Michael Sorkin (1948-2020)

John Hill
27. March 2020
Michael Sorkin at the construction site of the Xi'an Airport Service Center in China ca. 2014 (Photo courtesy of Michael Sorkin Studio)

Architecture critic, urban designer, author, and educator Michael Sorkin died on March 26, 2020, from complications brought on by the novel coronavirus. He was 71.

Michael Sorkin was most influential as an architecture critic, writing for The Village Voice in the 1980s and contributing to various publications in the decades since. He authored or edited more than twenty books, including four collections of his critical writings. Tributes to Sorkin on Twitter last night were fast and abundant, most singling out his words that clearly, bitingly, and often humorously expressed his ideas on the city. 

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman described him as, "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." Catherine Slessor, a contributor to The Architectural Review, echoed such a sentiment, calling Sorkin "pugnacious and mercurial, a brilliant irritant, intent on skewering the architectural establishment."

Sorkin also made a significant mark on people (myself included) through his teaching, most significantly at the City College of New York (CCNY), part of the public City University of New York system. This year marked the twentieth that Sorkin served as Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at CCNY's Spitzer School of Architecture. Lesley Lokko, dean of the school, wrote of Sorkin's death in a statement sent to Archinect:

"It is with profound sorrow that we learned earlier today of the passing of one of our most valued and most brilliant faculty members, Michael Sorkin, from complications brought on by COVID-19. The entire faculty, staff and students are united in paying tribute to one of the school's best-known and celebrated figures, whose contributions to teaching, scholarship and public thought are irreplaceable. He will be deeply missed by the entire community of The City College of New York."

Michael Sorkin Studio: Arverne Houses, 2001

Although Sorkin's written and spoken words (the latter in the form of teaching but also in captivating lectures he gave all over the world) have had a strong and lasting influence, he was also a highly skilled draftsman and designer with a noticeable preference for forms departing from the orthogonal. He set up Michael Sorkin Studio in New York City around the time of his Village Voice writing, and in 2005 formed the non-profit Terreform Center for Advanced Urbanism Research. The early years of the Studio — collected in the 1998 monograph Wiggle — saw urban plans for sections of New York City and cities elsewhere, as well as houses inspired by fish and other creatures. Little was built outside of exhibition designs, but in recent years his studio started to realize buildings in China, particularly Xi'an.

Terreform is billed as "an independent, non-profit studio investigating forms, policies, technologies, and practices to create a more equitable, sustainable, and beautiful future for our urbanizing planet." In addition to such ongoing projects as an alternative master plan for the sustainable future of New York City, Terreform publishes "progressive books about cities and their futures" through its UR Books imprint, established in 2015. This spring sees the publication of its thirteenth book, Open Gaza. Terreform wrote of Sorkin's passing on its website: "Renowned for his acerbic wit and generosity of spirit, Michael will be deeply missed by his family here in New York and around the world."

Michael Sorkin Studio: Godzilla, Tokyo, 1990-92 (Image via Cooper Hewitt)

Michael Sorkin received many accolades over his career, including the "Design Mind" National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt in 2013, the 2019 Collaborative Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architects, and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

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