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‘The most humane, most incisive and most readable writer on architecture of the modern age’ – a tribute to Michael Sorkin

31 March 2020

1) The feel of cool marble under bare feet.
2) How to live in a small room with five strangers for six months.
3) With the same strangers in a lifeboat for one week.
4) The modulus of rupture.
5) The distance a shout carries in the city.
6) The distance of a whisper.
7) Everything possible about Hatshepsut’s temple (try not to see it as ‘modernist’ avant la lettre).
8) The number of people with rent subsidies in New York City.
9) In your town (include the rich).
10) The flowering season for azaleas.

These are the first ten points of Michael Sorkin’s list of ‘Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect should know’. They give a glimpse into the mind of the most humane, most incisive and most readable writer on architecture of the modern age. Sorkin, who died last week of complications due to Covid-19, gained his reputation as the architecture critic of The Village Voice in New York, which, in the 1980s, was a publication with a formidable reach and impact on a city just beginning to boom again. He launched fierce attacks against the banality of the contemporary city, the rapacity and greed of developers (notably the current president, including in a 1985 piece entitled ‘Dump the Trump’) and the loss of great landmarks. But he was no nostalgist; he revelled in the potential of architecture to catalyse change and excoriated his contemporaries for caving in to big business, for building prisons and being complicit in a denuded public realm.

Sorkin was born in Washington, D.C. and credited his comfortable, uneventful suburban upbringing with sparking his profound love for the chaotic, exciting and unpredictable intensity of the Manhattan he arrived in as a young man. Having studied at the University of Chicago, Columbia and MIT, he settled with his wife, Joan Copjec (an academic teaching film theory at Brown University) and set up in an apartment in Greenwich Village. New York in the 1970s was suffering convulsions of self-confidence and morphing from a capitalist powerhouse to a bankrupt, shrinking metropolis, albeit one with a cultural scene thriving in the dark corners of its emptying-out industrial infrastructure.

His walk to work at a Tribeca office became the foundational daily journey for critiques of the changing city, the displacement of communities and local businesses and the slow takeover by big capital. It was later crystallised into a book, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (2009).

Sorkin’s role at The Village Voice gave him a public platform for his ideas about architecture as a social and political act. He was acutely aware of all the aesthetic and theoretical threads running through avant-garde culture in the era, but he was an activist who saw architecture as a medium and catalyst for social change. His writing was so brilliant because it spanned theory and everyday experience alongside politics, regulation and economics. He was not pronouncing from on high but from the sidewalk, explaining how big business was exploiting loopholes and using regulation to cream off money and make profit at the expense of citizens. He would later rail against the privatisation of public space and the dumbing-down of commercial architecture.

Although he was most widely revered (and reviled, upsetting many establishment architects in the still surprisingly intimate world of New York architecture) he was also a practitioner and perennially prickly about being pigeon-holed solely as a critic. He ran his own practice, Michael Sorkin Studio, and directed the graduate programme at the City College of New York – and so understood the profession from both ends. He later founded the Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research, a non-profit research studio and its publishing arm UR, looking into issues of environmental and social design. His practices were often successful in competition (notably in China) and in masterplanning, though only rarely led to built work; his own architecture was eccentric and wilfully, playfully strange, featuring parasitic structures or zoomorphic designs mostly inspired by natural forms.

I hope he will be remembered as a kind, nurturing figure who always had time to talk (and listen), and who understood architecture as a potential act of generosity. His critiques of big-name architects may have been acerbic – most notably his assault on the architectural kingmaker Philip Johnson, which highlighted his Nazi-sympathising past – but his critiques were social and not personal, tearing into bad designs rather than bitchy invective.

Ultimately he was a humane critic of the contemporary city, a serious, funny and poetic voice defending the powerless against big capital and an articulator of how architecture should be used as a tool of resistance. He is indelibly associated with New York, a city he loved with a fervour despite its faults, and of which he defended every inch as a public good. Number 210 in his list was the medieval German phrase ‘Stadtluft macht frei’ – ‘city air makes you free’. He will survive through his magical writing, which makes us all a little freer.