1. Introduction

"Buildings and cities exist for us in two ways: as the physical forms that we build and see, and as the spaces that we use and move through. For most of the history of Architecture, theory and criticism focused only on the first, the physical form."(Hillier 2005, 2)

Even though this statement is rather firm, theory and criticism in architecture, but also in archaeology and history, have indeed mainly focussed upon the physical form. However, in more recent years 'space' has become what one could call a 'hot topic' in those disciplines. The study of historical space has always been rather subjective. Moreover, despite this being the ideal opportunity for interdisciplinary research between the various historical disciplines, this has seldom taken place (Bitter et al. 2006, 2; Stabel 2006, 77-78). Even rarer are those occurrences in which non-historical disciplines are applied in a historical context. However, in order to study space objectively and methodically, it would be very advantageous to see what other related disciplines have been working on and whether these techniques can be successfully applied in a historical context.

One such a technique is space syntax. This theory/methodology has proven to be extremely successful in the analysis and design of modern urban landscapes. It has been pioneered by the architectural and urban morphologist Bill Hillier (Hillier and Hanson 1984; Hillier et al. 1993; Hillier 1998, 1999) and further developed by him and his colleagues at the Bartlett School (UCL). Space syntax is based upon the idea that human societies use and configure space, and states that social structure is expressed spatially. By studying the topological description, it is the premise that sociologically relevant aspects of configured space can be captured. The central idea behind this premise is that topological features are much more objective compared to documentary evidence, and therefore will create a more accurate picture of society (Bafna 2003).

However, in order to fill the gap, as noted by Bill Hillier, objectively and to fulfil my own objectives for the study of medieval urban spaces, this technique is not entirely sufficient by itself. Space syntax analyses modern urban spaces by using accurate town plans and these are usually not available for periods before 1800. This lack of historicity was probably one of the reasons why space syntax has hardly been used as a technique in archaeology. Some archaeologists have been very sceptic about the inadequacy of space syntax in the analysis of building remains and therefore also have dismissed its possible uses in 'organic' historic urban spaces without any real investigation, even though it has been proven that space syntax works on modern 'organic' as well as planned cities (Karimi 1997). In addition, the historical geographer and urban morphologist Keith Lilley (Lilley 2000) has developed the technique of town plan analysis, pioneered by Conzen (Conzen 1968) into a step by step process for analysing the transformation of towns, which shows that 'organic' cities in some way also have a very regular structure that can be analysed. It would therefore be very advantageous to combine both of these techniques in a methodology in order to make the best use of their strengths and compensate their weaknesses. Town plan analysis merely illustrates and analyses the transformation and does not analyse the space and does not discuss the way in which it functioned. Space syntax on the other hand does fulfil the latter criteria but obviously lacks the historical component.

There is an additional motive for using space syntax in the study of medieval towns, since this methodology first developed during research of economic spaces. Research of current towns has shown that one of the mathematical outcomes of space syntax correlates highly with retail space. The hypothesis is that this was already the case in medieval towns, and that it is not a phenomenon of more recent centuries. Therefore, apart from assisting in the analysis of urban development I shall briefly take a side-step in the analysis section to investigate the 'retail' space of the medieval town.

It has to be noted that both these techniques can only be applied to those urban environments for which a reasonably large body of evidence exists. On the other hand, this is also true for analysing urban development by means of traditional methodologies so this does not necessarily need to be taken as a negative. Moreover, in special circumstances, such as the preservation of (part of) the medieval street grid, substantially less evidence would be required when using this 'new' methodology than when using more traditional methods.

This article aims to analyse if space syntax can be applied in a historical context by using this technique in the analysis of plans produced by town plan analysis. In essence, the two techniques will be linked in order to make use of their advantages and to solve their problems. Even though the advantages of using both of these techniques together have been noted before (Larkham 2006, 130), no publication has previously dealt with the practicalities. This article will therefore be the first to examine this technique by asking the question if and in what way this technique can aid the study of the medieval urban form and in particular, of the economic space in the medieval urban form. The town of Utrecht will serve as the case study, because most of its historic centre has been preserved and therefore facilitates the creation of a medieval town plan. Moreover, many historical documents as well as archaeological evidence are available to further aid the research. In addition, Utrecht's market spaces have been researched extensively by Van Vliet (1995), and therefore enables the testing of the new methodology by being able to compare it with the outcomes of conventional research.

Firstly, the methodology central to this article shall be explained in more detail but only in so far as it is relevant to this research. Further references to articles with more detailed information about the theory and practice underlying space syntax are provided. Secondly, a short historical background will be given to contextualise historical events which affected Utrecht's urban development. Following this, space syntax will be applied using Utrecht's town plan at various stages of its urban development. Maps based on Van Vliet's research (1995) will be used to aid comparison between the space syntax maps and the proven market spaces. Finally, the methodology shall be reviewed in order to discuss the hypothesis that space syntax can be used as an objective research method in the urban historical disciplines.


© Internet Archaeology / Author URL:
Last updated: Wed Aug 8 2007