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Archiopathy: Buildings Disregarding Other Buildings

CCA LiveE | Friday January 25th, 2013 | 2 Comments

This is part of a series of articles by MBA students at California College of the Arts dMBA program. Follow along here.

Chronicle, Michael Macor

Chronicle, Michael Macor

By Hachem Mahfoud, Architect and DMBA student, CCA

Did you know that some people regard the One Rincon Hill Tower in San Francisco as an archiopath? You might ask, what is an archiopath?  Most of us know what a sociopath is. Maybe you’ve even met one. In psychology a sociopath is someone who disregards the rights of others. Similarly, an archiopath is an architectural element that disregards other architectural elements around it. This labeling comes from architectural research I conducted on cross-discipline implementation of theories. The driving force behind this work is the desire to enhance one discipline by borrowing theories from another in order to give architects other ways to think about, and conceive, urban sustainable design.

To accomplish such a task, one has to go through three different phases: deconstruction, parallelism and cross-implementation.

  1. Deconstruction
    In the deconstruction phase, both fields are broken down into their simplest elements.  In architecture, for example, a city can be broken down to buildings, which in turn can be broken down to flats, then rooms, until we reach our basic element, which is space.   In a similar manner, sociology can be deconstructed into social groups, then social relationships, and finally to a set of behaviors.
  2. Parallelism
    Once deconstruction is completed and the simplest elements are obtained, parallelism can be drawn between the elements of each discipline. A simple example would be equating a space in architecture to a behavior in sociology.
  3. Cross Implementation
    Finally, with the completion of the parallelism phase, theories from one discipline can be applied to another discipline.  As an example, take conflict theory from sociology and then apply it to architectural elements.  Or vice versa, one can take the “Formalism” theory in architecture and apply it to social elements.

For a glimpse of how this cross discipline implementation of series might work, consider its application to city skylines.  Take for example the San Francisco skyline. At a first glance one may see a bunch of arbitrarily positioned buildings.  Or one might recognize some relationships between these buildings and their effect of the total appeal of the skyline, even without any formal architectural knowledge.  Looking at this relationship from a sociological point of view, conflict theory states that conflict between sub groups of society is what keeps that society alive. For instance, people without means are always struggling to better their status which drives them to work harder, and people with means also work hard to keep growing their wealth. Drawing parallels between building dimensions and social groups and their wealth, one can easily see how conflict theory can be applied to a skyline and how it can answer why certain skylines are voted worse or better than others.

Take a look at the skyline in Fort Lease, Brazil. It was voted to be one of the more boring skylines.  It can be easily seen that the buildings pretty much match each other in shape and in height.  And thus per conflict theory, this skyline resembles a society made of one group i.e. it lacks economic diversity, which results in a static society that soon stagnates.   In contrast, the San Francisco skyline voted to be the 53rd best skyline in the world by the Emporis Standards Committee is full of buildings with different sizes resembling a society with economic diversity. Thus, per conflict theory, this skyline offers a balance between the buildings.

Furthermore, one can assess the conflict in shapes, rather than conflict in size.  Looking at the San Francisco skyline there are other elements that keep us engaged – namely, the shapes of the structures and not just their size.  Here again, one can see a conflict between the Transamerica building with its triangular shape and the rest of the skyline, which is predominantly rectangular.  Thus such a structure has more wealth in terms of size and also in terms of shape.  Similarly, the Golden Gate Bridge’s curvilinear shape gives it more status and wealth over other structures.

Conflict theory applied to a city skyline is just one example of value of the cross discipline perspective. Other theories in sociology, such as Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism, could also be applied to city planning or highway planning.

Borrowing from other disciplines gives architects another tool to shape their structures in order to create impact as a building either stands alone or is part of a complex or skyline. Looking at design problems from a sociologist’s point of view brings a new dimension to the solution. These multidisciplinary approaches will help create more interesting and sustainable designs around us. “One Rincon Hill Tower” may be sociopath if viewed from a psychological perspective. Looking at it from a Conflict Theory perspective, however, may reveal its importance in adding to the “wealth” and “diversity” of the San Francisco Skyline.


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  • http://www.ArchitectureWeek.com/ Kevin at ArchitectureWeek

    It would be great to bring some evidence to bear on such theorizing, in addition to abstract arguing by analogy.

  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    Pretty interesting idea… I like it, but man, a very dense explanation. Could this be simplified by saying a building in any environment (urban or otherwise) that is not designed without at least minimal thought for the environment around it could be an “archiopath”?

    That’s not to say buildings can’t or should not challenge their environments or neighbors, just that there’s an thoughtful way to do that.

    I’d agree that Rincon Hill is a pretty obnoxious building.