Julia Hinde reports on UCL's novel architectural consultancy that aims to make money from the spaces between buildings.
How is it that some company coffee machines become the focus of office life, where deals are struck and ideas take shape, while others are purely functional? Why do some modern shopping centres take off, while others are seen as windswept and heartless and remain deserted?
It is down to "space", says architect Tim Stonor, the business mind behind University College London's architecture consultancy, the Space Syntax Laboratory.
Established in 1989 as a means of protecting intellectual property, the Space Syntax Laboratory was involved in ad hoc consultancy work until 1995. Then 30-year-old Stonor, formerly an architecture student at UCL, drew up a business plan.
Two years on the company pays the full-time salaries of six staff who also lecture at the university. More than 20 PhD students from UCL's Bartlett School of Graduate Studies help out on projects and are paid commercial rates for their time. Stonor speaks of increasing staff and licensing software for similar consultancy companies across the world. All profits from Space Syntax have so far been reinvested in improving software and in staff, but Stonor is confident it can become a money-spinner as theoretical architecture and planning is transformed into a commercial company.
The theory of space syntax was first pioneered in the early 1970s by UCL's Bill Hillier. At the theoretical level, says Stonor, space syntax addresses the relationship between a building and society, looking at how different societies manifest themselves through the buildings they produce, which in turn affect the society. The idea that a building could affect how a society interacts and moves was controversial.
"Space Syntax is all about understanding the layout of space and how that influences activity, the way people move about and use streets or buildings," explains Stonor. He points to the many failed housing projects of the 1960s. "Why is it that many of the housing projects did not live up to the hopes of their designers? Ideas are banded about that it is because they are made of concrete or they are high rise. But ones made of timber don't work either, nor do many low-rise developments. Bill Hillier concluded it was something to do with space - the space in between the buildings which makes the difference."
Professor Hillier said that buildings and estates which did not work were very often simply too complicated with regards to layout - there were too many changes of direction, not enough wide and long simplistic paths through these estates. Further research at UCL showed a mathematical inverse relationship between the complexity of the pathway and the number of people who used it.
These theoretical notions about the importance of space were essentially new to architecture. Not only was the design of the building, and the material used important, but also the bits in between were beginning to be seen as a crucial reason for why a development would succeed or fail. The relationship between spatial layout and human activity was acknowledged as important.
Academics at UCL developed computer programs to model space - how connected places were, how integrated a network of streets were - and found a strong relationship between integration and movement rate. The more integrated the system, the more it was used. From this they began to be able to study real life - why certain designs worked and others did not - and then predict forward, to say for example whether a shopping centre design would attract shoppers, tourists, businesses? They found they could predict to between 70 and 80 per cent accuracy the amount of movement on a street, in an office, on an estate.
By the mid-1980s UCL space syntax experts were beginning to publish their ideas and being asked to comment at planning enquiries. Architects and designers including Sir Norman Foster and Richard Rogers began to consult them on future developments, including London's King's Cross Urban Regeneration Masterplan and the Shanghai Financial City plan. They wanted to know whether their designs would actually work for pedestrians.
In 1989 Space Syntax became a company. Results were being widely published in academic and commercial circles and UCL decided it was time to protect the intellectual property it had developed.
"But up until very recently the consultancy work, the fees it generated and the people it enabled us to work with were seen as a bit of a luxury," says Stonor. "It was very much stop start. There was no intention to grow the company. Rather the consultancy continued to piggyback on the back of the long-term research strategy of the department."
Two years ago all that changed. Publicity was sought, casual enquiries received a prompt and thorough response and Space Syntax took off as a proper consultancy.
"It became clear that even though we were in a university, providing lecturing and courses, we had to operate as if we were in the outside world," explains Stonor. "It is only now that things are beginning to take off."
Indeed the portfolio includes some of the most high-profile projects in the UK, such as the redesign of Trafalgar Square and the possible redevelopment of London's South Bank Centre.
With a turnover this year in the low hundred thousands, Space Syntax is not yet in the big league - but Stonor has plans. He wants to see UCL licensing the technology it has developed to other university companies across the globe and reaping the rewards.
"One of the most important lessons we have learnt is that our consultancy work feeds back into the academic research and teaching programme. By confronting real-world situations we find ourselves developing theoretical and methodological techniques to tackle them," explains Stonor. "It is therefore good for us and good for UCL."