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“The Collective Work of Art We Call the City”

We pay tribute to Michael Sorkin, the architect and writer who died last week after contracting COVID-19. Sorkin spent his life both interpreting and changing cities in the interest of economic justice.

Michael Sorkin in 2010. Storefront for Art and Architecture

The coronavirus pandemic has already caused unfathomable damage to city life in ways big and small. One very specific and sad way in which the virus has darkened the urban prospect is by causing the death last week of the architect and writer Michael Sorkin.

Based in and synonymous with New York City, Sorkin was the kind of politically engaged, incisive, and humane polymath that other famous architects sometimes try unconvincingly to impersonate. At seventy-one, Sorkin had accomplished multiple careers’ worth of achievements: principal of Michael Sorkin Studio; founder and president of the nonprofit research organization Terreform; creator of the publishing imprint Urban Research; distinguished professor of urban design in the architecture school at City College of New York; writer for publications like the Village Voice, the Nation, and Architectural Record.

More generally, Michael Sorkin was an iconic example of a genuinely left-wing architect and urban public intellectual. He should be seen as part of a tradition that includes figures like Lewis Mumford and Marshall Berman: humanist, cosmopolitan New Yorkers who brought a socialist sensibility to urbanism.

Throughout his career, Sorkin aspired to make the built environment an instrument for justice. His ideas and projects sought to produce a more egalitarian, emancipatory, enjoyable, and ecologically viable urban realm, in the United States as well as Palestine, China, and elsewhere.

Sorkin’s columns and books will remain relevant and readable because he started from a position anathema to mainstream architectural culture: that, as he put it in All Over the Map, “All architecture is political.” Sorkin relentlessly highlighted the politics of urban space and the social functions of architecture. “All architecture distributes: mass, space, materials, privilege, access, meaning, shelter, rights,” he wrote in a column collected in the 2018’s What Goes Up. “In the main, architecture only abets the transparency of capital’s inequities.”

It was precisely this architectural complicity in capitalist inequality and social violence that Sorkin spent his career attempting to change.

It is rare for any well-known architect to highlight political-economic struggles within the field itself, but Sorkin was keenly aware that architecture depends upon a variety of forms of exploited labor. Writing a 2015 afterword to a book edited by Peggy Deamer, he declared, “Our fight is to assure equity and justice both in architecture’s effects and in the means of its production.”

In an openly patriarchal industry where powerful firms establish branded empires, Sorkin disavowed and often denounced the big names. He maintained an outsider’s perspective even after becoming an institution-builder in his own right.

As a writer, Sorkin had a rare and irrepressible talent for polemic. He happily embraced the necessity for critical negativity, acknowledging that “my work has mainly tended to fall into diatribes and encomiums. I have always had, shall we say, a certain penchant for invective . . . My critical purposes are polemical and the situation in New York has been mainly bleak.”

Sorkin’s writings are peppered with episodes of inspired antagonism toward figures like Philip Johnson, whom Sorkin outed as an ex-fascist, and Donald Trump, whom he regarded as a proto-fascist.

But as much as he specialized in righteous anger, Sorkin could be equally lyrical in his affirmation of the democratic potential of urban existence. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, his book-length reflection on the short walk from his home on Waverly Place to his studio on Varick Street, ends with Sorkin appreciating the “scintillating dialectic of equality and difference . . . at the core of the struggle to find the form of the good city.”

He told the New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova, “I love it when people of faith and good heart collude in this collective work of art we call the city.” He promoted density, difference, and vitality, but he was consistently critical of movements that fetishized them, such as New Urbanism. He recognized the limits of simple pro-urbanism: “While it is crucial, of course, to nurture the best parts of our cities, the vital neighborhoods and the climax forms, these tasks cannot delimit the agenda of an urbanism that truly looks to the future.”

Sorkin was one of the original prophets of public space and opponents of its privatization. His edited volume Variations on a Theme Park remains a touchstone for many writers and scholars within urban studies for the way it deconstructed the entertainment-security complex that was colonizing American downtowns in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “The theme park presents its happy regulated vision of pleasure — all those artfully hoodwinking forms — as a substitute for the democratic public realm, and it does so appealingly by stripping troubled urbanity of its sting,” he wrote. “The effort to reclaim the city is the struggle of democracy itself.”

There is a strong New Left ambiance in Sorkin’s writings. But unlike others in his generational cohort, this did not develop with age into an embrace of historicism or depoliticized whimsy, and he was always a droll critic of postmodernism.

In Exquisite Corpse, he regretted that “Cloddish neo-con reaction to modernism’s failures of argument has lead to the present crisis of authority and the dumb exultation of the historic, the last refuge of banality. This has yielded truly freakish results: an orgy of solipsism, narcissist architecture, absorbed with self-reference and façade.” Postmodernism represented everything Sorkin opposed: pure style used to decorate and valorize an increasingly unequal and antisocial city.

Sorkin also had his share of criticism for various modernist approaches to urban design, but they were intimate, sympathetic objections. Like Marshall Berman, he criticized modernism from the perspective of someone who always believed in modernity’s liberatory potential. “A deep love of modern architecture has been the center for me: I grew up on modernism which always seemed to harbor both adventure and hope.”

He would come to develop a kind of red-green critical modernism that remains deeply relevant today: “Urban design is ready for an explosion of fresh forms, inspired by the democratic roots of the critique of modernist urbanism, by a deeply ecological sensibility, by a fond embrace of the pluralist character of our culture, and by a critical incorporation of the new and inescapably transformative technologies of electronic adjacency.”

I only knew Sorkin through his work and public persona, and I never met him personally. But it seems as if everyone who did know him has been permanently impressed by his generosity, supportiveness, and good humor. By all accounts, he supported the ambitions and careers of countless students, colleagues, architects, activists, social scientists, planners, and other city-dwellers. Their sadness at his passing has been evident from a steady stream of essays, emails, and testimonies to his compassion, intelligence, and warm spirit.

Michael Sorkin spent his life both interpreting and changing cities. Now, when the urban future seems so uncertain, the struggle in which he was immersed — to use urbanism and the built environment to build social and planetary justice — is more important than ever.