Designing buildings is one thing, but working out where to place them to maximise their use requires in-depth analysis of public spaces. Which is where a little-known firm called Space Syntax comes in.
List the major urban regeneration projects under way in the UK and you would be hard pushed to find one that does not involve a firm called Space Syntax. It may grab fewer headlines than the big-name architects and developers driving such projects, but the 10-strong outfit advises the Fosters, Rogers, Farrells, Argents and British Lands on where to put their landmark buildings.

Space Syntax’s speciality is to analyse urban areas to see how best to arrange buildings, streets and squares to maximise their use. The impact of its investigations is beginning to take effect, from Broadgate to Brindleyplace, the South Bank to Trafalgar Square. But its work is not restricted to big city schemes: it is currently involved in a spatial masterplan for the historic centre of Margate, and it also works on retail, museum, transport and office projects. And increasingly, it is being employed by clients directly rather than simply partnering architects. For example, the London Borough of Lambeth is using its services on a strategic design framework for Brixton town centre. As one architect who has worked with the firm puts it: “They just quietly beaver away, changing the face of the world.”

So, where did the firm quietly come from? Space Syntax grew out of research carried out by Bill Hillier, a professor of architectural and urban morphology at the Bartlett School, part of University College, London. Hillier wanted to find out why the social housing projects of the 1960s and 1970s were not creating the communities the architects had intended; within years of completion, the estates were becoming run down and attracting crime. His answer was simple: the way the estates were laid out stifled communities. Layout, he discovered, was critical in determining how a space would be used.

The mistakes on such housing projects were in creating overly complex layouts. People will naturally use the shortest route to get from A to B, but Hillier found that complicated layouts restricted this – and the flow of movement generally. If an estate is easier to walk through, and the space clearly defined, it will be easier to use and more popular to live in.

Tim Stonor, Space Syntax’s managing director, became interested in Hillier’s work while he was studying architecture at the Bartlett. He deduced that the mistakes made were a result of the hole in architects’ knowledge of space. “They can draw the buildings, they understand construction, they can choose the materials and finish them off, but that’s where their education ceases,” he says. Architects are unaware of the impact that design has on how buildings are used, he argues, which is, after all, “the true value of architecture”.

Armed with this knowledge, Hillier devised a way of forecasting the “spatial integration” within an area – that is, the movement that would take place within a development. The system involves taking an accurate scaled map of a public space and finding the quickest and slowest routes through the area.

The resulting computer programme, called Axman, remains the firm’s “workhorse tool”, says Stonor. Axman produces coloured layouts of streets, with hot colours such as red showing the streets it predicts will be better used within that area. Stonor says that extensive use of the programme shows 75% of the actual movement that will take place, which is “three or four times as good as weather forecasting”.

As well as Axman, Space Syntax uses Isovist Integration, a 2D computer model that predicts movement in finer detail. This can forecast which side of a street will be better used, or whether one shopping aisle will be busier than another. Both systems are backed up by old-fashioned legwork: staff go out to observe movement and confirm the computer’s predictions. Armed with this data, the firm can then advise architects and clients where best to locate their buildings.

Stonor insists that the benefits are wide ranging: “By showing how many people will be in an area, this is touching economic, social and environmental concerns. It also impacts on land prices.” Space Syntax has even researched patterns of crime in an area, concluding that more burglaries are carried out in less integrated streets. “In architecture, there is a fundamental need to research. Design is a research activity.”

The firm can enter the design process at an early stage: “We can start testing before the building is being designed,” says Stonor. He also claims that it speeds up the process, as the team can quickly throw out unworkable models after a test on the computer model. “We can sketch real time on the computer, which makes it design-friendly and client-friendly. We can also be more creative, testing more ideas and allowing for more design time.” Space Syntax worked with Foster and Partners on 100 versions of the redesign of Trafalgar Square.

Clients back this up. Terry Farrell & Partners calls Space Syntax nearly every time a brief lands on its desk. “[Its research] is extremely helpful,” says Steven Smith, director of urban and infrastructure projects. “It has an objective understanding of how cities work, which is unique. It really does inform the design process.”

Stonor plans to build on this reputation. Since joining the firm in 1995, he has been intent on turning it from an “off and on” entity into an expanding business. Space Syntax now has operations in Sydney and Denver and is opening an office in Brussels next month. “My aim is to take a small company with a modest turnover and build the foundations of something greater.”