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Architect and critic Michael Sorkin dies after contracting coronavirus

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Tributes have been paid from around the world to ‘fierce and brilliant’ US architect, critic and urbanist Michael Sorkin, who has died aged 71 after contracting the coronavirus

The New York-based writer and designer, who was head of Michael Sorkin Studio, was a leading and often polemical voice on urban space, known for his ‘razor-sharp’, ’astute and acerbic’ reviews.

As well as his writing, Sorkin was president of non-profit research group Terreform and judged numerous awards and competitions, including as a member of the World Architecture Festival super-jury.

In 2015 he was also a judge on a rival ideas competition to Helsinki’s contentious, but ultimately never built, Guggenheim Museum concept.

Sorkin worked on several major masterplan projects including numerous across New York, such as his proposals for the Arverne Urban Renewal Area on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens. His practice, which focuses on ‘green urbanism’, also looked at major urban plans across China, where the firm also has a studio.

Describing Sorkin’s influence, architectural writer Edwin Heathcote wrote on Twitter: ‘So sad to hear of Michael Sorkin’s passing. A fierce and brilliant critic, perhaps the best.’

Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of The New York Times, tweeted: ’The architect and critic Michael Sorkin has died. I am heartbroken. This is a great loss. He was so many things. He was a supremely gifted, astute and acerbic writer. He wrote with moral force about big ideas and about the granular experience of life at the level of the street.’

Hanif Kara of engineers AKT II, told the AJ: ’Having read some of his work, including Exquisite Corpse in the 1990s and being in awe of his writings, I had the honour to first meet Sorkin in 2000 when he presented a daring, refreshing and razor-sharp review of a project in the Middle East as part of the Aga Khan judging.

’His knowledge and articulation of the project blew us all away like no other review in that judging cycle . We remained friends since, often sharing our views privately on many architects and the way education worked at numerous juries we sat on.’

Kara added: ’We had arranged to meet in may 2020 during the City College of New York talks. I will miss his advice, humour and generosity enormously. Deep condolences to his family and all those he touched.’

Sorkin graduated from the University of Chicago in 1970 before studying for a masters in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the 1980s Sorkin became architecture critic for The Village Voice and wrote or edited about 20 books, including Some Assembly Required (2001), Starting From Zero: Reconstructing Downtown New York (2003) and What Goes Up: The Right and Wrongs to the City (2018).

Sorkin was the co-president of the Institute for Urban Design, an education and advocacy organisation, and vice- president of the Urban Design Forum in New York.

Born in Washington DC in 1948, Sorkin died from complications brought on by Covid-19.

TRIBUTE

Neil Spiller, editor of Architectural Design pays tribute to his friend Sorkin

Michael Sorkin will live in my memory as a witty, very bright and thoughtful friend, an architectural iconoclast, a defender of the architectural faith and a ceaseless campaigner for equity and quality of life for all residents of global urbanity. Others can chart his immense contribution to our profession, his erudite writings, his distinguished career, his subversive initiatives and his fantastic intellect.

But I want to focus on Michael the man. I first met him 25 years ago in and around Perth; we were both speakers at a rather wacky conference there.

At that time the AA was looking for a new director and I understand Michael was offered the gig. I tried long and hard to convince him to move the Sorkin charabanc to London but to no avail. Michael was the archetypal New Yorker, networked to the hilt. The last time I saw him in London and we retreated to Efes on Great Portland Street, we were asked where we’d like to sit. He said on the darkest table. He explained to me that when in London he was often mistaken for Jeremy Corbyn and was either verbally abused or congratulated.

Sorkin will live in my memory as a witty, thoughtful friend and an architectural iconoclast

The last time I saw him in New York, he took me, Mike Webb, James Wines and James’s daughter, Suzan, to a small Italian restaurant off Broadway and told us he wanted to have dinner with the three finest, living architectural draftsmen on the planet, (he could be a great flatterer and very supportive friend) a great evening ensued, despite depression about the newly elected Trump.

Michael was always political and pushed many boundaries in pursuit of ‘Sorkin’s socialist utopia’. I loved him for that. Often email would arrive with some witty remark and entitled ‘Comrade’. Recently I’d been in Ottawa and Michael was trying to get me to come to New York ’whilst the border was still open’ and we were hatching a plan to meet up in London end of April for ‘hugs and dinner’ just before this dreadful virus assumed control.

So, alas, with sad heart, I remember that night in New York, him disappearing in to a late night florist for flowers for his wife, the last time I saw him.

FROM THE ARCHIVE

Joseph Rykwert reviews Michael Sorkin’s Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (AJ 21.05.09)

Sorkin

In his new book, architect Michael Sorkin strolls downtown New York - follow him and grow wiser.

There was a time – oh, in the faraway 1980s – when we were all engaged with Rem Koolhaas’ paranoiac-critical (and highly automotive) New York. Or, perhaps, not so much with his bracing and abrasive prose, as with the entrancing illustrations by Madelon Vriesendorp. Some of us did fancy ourselves inhabiting one of the pods in a city whose every skyscraper had a singles bar and a gym for a penthouse.

And now along comes Michael Sorkin, walking. Cars only get in his way, as he saunters from his apartment, between Washington Square and Sixth Avenue, to his office or studio further downtown (as they say in New York), which seems to have moved from Hudson Square in TriBeCa to Hudson Street and then to Varick Street. As he walks through the Village and SoHo, over the cross-town Bleecker and Canal Streets, he becomes involved in the street life: he delivers and collects his laundry, buys a paper, has a coffee, inspects the various shop windows, makes sure he is walking in the shade on a sunny day.

And as he does so, he muses on the nature of the life around him and of the city which he inhabits – and, by association, on the city as a whole. Sorkin’s account of a 20-minute walk becomes Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (Reaktion Books, 2009, £16.95) a condensed guide to a half-century’s thinking about cities.

Having lived for some years in and around Washington Square, and even having used the same Russian cleaner (Tatiana) and grocer (Jefferson Market, Balducci) that Sorkin names, I recognise his territory with pleasure and some nostalgia, which his wry reflections on street life and street behaviour bring into sharp focus. His reader also becomes involved in his various battles: with his extortionate landlords Rose and Lou, or with the mafioso rubbish collectors in Varick Street, the ‘heavy’ accompanying the suit-and-tie wearing contract enforcer looking down the lift shaft and asking himself, quite audibly: ‘I wonder what it feels like falling down 14 floors?’

As Sorkin weaves the ideas of various urban theorists into his ramble – walking, as he rightly observes, is a natural armature for thinking sequentially – my nostalgia of recognition is constantly refreshed by his observations as he guides us through what may seem familiar stuff. Many readers will certainly know some of the signposts: oldies like British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, New York muckraker Lincoln Steffens, or German critic Walter Benjamin, and more recent ones – Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre, American urban planner Kevin Lynch, Dutch architect John Habraken, our own dear architect Cedric Price and even the much-lamented Dutch traffic reformer, Hans Monderman – but, above all, his heroine, urban visionary Jane Jacobs.

It is a tribute to Sorkin that I empathised so completely with his situation

This ground may seem as well-trodden to some readers as it did to me, yet I was glad to review my own estimate of these ideas as I followed Sorkin on his morning amble and glad, too, to accept his clear-headed guidance. I found him always fair; in spite of his great admiration for Jacobs, for instance, he does give due credit to her arch-enemy, ‘master builder’ Robert Moses. He errs occasionally, for example, when he damns Le Corbusier for the state of his interior street in the Marseilles Unité, he is talking about the way it was 15 years ago, and not for the way it is now. But that is a minor quibble.

All in all, if you want an introduction to what has been said and thought about the city around the world, and also what has been built and unbuilt as a result of all this theorising, this is probably as good a guide as can be had. Follow Sorkin on his walk, and you will certainly be better informed and perhaps a bit wiser as well.

It is a tribute to Sorkin that I empathised so completely with his situation that, when I reached his last page and his final spat with his landlords, as he complimented his landlady Rose on the installation of new aluminium windows, and she parried his proffered good will with, ‘You’ll pay, you’ll pay’, I knew just how he felt.

Sorkin said …

’Archigram’s members were frank exponents of a friendly, petit-bourgeois sensibility. They started not only from an embrace of the refinements of metal joinery, but from a love for the Britain of Toby mugs, caged budgies, and Callard & Bowser toffees.’

Metropolis, April 1998

’High-tech is the high classicism of postmodernity, and the airport is its temple.’

Metropolis, February 1999

 

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