Are Covid-19 obituaries all we’re going to be writing and publishing for the next few months? To my shame I’ve never seen a Terrence McNally play, have never listened to Manu Dibango or Aurlus Mabele, don’t think I’ve ever read Maurice Berger. Which means that Michael Sorkin, who died on Thursday, is, for me, the pandemic’s first celebrity victim, to the extent that an architecture critic can be a celebrity. He was 71.
I would like to avoid imagining Sorkin’s final moments in—I presume—a chaotic, overcrowded New York hospital, but in a Covid-19 obituary there is no peaceful end to conjure, no comforting, mitigating cliché. This is not a moment to take peaceful stock of a life lived to the fullest.
Sorkin died needlessly, at the hands of a monstrous President he diagnosed better than most back in the summer of 2016, when too many of us dismissed analogy as overstatement. Sorkin began writing for the Village Voice in the late ’70s, his office was up the street from Trump SoHo, and his beat was architecture, money, power, fascism. Of course he understood. And yet: “it isn’t the architecture that makes the man dangerous.” Better, always better, to avoid the metaphor and state things plainly:
An ironic staple of current cocktail chatter: Was it like this in Berlin in 1932? That fool will never become chancellor. The bombast, the racism, the mustache—impossible. Of course, the comparison goes too far, doesn’t it? Demonizing Muslims is very different from demonizing Jews. And the plan is to keep them out, not throw them out, right? It’s the 11 million Mexicans we actually want to deport, and they’re all criminals. And we’re going to build great things: walls as wide as a country and as long as the autobahn. That sound we hear is the glass ceiling shattering, not Kristallnacht.
That was how that column ended.
Hours after the election, American Institute of Architects CEO Robert Ivy released a statement of support for the Trump Administration that at the time was grotesque but now, during the end of the beginning of the pandemic, simply reads as corny satire: “During the campaign, President-elect Trump called for committing at least $500 billion to infrastructure spending over five years. We stand ready to work with him and with the incoming 115th Congress to ensure that investments in schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure continue to be a major priority.”
Sorkin’s response, which you can and should read (it’s on Dropbox), was called “Architecture Against Trump.” I’ll again quote from the end:
We must carry on the struggle for a just and sustainable environment with redoubled strength, opposing the reactionary policies that so gravely threaten our most fundamental values. Trump’s agenda—and that of his allies—will only accelerate the privatization and erosion of our public realm in both its social and physical forms and practices. We call upon the AIA to stand up for something beyond a place at the table where Trump’s cannibal feast will be served! Let us not be complicit in building Trump’s wall but band together to take it down!
The wall is going up, or some of it, and Trump took Sorkin down instead.
Here’s how Sorkin begins his introduction to Variations on a Theme Park, a 1992 collection of essays he edited about “The New American City at the End of Public Space,” as the subtitle has it, and an urban studies education in three hundred pages. Variations introduced me to Mike Davis, Sharon Zukin, Neil Smith, Edward Soja, Christine Boyer, and Sorkin himself. I’ll quote at length because if nothing else, now is an occasion for rereading, and for some of us there is time to reread:
With the precise prescience of a true Master of the Universe, Walter Wriston recently declared that “the 800 telephone number and the piece of plastic have made time and space obsolete.” Wriston ought to know. As former CEO of the suggestively named Citicorp, he’s a true Baron Haussmann for the electronic age, plowing the boulevards of capital through the pliant matrix of the global economy.
The comparison isn’t meant to be flip: Wriston’s remark begs fundamental questions about urbanity. Computers, credit cards, phones, faxes, and other instruments of artificial adjacency are rapidly eviscerating historic politics of propinquity, the very cement of the city. Indeed, recent years have seen the emergence of a wholly new kind of city, a city without a place attached to it.
The ageographical city is particularly advanced in the United States. It’s visible in clumps of skyscrapers rising from well-wired fields next to the Interstate; in huge shopping malls, anchored by their national-chain department stores, and surrounded by swarms of cars; in hermetically sealed atrium hotels cloned from coast to coast; in uniform “historic” gentrifications and festive markets; in the disaggregated sprawl of endless new suburbs without cities; and in the antenna bristle of a hundred million rooftops from Secaucus to Simi Valley, in the clouds of satellite dishes pointed at the asynchronous blip, all sucking Arsenio and the A-Team out of the ether.
To reiterate: this extraordinary, panoptic, visionary prose—the near-equal of DeLillo’s opening to the first proper chapter of Underworld (“I was driving a Lexus through a rustling wind. This is a car assembled in a work area that’s completely free of human presence.”), but published five years earlier than the Bronx sage’s end-of-history masterpiece—opens a quasi-academic anthology I encountered in an urban studies class. It wasn’t mainstream, though it should have been, and it simply didn’t have to be this good. But it was, as was all of Sorkin. Whether he was writing prophetically, or critically, or theoretically, or goofing off (“Last week I had a Gwyneth moment. Before I knew what I was doing, I turned in my tracks to gawk, trapped”), precise prescience was his M.O.
I encountered Variations during the second second Bush era, by which time the American city had ended and had been—according to a degree of hype that in retrospect was itself probably the major urban trend of the 2000s—“reborn.” Gentrification was by that time so advanced as to no longer need the “historic” to sell itself, and the ultimate instrument of “artificial adjacency”—the internet—had conquered all. According to the boosters, the local was allegedly in revival. In other words, in 2006, I read these paragraphs the way I’d read Underworld—as a lush and gorgeous echo and encapsulation of the postmodern 1990s, cut off from my own time by September 11, the dark and gloomy churn of the war on terror, the murderous cynicism of the Iraq War.
A decade and a half later, it is clear that I misread Sorkin, consigning his analysis, naively, to semi-recent urban history. In retrospect it is obvious that what Sorkin was describing was not a blip (“the asynchronous blip”), but a phenomenon that has only intensified. For all the alleged urban renaissances of the past decade, the exurbs are more fortified than ever, capital is wholly entrenched (more so three days after the President signed a Coronavirus relief bill that funnels trillions to the people who already have it), and the texture and specificity of urban life are ever closer to extinction. That was true before the Trump Administration’s homicidal response to the pandemic, which is likely to bring about the near-total collapse of independent business, the further commodification of public space, the climactic destruction of the pre-Amazon, pre-Sweetgreen, pre-Uber city, and above all the immiseration and exile of anyone but the super-rich. Now it is more true, and Sorkin is more right. And it’s too late. “The only two things that are certain in art criticism,” he wrote in a withering essay about another Nazi sympathizer, Philip Johnson, “are death and taxonomy.” If only we could trade the former for more of the latter.
I first saw Sorkin in real life in the spring of 2009. I was living on Convent Avenue and 142nd Street, a couple blocks up from City College, where he was teaching. Convent is sleepy and undertrafficked, concealed by two big avenues to the east and west. Despite its modest length (just over a mile), it is one of the most interesting streets in New York. Between 142nd and 144th is a postcard-stunning stretch of mansions that transplants Brooklyn Heights’s self-satisfaction to Upper Manhattan’s end-of-the-earth topography. At the northwest corner of 149th and Convent is Costa Machlouzarides’s Church of the Crucifixion, an urban takeoff on Le Corbusier’s pastoral Notre Dame du Haut and one of the city’s few truly shocking buildings. The City College blocks of Convent—130th(ish) to 140th—switch gears from neo-gothic arches to cut-rate brutalism to surface parking with the total indiscriminateness of an anything-goes Sun Belt metropolis, rather than the densest city in America.
Sorkin was introducing Paul Auster (that year’s Lewis Mumford Lecturer) inside City College’s enormous and mostly empty Great Hall. Auster’s inane not-quite-lecture (I think he read fragments from his own work that had to do with . . . cities?) wasn’t worthy of Sorkin’s penetrating introduction, but that didn’t matter because I wasn’t there to see Auster. Sorkin was younger and lighter on his feet than I thought he would be, and funnier than I assumed Marxists typically were. It was a winning mode: rigorous but approachable, digressive but never at risk of losing the thread.
Later that year the UK publisher Reaktion released Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, in which Sorkin sustained that mode across 272 pages. The book follows Sorkin’s walk from his Greenwich Village apartment to his studio and anchors a lifetime’s worth of assessments and criticisms and visions in the material life of the city. The chapter titles—“The Stairs,” “The Stoop,” “Canal Street,” and so on—make clear what Sorkin is up to. The goal is to close-read and theorize simultaneously, to move back and forth between description and urban history and proposal. That the book is a self-conscious rewriting of The Death and Life of Great American Cities is obvious. That it is superior to Jacobs’s classic is not posthumous overestimation, or sentimentalism. Jacobs does not (I think) make anyone want to write like Jacobs, whereas Sorkin’s grounded psychogeography is totally seductive. (The paragraph that begins this section is my attempt at homage.) Here, for the sake of pure pleasure, is a passage from the real thing (page 21) that I encountered via random number generator:
Not every block is created equal, and although the time constraint can be treated as a constant, fluctuations in density are enormous. The city has blocks that are filled by high-rise apartments and others that are essentially suburban, thousands of dwelling units versus tens. If an individual dwelling is understood as the center of a walking radius, each neighborhood resident will find a greater or lesser degree of her quotidian circle in adjacent neighborhoods, suggesting that the idea of neighborhood itself must be treated elastically.
Any book that could accommodate this, and a loving description of the laundromat across the street, and a microhistory of Fourierism, and a discussion of why Subaru named its SUV the Tribeca (“‘Tribeca’ falls on the ear like any of a dozen computer-generated neologisms that now denominate the Asiatic sedan: What is the meaning of Elantra, Camry, Acura, or Murano?”) was guaranteed a fanatical readership, albeit—and here I have to be honest with myself—a limited one. As a young book editor I was more conscious of the former fact than the latter one. Armed with fervor and a father complex, I persuaded my superiors to let me reissue Twenty Minutes in Manhattan in the US. At the very least, a book inseparable from New York deserved to be published there.
In the course of book production Sorkin and I exchanged a few friendly emails, none of which I have any longer, and at one point my colleague and I went to his studio on Varick Street. (It is absurd to have gotten this far without mentioning Sorkin’s visionary architectural practice, or Terreform, his urban research nonprofit, or Urban Research, Terreform’s book imprint. I omit these because above all I knew Sorkin as a writer; I wish I could be more comprehensive.) He was as appealing in person as he was on the page, but I have no signal memory to share, no revealing correspondence to point to. All I have is the writing.
Twenty Minutes in Manhattan may not be Sorkin’s best book (that’s probably Exquisite Corpse, his first essay collection for Verso), but it is the one that will endure the longest. Not—to be clear—because of any of my or my colleagues’ promotional efforts, but because as the disappearing city it depicts continues to disappear, it will become an increasingly valuable as a work of urban anthropology, maybe even archaeology. I’d forgotten that Sorkin ends Twenty Minutes with a discussion of Trump SoHo, which is located three blocks south of his studio. Writing long before the fraud lawsuit and the money laundering lawsuit and the obscuring name change (it’s now called The Dominick), Sorkin nonetheless anticipates everything. One more long quote:
Like the nation as a whole, New York lacks an adequate industrial policy, and the Trump SoHo—like its eponymous neighborhood next door—represents the transformation of an “obsolete” industrial neighborhood into something more congenial to the current market. This transformation reproduces, at the scale of the city, something that is going on globally, a kind of spatial segregation—or zoning—of continental reach: New York’s industrial neighborhoods are now in China or Mexico. . . .
The motto emblazoning the construction marquee surrounding the new Trump project is succinct: “Possess Your Own SoHo.” In the vulgarity of their sumptuary obsessions, Trump and his hotel are fine symbols of an urbanism of pure extraction that has little interest beyond the bottom line. The city becomes the territory of mere acquisitiveness, of the sort of civic disengagement suggested by the lifestyles of those who can afford to own multimillion-dollar apartments they will occupy for only a month at a stretch. For them, possession displaces participation their own bottom line.
That Sorkin was an optimist—or at least always wrote like one—only makes the multidimensional accuracy of all this more tragic. Sorkin knew what many architects and critics seem to refuse to grasp: analysis at the level of the building is only as accurate as one’s understanding of infrastructures and systems. A building is a metonym. So is its builder.
“An urbanism of pure extraction”: this is what the Trump Administration has sought to instrumentalize. It has been clear from the very beginning of the crisis that no matter how the US government chose to intervene, the Covid-19 epidemic would further entrench American inequality and likely leave its most powerful and greediest citizens better off than before. The question was only whether Donald Trump would choose the most sociopathic way forward, or something more reasonable. Was that even a question? Anyway, of course he has. Within a couple of days, the “China virus” might well become the “New York virus,” the city’s size and centrality turned against itself for culture-war gain. More people will die, cruelly and avoidably. Michael Sorkin was one of the people, and he was one of those people.
Praxis is the action of a free person. That’s what I remember from a college classics lecture in the 1990s. It was Halloween and the classicist, who normally wore all black, took the personal liberty of wearing all orange. I remember the lecture because I remember the color. There was an Aristotelean trinity of contemplation, production, and action—above all action. Praxis. In architectural theory—Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s On Architecture, three hundred years after Aristotle, discernibly a minor and unoriginal work by an unaccomplished architect, but thanks to the work of Bracciolini, the same Italian humanist who preserved Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, the only such text to have survived from the ancient world—there is the Vitruvian trinity of commodity, fitness, and delight. One: the built environment must accommodate and catalyze the activities of human life. Two: it must have a structure and material endurance. And Three, and most strenuously of all, it must delight: it must embody venustas, like the name of the goddess, also translated as beauty. For Vitruvius, beauty was ordered by the nature of the human body: “The design of a temple depends on symmetry. There must be a precise relation between its components, as in the case of those of a well-shaped man.”
I think that it was the same for Michael Sorkin. Though not in the stone symmetry of a classical statue or a neoclassical facade. But rather in action and in motion. In the dynamic, asymmetrical, and sinusoidal trajectories of a living body in motion. In the unceasing homeostatic breathing and the beating of a creature alive and vivid in the world. “Fish are symmetrical,” he observed, “but only until they wiggle. Our effort is to measure the space between the fish and the wiggle. This is the study of a lifetime.” The title of the 1998 monograph of Sorkin’s design work was that word, Wiggle. The cover featured not his own buildings or drawings, but, in deference to Nature, a close-up photograph of some two dozen small frogs, all as imperiously expressioned as human babies, half immersed in a green pool, curving and climbing and wriggling and irrefutably wiggling around, over, under, past one another. Sorkin’s drawings looked just like that: calligraphic field conditions inscribed in fine inky black and washed in pooling watery green, of loops and curlicues and commas that resolved into earthwork-like buildings in which you could see the profiles of leaves and pea pods, tadpoles and cetaceans, all in motion like droplets down a windowpane. Biological and geological behaviors seemed to animate these forms—with inevitability, with serendipity, with force, with chance—in a way Lucretius would recognize: “what once sprung from the earth sinks back into the earth.” I think of the drawings of Sorkin as writings that—like the Velveteen Rabbit transformed by love from mere signification into some kind of being—mark by mark, line by line, ceased somehow to be a visual record of a describing language and began to be something else. Began to move closer to the thing itself.
After a decade of architectural criticism for the Village Voice, a pivotal consulting project in the early 1990s on the expansion of the University of Chicago (unbuilt but influentially recorded in 2002’s Pamphlet Architecture 22) confirmed Sorkin’s swerve—long latent, always in the making, and subsequently fishtailing back-and-forth, from architectural criticism to architectural practice. As a designer, Sorkin’s body of work consisted mainly of what is called master-planning: the production of visionary schemes that, on a spectrum between prescriptive and suggestive, indicate how an existing building, campus, neighborhood, or city would or could or should grow in the future. His master-planning was the kind that seemed to yield to no one master, that answered to no one plan, but that suggested a metabolic complexity of behavior at a constantly renegotiated boundary between order and chaos, constraint and liberty, known and unknown. That cities not only resemble living things but are living things is self-evident to anyone who looks out of an airplane window at night and sees the pulsing networks—synaptic, electric, branching, searching—illuminated in the darkness below. Sorkin worked for a quarter century on these collective organisms—from Wuhan, to Jerusalem, to Brooklyn.
The architectural designs presented within master-planning tend to exist in a kind of subjunctive tense. Much of Sorkin’s built architectural work will be posthumous and likely not entirely by his hand. There are projects occasioned by his studio, in indeterminate phases of speculation and construction, across the instant-city boomtowns of eastern China that have accounted for something like 80 percent of all human building over the past decade. Most of these projects look like plants, and are meant to be covered with plants. And most of them knit together spaces that would otherwise be left apart—a tendril reaching across a gap, a hard shell yielding into a permeable membrane. They look to me like designs that only a once-and-future critic would countenance: buildings that, by visibly interrogating themselves, and by incorporating their own counterpoints and contradictions, become stronger and stranger.
To pick one of these projects almost at random: the Xi’an Airport Service Center, in Xi’an, China, looks like the top half of an everything bagel. Or like some kind of desert succulent. As rendered in 2012 (and now apparently under construction) this torus-shaped building rises broad and low from an encircling berm of earth, silvery and green with plantings, and rounds into the curving hole that makes an atrium at its center. But not quite at the center. The opening is shifted to one side, and the mass of the building bulged up beyond the shift. It is as if this creaturely thing were suspended in mid-motion: leaning inward, even as the eye that is the oculus of that atrium addresses the outward direction from which the whole withdraws—all in un-classical contraposto. When these formally expressive gestures are done well, they imbue by obscure mechanisms of visual perception and visceral anticipation a certain potential energy into the people who dwell within them—just as the handle of an ax makes you want to swing it. The de-centered atrium isn’t the only opening: within the bulged-up side of the building there’s a sweeping arc-like incision, a slashing atrium that offers a constant alternative, even a critique, to the soft round one. Buildings with these kinds of behaviors—whether they are in Sorkin’s signature calligraphic morphology or some other style—are generous to their occupants: their deft self-contradiction offers you, however semi-consciously, a kind of gestalt freedom-of-choice. You can identify with one atrium or another; with the earth that gathers around the building’s edge, or with the air that swoops down into its center.
Not far from Convent Avenue in Harlem at 113 West 136th Street, not far from the campus of the City College of New York where Sorkin taught design, was Sorkin’s most recent and perhaps most fully realized, though smallest and as yet unbuilt architectural proposal: a finalist in a 2019 city-run competition to realize the potential for housing to be found in vacant lots so small as to be seemingly unbuildable at scale. For a 17-by-100-foot lot, Sorkin’s studio produced what he called Greenfill: House as Garden, a townhouse-scaled structure featuring six airy loft apartments, plus a “hotel room” apartment to be shared as needed by the whole building. There are vertical windmills and solar panels and other sustainability machinery. It’s tight and smart, a puzzle solved. Unlike much of Sorkin’s work, it doesn’t look amphibian or like it might start moving the second you look away—and yet it has this same restless and lively quality: to study it is to apprehend an essayistic process of successive supposition in which the thinker thought what about this, or this, or this. Sorkin’s critical gesture was to turn the typical townhouse back to front: along the street wall, the building steps irregularly back into planted terraces, yielding light and air and party-wall windows to its neighbors, whereas at the interior of the block, the building rises straight to maximize the area of a grade-level garden and a rooftop garden. This building reminds me of those rare but transcendent moments of learning design in which some teacher noted that I had already solved the problem, but I just needed to turn the second-to-last step upside down, back to front, inside out.
The world of architectural criticism in the United States is small and frail. Its history is brief. Its pantheon—a tempietto—is miniature: among it Jacobs and Mumford, Huxtable and Goldberger. And Sorkin. Such criticism is today burdened by celebrity journalism in the form of practitioner profiles; by cool-seeking consumerist connoisseurship; by enthusiastic generalists; by the spooky appeal and discursive versatility of the word design. With one master’s degree in architecture from MIT and one in English literature from Columbia, Sorkin was not bamboozled by architects, nor by writers. His criticism for the Village Voice was scorching—it met the standard he quoted from Siegfried Kracauer in his 2018 collection What Goes Up: “the duty of the journalist is ‘to attack current conditions in a manner that will change them.’” The attack of the architecture critic comes always too late: buildings are so slow and so costly in their making, accruing time and capital into an imperviousness that can be mistaken for inevitability, for self-evidence. By critiquing any given building the architecture critic changes only the critical conditions—the non-dispositive conditions—into which the next building comes. The attack of the architect is always too soon: the architect draws and tries to see what has yet to come to pass. She gives those drawings to the future. In turning from theory and criticism to practice and design, Sorkin hazarded back in time from being always already too late to being always already too soon—and so crisscrossed the present enough to change it. I don’t know of any other theorist about a subject—so august, so authoritative, so authorly—who of their own free will turned to its practice so very deeply: who gave up the security of being always correct but always too late, for the precarity of being a prophet: all too right and all too soon.
—Thomas de Monchaux