Architecture at the edge of knowledge; space syntax at the heart of design


Let me begin at the end with a summary of my presentation. The space syntax approach is more than a computer programme. The beauty – and I think it is a beauty – of the approach is that it combines three key aspects of practice: the first two have been dealt with in depth by Bill Hillier in his presentation and these are architectural theory and computer technology. The third is design experience. In a wide range of design sectors and across all scales, from individual building layouts to entire cities and city regions, over twenty years of practice have demonstrated that space syntax offers architects, like myself, an edge. Whether we see this as an edge over our fellow architects, an edge over the unsustainable processes that have emerged to stifle communications between architects and non-architects or an edge over the unexpected events that shape everyday life, space syntax provides an edge.

For me, the most important edge though – the one that I will come back to during this presentation – is not a competitive edge but a place – the edge of knowledge. Architecture distinguishes itself – indeed, defines itself – as an activity that occurs at the edge of knowledge. Unlike the simple practice of building, which occurs within the boundaries of existing knowledge, repeating forms and generating outcomes that are tried and tested, architecture explores new areas of knowledge. Not only new technologies or new uses of old technologies but new physical and spatial articulations of social and economic processes. 

Architects distinguish themselves in their handling of this challenge. This is what the practices of Bjarke Ingels and Spencer de Grey have done for Slussen. This is what is necessitated by the geopolitical reality of maturing economies such as Sweden’s and Britain’s as well as of developing economies in the Middle East, Far East, Africa and Latin America.

For many of us, practice brings with it previously unheard of challenges: how to manage a population such as that of the city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where over a third of people live in unplanned settlements and where growth is expected at rates that have not been seen in Western Europe in several generations? How to grow a city such as Zhuzhou in Hunan Province, China, with a thriving economy but a polluted environment, so that new, low-carbon settlement can fund, then replace the existing toxic infrastructure and do so without damaging the economic vibrancy that is the essence of the city? 

Projects such as Trafalgar Square and Slussen are, we must acknowledge, objects of desire for the developing world. They are the sorts of project that, to date, have only been possible once the basic infrastructures of urbanism are in place – by which I mean having land uses in more or less the right place, public transport systems that function, stable populations that expect a premium standard of public realm. These staples of urbanity have not yet established themselves in the emerging economies. The real challenges of architecture are not only in Slussen and Trafalgar Square but also in the rapidly urbanising, maturing economies of resource-rich or population-expanding economies. This is where architects need to be fit for purpose – ready and able to act in the absence of precedent.

It is also where, in my experience, space syntax has been able to successfully support the process of planning and design in a way that enables architects to analyse, create and communicate their ideas. It therefore gives architects and architecture an edge. In the remainder of my presentation, I wish to explore the nature of this edge with reference to real projects. 

In doing so I would like to begin by suggesting that, in fact, the edge has several dimensions.


The social edge – architecture matters

My first edge is the social edge. 

Space is the single biggest and most important object that architects design.

The problem is that, without assistance, we can’t see space. Perhaps it shouldn’t therefore be surprising that architects forget to acknowledge its importance. 

Instead, architects have focused on two important, but less important, aspects of architecture:

– what should buildings look like?

– how should they be constructed?

Architects’ interest in these two aspects of design is often obsessive. When it is, it detracts from the real purpose of architecture – the shaping of human activity by space.

What attracted me to space syntax, over twenty years ago, was the focus not on visual style or construction process but on social outcomes.

This is not to say that the way things look and the means of construction are not of interest to me. Far from it. But what struck me most about space syntax is the revelation it made about the role of architecture in shaping the patterns of movement, co-presence and interaction that are the essence of civilisations and are the instruments of social and economic trade, which remains the principal reason that we continue to live in urban settlements.

Planning and architecture has mistakenly abandoned the street and, in doing so, suppressed the ability of towns and cities to trade. We have stopped building the main streets that characterise great cities, replacing them instead with fast highways that divide local communities and create congestion. We have zoned land uses, where once we brought them close together, distancing people from places and from each other. We have stopped building urban buildings. In summary we have replaced urbanism with transport and, in doing so, damaged not only the spatial fabric of our cities but also the social.

The costs of the carboniferous commuting society are enormous – on energy, on time and on our health. We have suppressed local movement economies to the cost of society.

I cannot imagine practising as an architect without the revelation that space syntax offers and without the tools that allow, as Bill Hillier so powerfully demonstrated, the social and economic processes that create the city to be described, measured and harnessed through design.

So this is my first edge – the edge that space syntax brings to design practice that reveals the social power of architecture and, in doing so, empowers architects with an extra dimension of practise.

The creative edge – from technology and theory comes creativity

My second edge relates to the mysterious process of creativity.

Ideas can come from anywhere. There is no one starting point. Whether from poetry, everyday observation, a chance encounter, history, memory or whim, ideas emerge in unusual and unexpected ways. Their source is not so important but space syntax helps the creative process in two key ways.

First, space syntax theory and technology acts as a creative tool – a design machine. The analysis of an existing spatial network is usually the starting point. Our analysis of Trafalgar Square for example showed two key features of the place that then acted as the seeds of design ideas. By observing how people were using the space we saw that non-tourists walked around the edge. The space syntax model was able to explain this pattern as being fundamentally a problem of the former spatial design, which made it simpler to walk the longer way around the edge than the shorter but more convoluted way across the heart of the site. This inspired the creation of the staircase in the centre of the Square as a device to open up walking routes across the middle of Trafalgar Square. Further analysis of the visibility patterns across the Square showed us how important the south part of the Square was as a place for people, especially tourists, to get their bearings. However it was entirely cut off from the Square and people had to cross through the traffic to reach it. So we connected it back to the heart of the Square.

The importance of the Trafalgar Square redesign has been significant on UK and on international practice. It has encouraged a new approach to the making of places that can successfully combine vehicle and pedestrian movement, often in historic settings such as the Old Market Square in Nottingham, England. The London Promenade is a bold project, aimed at bringing an additional 30 million people to walk along the Thames in London by creating a broad, continuous walking route to supplement the current, popular but narrow and convoluted Thames Path. At the Elephant & Castle in central London, a traffic roundabout, where pedestrians are forced to walk underground to cross the road, is being replaced with a simple, elegant crossing at street level.

The second way in which space syntax helps the creative process is by quickly evaluating candidate design ideas and separating the – usually few – good ones from their unworkable counterparts. There are literally thousands of ways of disconnecting a site from its context, of suppressing movement through space, or minimising unexpected encounter by people in space. There are often only one or two ways of exploiting the full potential of a place.

Take, for example, the Old Airport site in the middle of the city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, a site around which the city has grown rapidly in recent years. Analysis using Place Syntax software, created here in Stockholm by Lars Marcus and his colleagues, shows how the commercial hEat of the city is shaped by the presence of the site as a major blockage to urban movement. Certain parts of the city to the east and south are suppressed in their economies as a result.

When it comes to the masterplanning of the site, candidate schemes can be assessed against some useful criteria such as the degree to which they appear upon first inspection to handle the balance between making global connections and creating local movement structures. Spatial accessibility analysis brings a sharper edge to this process. Examination of the existing spatial accessibility pattern highlights the key connectors. Candidate designs can then be tested in terms of their impact on this pattern. Option 1, is a typical architectural approach – one of grandiose shape-making. Architects are good at this but unfortunately the effects of such an approach are poor. Option 2 typifies another design style – one that focuses too much on local qualities at the expense of the larger picture. Option 3 is also one we see from famous architects – wiping a regular grid across the site, apart that is from where it touches the roads infrastructure where architects too often defer to the highways engineer. This approach creates object buildings set into a sea of cars – not a sustainable approach. Option 4 takes a very different approach, working with the main highways, the global structure, connecting them through the heart of site and, as I hope you can see, significantly increasing the warmth to the east and the south of the site. This is an approach that will only work if these connectors are designed as main streets, lined with land uses and building frontages such that eth global movement can trade with the local activity. Arguable however it is too well-connected and so Option 5 explores a variation on Option 4 in which a greater level of local spatial hierarchy is introduced, organised by the global structure of the main routes.

The impact of each option can sometimes be best seen not by analysis of the scheme itself but by examination of the design’s impact on its setting as can be seen for Option 1, with a minimal level of warmth and Option 5, where the impact is substantial, bringing the previously isolated communities into an accessible relationship with the new development and with the city beyond.

So, in my experience, space syntax theory provides a rapid route into the heart of a design challenge. It generates rules of thumb that serve well to instigate the first, cautious steps as pen meets paper for the first time. It guides your hand, perhaps by highlight the key existing connectors that will feed movement to and through a new site. It provides very rapid feedback during the design process on whether the design is working to create the connections that you were expecting.

The communications edge

It is no good having a great idea if you are unable to convince other people of the rationale for it and the impact of it. Space syntax helps in both regards.

The technology lets anyone test their ideas, whether they have a formal design training or not. It should be no surprise to you therefore that some of the most enthusiastic responses to the technology have come from residents of housing estates and nurses in hospitals who have been able to see in the techniques tangible, realistic descriptions of places they know that are presented using graphic simulations of how those places can be changed.

The edge on practice

Space syntax shows that good design is built on good research. I know from my discussions with fellow architects that access to good research is a problem. For many architects, leaving university and moving into practice brings with it not just the opportunity to deliver but also, and problematically, a distancing from the world of academic inquiry.

The space syntax approach tackles the frequent disconnect between architecture and research in two ways. First, by bringing research into the process of design – at the workstation, in the design meeting – so that you are never far from the rich world of research inquiry. Space syntax supports the design process by providing the necessary reflective aspect of design.

This is especially important when it comes to the essence of space syntax – the ability to forecast the social and economic outcomes of design with remarkable robustness, be these patterns of movement, the sustainability of land uses such as retail, patterns of rent and patterns of crime. These outcomes are so important that they cannot be left to chance. But of course they have in the past. The developed world is littered with places that have not worked the way they were expected to. Indeed, space syntax was born of an interest in the failure of much social housing in the UK to deliver on the promises of its architects. The trial and error nature of traditional practice – architects’ frequent inability to get it right – is at best unfortunate and at worst a scandal that the profession has done well to keep quiet about. Space syntax offers a virtual laboratory for design experimentation so that mistakes can be detected more easily before they are constructed.

Space syntax contextualises architectural practice in another, very human way, by bringing people from different domains of thought and activity together around the common issue of space.

Space syntax has reached out to embrace many disciplines. It can do this because an interest in space is universal. Space syntax has something to say for every mode of transport – vehicle, cycle, pedestrian – for every sector of development – retail, housing design, cultural buildings such as the one we are in and for every scale of activity. For this reason it has an appeal among town planners, architects, transport planners, geographers, criminologists, sociologists, cognitive psychologists…property developers, estate agents, politicians and people generally.

The common language of space is what unites these varied interests. This, I believe, is of great value for architects and architecture and brings me to my final edge: the edge of knowledge.

The edge of knowledge

The challenges of rapid urbanisation, resource depletion and urban mobility will inevitably lead to ways of living and working with new styles of movement and new ways of behaviour, all of which will need shaping through form and space. We may, as a reaction to change, seek ever greater levels of historic conservation for the places that have been part of our urban lives for generations. But, at the same time, great swathes of towns and cities will need to be delivered quickly. To date, our way of doing so has been largely car-dependent and energy-intensive, with adverse consequences not only on the environment but also on the physical and mental health of people as well as their education and expectations. While developed economies have generally realised that this form of urbanism is no longer sustainable, it is fair to say – because we can see it in the magazines and on the internet – that certain outdated forms of planning and design are being exported to those parts of the planet that have yet to realise their dire consequences.

My argument therefore is that such old knowledge will not be enough to tackle future, unknown challenges. The space syntax research program, with its focus on human outcomes, offers a way of keeping the practice of architecture, at the edge of knowledge, close to theory and technology so that, as places evolve and new ideas emerge, their likely future impacts can be tested in advance and, when these are found to be wanting, can be changed and improved before the damage is done.

Thank you

A talk given at the 7th Space Syntax Symposium, Stockholm, 8th June 2009

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