of the space syntax research process was the discovery in the early 1980s, of a link between properties of spatial layouts and patterns of pedestrian and vehicular movement – i.e. the fact that, by analysing space patterns we can very robustly forecast actual pedestrian flows. This came as an unexpected and unintended, if somewhat significant, result of Bill and his team’s research.

Forecasting pedestrian flows is now at the core of our business. We work every day to help our clients understand how new architectural and urban developments are likely to impact on pedestrian activity.

Back in the mid-80s, with the advent of computing, Bill and his team were able to systematically demonstrate how space and movement were inter-related. Space Syntax as a unique discipline took off, attracting attention from leading figures in UK property and design, including Stuart Lipton and Norman Foster, who wanted to bring the new knowledge to bear on major development projects such as Broadgate and King’s Cross in London. Space Syntax Limited was born as the consultancy to deliver this advice, acting as the conduit between the academic world of fundamental research and the industrial world of architectural practice.