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Michael Sorkin: Building a philosophy

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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?’

Sorkin errs only when he damns Le Corbusier for the state of the Marseilles Unité

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.

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 (pictured right) 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.

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