A talk given at the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the MSc in Advanced Architectural Studies – the “space syntax” MSc at University College London, 3rd September 2013.
Good evening, everyone.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the genius of Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson. Not only for pioneering a theory – the theory – of architecture, but also for finding a way to teach it that has had such an effect on us all.
I’ve been asked to speak this evening about the issue of employability: does taking the MSc in Advanced Architectural Studies either enhance or inhibit the job propsects of its graduates?
Here’s what I want to say:
First, I’d like to review the perceived problem of Space Syntax – why it’s sometimes viewed with skepticism and how that impacts at interview; second, the nonsense of this criticism: why do I even need to be up here to defend the course; third, the “Hang on, maybe there’s an element of truth here” moment; and finally a belief that we can’t rest on our laurels.
So let’s start by acknowledging the view that Space Syntax is a difficult technology and its proponents are geeks.
Although I believe this view is unjust, I think it’s worth looking at its origins. I think it is born of three factors:
First, deliberate ignorance of what Space Syntax is: a lack of intellectual curiosity – people who don’t care. I have to say this factor is rare but it’s still there.
Second, jealousy of what Space Syntax is and a failure to provide a sufficient alternative – people who care greatly to undermine us. Nothing comes even close to Space Syntax and we aren’t the only people to know this. Our abilities strike fear into the hearts of other academics and practitioners. These fears confront graduates of the course.
Third, poor communications on our part – acting as if Space Syntax really is a difficult technology and we really are geeks. I believe that we sometimes need to look in the mirror and check our appearance. We can’t say that Space Syntacticians have always presented ourselves entirely clearly. Sometimes I feel we have obfuscated for effect and not delivered a simple enough message to our audience. This is a general trait in architecture: the “more is more” approach and so we shouldn’t blame this solely on the AAS course. But we need to be careful, not least because today’s Space Syntax software can produce hundreds of measures in milliseconds – I call this the risk of “digital diarrohoea” and I consider it to be a disease that needs eradicating.
So we certainly do need to teach the ignorant and tolerate the jealous, but we also have to keep our house properly configured. We need to communicate more clearly what Space Syntax is.
And for me it is the social theory that matters most – it is the theory of Space Syntax that is most readily transferable into the widest range of job descriptions. You don’t have to work at Space Syntax or SpaceLab or Intelligent Space to make use of the MSc AAS. Or Spacescape or SpaceCraft or SpaceStation or even Space for that matter. The social theory doesn’t need the technology for it to be part of your day-to-day employment.
And certainly it has been difficult for course graduates to take the technology out of UCL and into practice – because of proprietorial licensing issues – a barrier that, in the past, I have played my own part in maintaining. And also because of the problem of systems integration: linking with AutoCad, MicroStation and so on. Then there’s the paucity of manuals and tutorials – the stream of know-how dries up when you leave UCL.
I’m pleased to say that each of these issues is being dealt with. Alasdair Turner’s passing coincided with the open sourcing of DepthMap. For me, this opening up coincides with our growing confidence in being Space Syntax people and, more importantly, the industry’s acceptance of Space Syntax, which is no longer viewed with suspicion as an “alternative” approach – a dark art. Space Syntax is not yet mainstream but it’s certainly no longer counter-cultural.
In open sourcing DepthMap, the proprietorial walls to the fortress of Space Syntax – the bulwarks – have come down. And in their place we now need to build the boulevard: a place of trade to replace the pioneers’ fortress. Where anyone who wants to can access the technology.
But this means more than open sourcing the software – if AAS students are to be even more employable, then it means opening up our knowledge bases. Not being proprietorial about information. I’m pleased to say that this is happening too with the creation of the Space Syntax Online Training Platform – stuffed full of information for the practitioner. We have a working version that my company and the UCL research group are using. We’re going to develop a fully public version.
You may wonder if this opening up of Space Syntax threatens the existence of the course – my view is absolutely not: it enhances it. We need more people to be aware of the importance of the social theory and they can’t all come to UCL for a year or two – or more. Those that do though will have an enhanced experience – the kind of intensive learning, interaction and serendipitous encounter that only face to face can provide.
And this is why we can’t rest on our laurels – there’s a good deal of work to do. By all means let’s celebrate the 40th year of the course – these anniversaries deserve some roasting of the meat. But let’s also look to the next 40, during which I want to see Space Syntax move from Expert Consultancy to General Practice; when every student of architecture, planning – every future leader of and participant in an urban settlement – has instant access to what is currently privileged – when the issue of employability isn’t even on the agenda.