Obituary Michael Sorkin (1948-2020)

Words:
D.G. Shane

New York based architectural theorist and designer and outspoken voice of liberal protest, who showed that cities can be creations of the many not the few and died of Covid-19 at the age of 71 during the global pandemic

Xi’an Airport (UFO), China.
Xi’an Airport (UFO), China. Credit: Michael Sorkin Studio

It is difficult to do justice to the complexity and generosity of my friend Michael Sorkin’s life. To begin with his voice was one of protest against wars, rapacious capitalism, racism and sexism, against colonialism and the American imperial tradition.  Modern architecture came under question, especially Philip Johnson whose early Nazi sympathies Sorkin exposed in the Village Voice. Sorkin emphasized the need for a space of open, participatory democratic debate influenced by Hannah Arendt’s courses at the University of Chicago and Lewis Mumford’s writings. 

As a graduate student at MIT Sorkin found his architectural voice in the participatory housing studios, loosely based on Halbraken’s housing theories, the Dutch Situationalist group and Chomsky’s linguistic theories. The MIT studios of the period were warrens of self constructed 3D working spaces and collective common spaces, with deep slow moving (infra)structures and anarchic, fast moving, shifting surface structures (constructed with 2x4’s and plywood sheets).

His attendance at Alvin Boyarsky’s International Institute of Design at London’s Architectural Association in 1971 led him to another anarchic global forum for discussion and participation in the Covent Garden Community Group’s rebellion against the GLC’s Plan. This participatory advocacy led to his first teaching job at the AA in the First Year Urban Unit with Jim Monahan, Ranulph Glanville, Leon Van Schaik, Kate Heron and me. Other urbanists at the school under Boyarsky’s leadership included Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, Leon Krier and Cedric Price, with Archigram in the background. Sorkin continued a long association with the AA, turning down the opportunity to be chairman of the school in 1995 – a decision he said he regretted for the rest of his life.

It was in New York of the 1980s that Sorkin found his architectural and spatial voice as a critic at the Village Voice and later The Nation. In the Village Jane Jacobs had pioneered community protest against the megalomaniac masterplans of Robert Moses. Sorkin followed, producing a remarkable series of visionary architectural and urban schemes. In 1990 he proposed, for instance, to equip the tracks of the abandoned Westside railway yards with railway carriages customized with fold out decks, terraces and penthouse extensions built by the city’s homeless in opposition to a vast tower and mall scheme proposed by Donald Trump (surrounding communities opposed the future president's plan and ultimately won in court).

Michael Sorkin.
Michael Sorkin. Credit: Chenxing Zhao

Similarly, in abandoned lots in Soho and Tribeca, Sorkin proposed inserting sculptural, poetic, mixed-use housing schemes – such as his 1991 Church Street project, raised on legs so the social life of the city could invade the undercroft with market stalls, small cafes and the like. These miniature Walking Cities (like Ron Heron’s projects for the East River) also became fish and crab-like pleasure palaces on beach front properties, silver clad like a large Airstream caravan capsule. Memories of this aquatic phase resurfaced in his later Asian work, such as the Jellyfish Hotel (2010) proposed for Taiwan.

Besides his practice, Sorkin published 12 books including a selection of his Voice articles, in Exquisite Corpse (1994). He founded Terreform, an urban research institute and publishing house, in 2005; his last book was  What Goes Up (2018) on the rights and wrongs of urban development.

Sorkin’s late architectural, urban design and city planning practice drew on his long experience as director of the Urban Design program at City College in New York from 2000-2018. The enormous, anarchic, collage cities where students designed each sector and then had to negotiate an assembly process provided a key background for such gigantic Chinese projects as Anxin Archipelago (2018), an archipelago of urban villages with farming that would also remediate a giant, polluted lake. These late competition entries and commissions included an award-winning masterplan of a new town for 300,000 inhabitants and an environmental research park, both in Wuhan, China ­– though they rarely produced built results.

At Xi’an Airport City in China (2012) Sorkin at last landed one of his spaceships in a circular flying saucer of an office building with an asymmetrical section producing a strange elliptical silhouette, caged in strong structural ribs reminiscent of his beached aquatic pavilions. Sadly this project carried off this great architectural critic and designer, just as his built career began.

Sorkin died in New York on 26 March 2020 at the age of 71 from Covid-19 complications during the coronavirus crisis as the US became one of the most affected countries in the world. He is survived by his wife of many years, Joan Copjek, the distinguished film theorist and Brown University professor.