Analysis of Urban Composition using Space Syntax and Computer Techniques

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A prestigious maxim from Winston Churchill goes that people shape buildings, and then buildings transform people. The affects from buildings, or more specifically, from the built environment to people is widely-belive in the thinking of architectural and urban patterns. It has led to some fantasies that attempting to reform society by improving design, such as the Claude-Nicholas Ledoux’s idea of “cites ideales” in 18th century and the idea of “reforming the environment instead of reforming the people. People could change themselves if the environment turn to be correct” by Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s.

The overtures to refine the inside relationship between built environment and social life are really uncommon apart from above. Under this circumstance, space syntax, a theory started twenty years ago which putting forward by Hillier and Hanson (1984), being developed at the Laboratory of University College London and globally spread over the years.

Space syntax is to analyses the urban composition by using computer techniques. In the words of Hillier et al, space syntax is a group of techniques which contains the comprehensive knowledge of some aspects in buildings and settlements, such as quantitative analysis,representation and spatial configuration explanation. As a broadly definition of configuration, on one hand,it should consider one third of the relation between two spaces at least, on the other hand, it should consider complex relations among all spaces at most. Hence, spatial configuration is far more than just a simple idea of spatial relation and need to cite not only a pair of related spaces( 1987, p.363).

According to Hillier(1984), the one who made a breakthrough beyond others, in that space syntax had by now developed a precise method to describe topological relations, locally and globally at once, in one graph, for building and settlements, as a social-spatial issue, with a conscious theory about a deep structure in social space in the built environment, in the original form of space syntax, it mainly emphasized urban patterns of the movement of pedestrian. It was later generalized to a number of other areas, such as urban transport modeling, forecasting the degree of air pollution , evaluating different neighborhoods burglaries occurred, and estimating the possibility of development of retail around the streets.

In the work of “Space syntax: a different urban perspective”(1984), Hillier mentioned three different aspects. The intelligibility of space, the continuity of occupation and the predictability of space. He thought the spatial organization of urban areas affects patterns of movement and use according to well defined principles. And he went on introducing how space syntax works. It is based on a inhabitant or a human body in a local point, considering two points , visibility and the permeability and making two directions, the longest axial line and the smallest convex space to develop two maps, axial map and convex map, for urban settlements or buildings. In this way of analysis, every point in the system has both a one- and two- dimensional aspect which means every point has a local and global dimension.

Now let us focus on most widely used technique of space syntax in urban analysis, the axial map. According to Hillier, in order to understand the “axial map”, the meaning of “axial lines” and the word “integration” should be understand clearly. “Axial line” is basic elements of space syntax analysis, which is from innate two human instincts, visibility and permeability. ‘Axial line’ represents the minimum and longest visual line linking the different ‘convex space’. The word “integration” is initial important in space syntax. To explain it, the concept of depth should be known first. Take the five different plane types in Figure 1( from left to right 1-1-1, 1-1-2, 1-1-3, 1-1-4, 1-1-5) for example, each plan consists of three indoor spaces and an outdoor space O. The Justified Graph, which show the relation between outdoor space O and the rest of spaces, is shown blew each plan. The syntactic features of spaces of five different plan could be discerned from the Justified Graph. Comparing with F1-1-5( F= figure), F1-1-1 is a deep syntax. Therefore, F1-1-5 is a shallow syntax. However, F1-1-1 and F1-1-5 are deep tree syntax when comparing with F1-1-2 and 1-1-3. And F1-1-2 and F1-1-3 are two different deep ring syntax. Besides, F1-1-4 is a syntax between shallow tree syntax and shallow ring syntax. From the Justified Graph, convenient degree of different convex space could be easily shown. In F1-1-2, convex space b2 locates on a deeper and less convenient place comparing with a2 and c2. Although b4 locates on a shallow position, the convenient level is inferior to space O. Because it is two justified steps away from c4. However, c4 is the most inconvenient place of the system, which is two justified steps to a4 and b4. It should be noticed that the “deep”, “shallow” and “step” being discussed donnot represent the real distance. It is a concept of morphological. “Deep” and “shallow” just express the level of graphics and “step” means the number of spaces from one convex space to another in the graphics.

The value of integration of a line linked to its depth to other lines in one system. To be more specific, the integration value in space syntax means how well of the system integrated, how well the elements within the system connect with each other. The most integrated systems are those with shallowest lines on average, and the most separated are those with deepest lines(Hillier et al, 1993, page 35).

Integration is the main part of the analysis of axial map. The movement of people strongly depend on the integration value of each line. Integration values play a crucial role in understanding the function of urban systems in line maps since it result in that the numbers of movement which pass down each line has a high degree of influence by its integration value.

From some of the standpoint, space syntax is to extend the concept of network analysis to architecture design and urban planning. Its forecast of movement is controversial. However, the function of space syntax can not be negated.

To be more thorough, I read the book of “Space is a machine”, anther one written by Bill Hillier. In this section some reviews of this book will be illustrated.

1. The view of “configuration”

In the introduction at the beginning, Bill Hillier stated that the most critical result in these studies is the concept of “configuration” gradually enter into the center of the stage. In short, the “configuration” is intended as a set of relationships. Each of them depends on all others’ association with it. New techniques of spatial analysis have been developed from these, which brings the spatial logic of architecture and urban to light. What is more, it also quantifies a truth of the key point being “how to organize things together.

Similar with the word “pattern”, configuration emphasize the overall concept of complex systems rather than partial. However, we do not use the word “pattern” due to the fact pattern means to follow regularity. The concept of “spatial configuration” means the integrity of a relationship with any of the relationship depends on the relationships of all other relevant. Here presenting a formal but simple definition: for two spaces, if we define the spatial relationship of any kind of connection between them, such as adjacent or exchange, the relationship between them will change depend on the way of any one or both of these two spaces connecting with the third space. Wherein the configuration is present(p.14).

In the book, Hillier aimed to propose a new design method, which the configuration is the core concept. It insists that architecture design or urban planning is a process with configuration, which means the local change promote the overall change. Even if only rely on the knowledge of configuration can support the design. Hillier recalled the space syntax theory and methodology of some important new achievements in the preamble. These results make a more solid and effective theoretical foundation for space syntax.

  1. Space as a thing in itself

Space is an objective attribute of houses, which can be independently described as material things. However, in architecture, it is rare to describe space completely independent, such as “enclosed space” is to describe the space relying on the physical form rather than to define space as a unrestrained form. Roger Scruton consider the concept of space is a result of an arrogant architect’s taxonomic error. In the view of Scuton, space is not a thing in itself, but merely the opposite of physical entities, that is, the remaining of the houses. The space of the fields and interior space within the church seem no difference except the decoration of the church.

Hillier made an inference about the origins of Scruton: Descartes thought that the first attribute of material objects is their “extension”, which are the attributes can be measured, such as length, height and width. All of these do not rely on humans. And the second attribute is, to some extent, dependent on the subjective feeling of humans, such as “green” or “good”. Extending to the concept of space, removing the objects from the space it occupies, the extension still exist. And this is an attribute of space. Therefore, space can be summarized as an extension without object. So when we remove the object from the space it occupies, we do not believe that the extension of the space has also been removed.

In this view, space is corresponding to the physical attributes being defined so it becomes a measurable property of material objects. Hillier believes that once look upon the space from this perspective, you can not understand how it works in the space of human events. From the perspective of culture and society, space is not just a neutral framework of social and cultural construct, but fully integrated into the social and cultural forms. Human behavior is not easily occur in the space, but has its own spatial patterns.

In the section of “space as configuration”, the relationship between space and society does not exist on the level of a single space or the individual's activities, but in the configuration of human and space. From this section, the layout of spatial relationships is converted into J-diagram(Figure adjustment) to do analysis(p. 11).

  1. The need for an analytic theory of architecture

Architectural theory is to use the concepts, words and numbers to describe the inexpressible intuition, trying to reveal one or a few inexpressible rules. Perhaps we can say that architectural theory is trying to create a “inexpressible technology”, which we can handle those inexpressible forms, figuration and spatial patterns. At least in some aspects, architectural theory describes and guide the design. So in the terms of design, we can say architectural theory is an attempt to control building design.

The architectural theory discussed more in standardized in the past. They are lack of analysis. This is because those inexpressible technologies only describe a certain type of figuration.

P36 After lots of discussion about concept of “rule” and “theory”, the first step of putting forward the theory is the normalization of concept. And then begin to build our “inexpressible technology”. The method Hillier used is turning the real space into abstract space, to get a clear understanding of these characteristics. Using abstract coordinate system replace the space with object. In this system, the axis represent the properties which can be ruled.

P38 With this coordinate system, converting the properties of object into coordinate space and locating the object by using a series of points. So the regularity of the property was revealed. This is a basic recording method, which can record the similarities, differences and relationship between objects in an objective and independent way. However, it should be noticed that what we have seen is not the theory. It is the process models produce those rules.

In the book, many of the concepts are divided into two different dimension of properties by “dichotomy”, such as the scientific and artistic of the architecture(p.31). For example, architecture is defined as a object and a activity at the same time(p.5). And the most important conceptual distinction is the standardization and analytic of architectural theory.

Architectural theory generally appears in normative way. However, on a deeper level, it is no less than scientific theories about analytic. Architectural theory is not and can not be a simple rule. At least, it is a complex of analytic and normative. If the analysis of the theory is wrong, then the design will not be successful. Architectural theory tells us how the world should be like, but we first have to know what kind of world it is.(p.29)

Why architectural theory should use in this unique form? The answer lies in the essence of the work of architects. To be more specific, it is the design. The essence of design is an activity. It raises all kinds of issues, and architectural theorist applying theory in the form of analysis and normative and propose solutions to these problems. The essence of the process of design is create and prediction. Theories are used to support the process of create and the analysis of forecasting process.

R. A. Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy: from Descartes to Wittgenstein, ARK Paperbacks,1984.