Obituary: Michael Sorkin, 1948-2020
Michael Sorkin, architect, author, teacher, and one of the most distinctive voices for social justice and sustainability in the design of the urban environment, died in New York on March 26, 2020, at the age of 71 after contracting coronavirus. A distinguished professor and director of the urban design program at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York City, Sorkin was a longtime contributing editor and friend of Architectural Record, as well as architecture critic for The Nation. “Michael's essays for RECORD were always insightful and the most original of anything being written about architecture today,” says Victoria Newhouse, another contributor to the magazine. Sorkin was also known for the biting essays he wrote for the Village Voice in the high days of Post Modernism. In addition, he wrote or edited 20 books.
His office, Michael Sorkin Studio, had a number of urban design and architecture projects in China. Closer to home, he was a recent finalist in a design competition for affordable housing on infill lots in New York, with the multi-unit “House as Garden” for a site in Harlem. His firm's non-profit arm, Terreform, was a research studio for exploring sustainability.
Sorkin was a world-class provocateur, his criticism always served up with keen intelligence, love of language and sharp wit. Two months before the 2016 presidential election, Sorkin wrote presciently in an opinion piece for RECORD, “Civilizations are marked by their priorities, and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture—that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”
Advocating that that control must be shared with communities, Sorkin wrote in the magazine that planning in New York City had become “too skewed toward money and away from people,” saying that “the capacity of neighborhoods to meaningfully participate in planning their own destinies—and that of the larger realms we all share—is fundamental. Wisdom doesn't belong to any particular group.”
And while he could publicly call out a colleague like Zaha Hadid over a controversial statement, Sorkin was affectionate after she died, recalling a long-ago trip in Brazil, where he and his wife trekked with her from an ill-fated conference in São Paulo to a transgender beach in Rio to a pilgrimage to Oscar Niemeyer. “Zaha was a brilliant traveling companion: she would not be denied. Restaurants that had closed re-opened to cook for us. Prices fell for everything from knick-knacks to precious stones under the irresistible force of her bargaining,” he wrote. “We all ate well, got the first cab, received excellent service everywhere, and were warmed by her generous radiance.”
Despite his short-changed ideals and pointed words, Sorkin retained a slyly humorous outlook on life. Students, colleagues, and others fortunate to know him were well acquainted with his own generous radiance.
Read personal tributes from Michael Sorkin's friends and colleagues.