Remembering Michael Sorkin

Date Posted: 04.06.2020

Michael Sorkin was an architect, design critic, teacher and outspoken voice for social justice and sustainability in the design of urban places. He died on March 26 after contracting coronavirus.

Mithun partner Craig Hodgetts reflects on the talent and humanism of Michael Sorkin in the below tribute, which first appeared in Architectural Record and Abitare.

I’ve never crossed swords with Michael. Not because I didn’t want to. I was itching to dig deeper into his thinking, and debate seemed the most exhilarating way to do it—even just to test my convictions, but I was never able to get to the “left” of him. He was, without a doubt the voice of architecture with a purpose. Not just any purpose, but one that met his unflinching hard-ass belief in architecture’s role in reshaping society. And that came with a lot of baggage.

From his early days as a stringer for the Village Voice, itself unremitting in its castigation of capitalism, pretension, and politesse, with a roster including Nat Hentoff, Robert Christgau, and folks like Andrew Sarris, Michael stuck out. With vigorous, take-no-prisoners prose and passionate advocacy, Michael was a quick-drawing, skilled outlaw, ready and willing to take on the elite architectural establishment in defense of the urban liberties he considered under siege.

All of this belied the deep-seated humanism that coursed through his veins. Michael wanted cities to work for people, wanted architects to put the urban environment first, and to cease their preoccupation with spires and ornamental gewgaws. He envisioned a ground-up role for buildings and proposed countless variations in his office for urban master-plans designed to force architecture’s hand. Those designs, he called them “unsolicited master plans,” were masterworks of purposeful chaos intended to break down traditional hierarchies and promote individuality on every level. Often resembling petri-dish views of massive swaths of urbanity, with fractal-like borders, Sorkin’s designs envisioned neighborhoods brushing up against one another with permeable borders designed to encourage random interaction.

“Exquisite Corpse” stands out from his catalogue of more than twenty books as the definitive urban parlor game. By recognizing the blunt relationships block to block that so often yield rewarding results, he implicitly challenged the long-standing priorities that rule urban designers. In a sense, by ordaining a compound, rather than a mix, and turning long-held beliefs into failed strategies, he had hoped to re-energize his favorite city, and establish a new template for developers.

I often wonder if he had indulged his affection for Los Angeles, if SCI-Arc had gone from mild flirtation to serious courtship, and if City College were bereft of his presence, whether his brand of critical thinking would have flourished out here. He needed an adversary, not a collaborator. He needed to be out on a limb not in a comfortable nest, and New York provided the perfect scaffold for his thinking.