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Michael Sorkin: Architectural Critic as Scam Scanner and Urban(e) Design Sage

Sorkin's "All Over the Map," a sprawling miscellany of recent essays on buildings and cities, a triumph of enlightened nay-saying and affirmation.

By Norman Weinstein
November 11, 2011


Remember the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who exposed the all-too-obvious fact that the emperor was naked? If reincarnation works, Michael Sorkin is that child immune to the nourishing illusions of the rich and powerful reincarnated in the person of a supremely gifted architecture critic. And just in the nick of time. With so much architectural criticism today veering between laudatory portraits of architectural celebrities on the one hand, and ideological and theoretically-loaded cultural critiques of architects on the other, it is refreshing to read a critic who scans the landscape exposing scams, and heralding genuinely livable, sustainable, and occasionally even affordable urban architecture.

 

Sorkin is a master of the penetrating brief essay, with the overwhelming majority of these punchy sketches originally appearing in Architectural Record. He has played a terrific contrarian to the magazine’s more genteel critics like Robert Campbell and Paul Goldberger. And Sorkin is at his passionate best exactly in those cases where Campbell and Goldberg sound like quibblers. No one in architectural journalism is better in exposing scam, pretense, and cant than Sorkin. And the most memorable pieces in All Over the Map: Writing on Building and Cities (Verso, 2011) possess a vinegary tang and confrontational call. Here’s a snippet from Sorkin’s introduction:

 

...I have never hesitated to call architects on doing work that is inimical to justice, whether that work is the displacement of living communities, window dressing for repressive regimes or toxic ideologies, the medium of imprisonment and surveillance, or the distributor of ill-gotten gains. And, by extension, I’ve been intolerant of the criticism and theorizing that abets all this.

 

Notice how his last sentence saves the quote from boilerplate Sermon-on-the-Left sermonizing. In fact, Sorkin is a moralizing critic, with all the pluses and minuses that accrue from that stance. His non-stop dissing of Philip Johnson, which even Sorkin characterizes as “a bushel of diatribes,” illuminates nothing of Johnson’s designs so much as ripping apart Johnson’s personality and politics. And he does the same to Daniel Libeskind. When he departs from argumentum ad hominem and critiques the design and not the designer, he shines. For example, here’s Sorkin writing about Rem Koolhass’s boutique for Prada in New York’s SoHo:

 

The main architectural move is sectional, a wooden wave that dips from the first floor to the basement and back, providing seating and a display surface for shoes. The wave is the Koolhausian portmanteau metaphor and his logo for multinationalism, his “site.” The architect’s a surfer, the cool individualist who rides but does not pretend to tame the massive hydraulics of the system.

 

This is a bit of finely-detailed elegant description – but far more. Sorkin’s description glides into thorough design critique by penetrating Koolhaas’s guiding metaphor infusing the boutique’s design. This perceptivity about the signature metaphors guiding – and misdirecting – urban architecture moderates Sorkin’s potentially grating moral priggishness. It centers him in the role of critic as entertaining educator. Here he is in that role discussing Donald Trump’s “condominium-hotel”:

 

Like most Trump projects, the architecture, by Handel Architects, is merely bland, another glass box. Because of its size, however, it whimsically rescales the entire neighborhood, permanently marring the low roofscape that stretches downtown and culminates in the lower Manhattan skyline. It’s a view I take in every morning as I walk to work, and the new tower already constitutes an awful scar of the sky. As urbanism, it’s vandalism.

 

This is immensely memorable storytelling underscoring the importance of context in urban design. It will long linger in memory, calling up how new architecture insensitive to neighborhood aesthetic standards can long raise havoc.

 

When Sorkin praises with passion, which he wholeheartedly does in his sweeping yet well-tempered assessment of Thom Mayne’s architectural achievement, you’re given a lot of insights to diligently digest, more than often found in glossy coffee-table monographs. But I still hold that Sorkin’s genius is most evident when, as scam scanner, he gives us the deliciously detailed overview of the architectural equivalent of the emperor’s new attire. He says “no” so resoundingly that you rejoice with him when his “yes” resounds.

 

Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for Architectural Record, and is the author of “Words That Build” – an exclusive 21-part series published by ArchNewsNow.com – that focuses on the overlooked foundations of architecture: oral and written communication. He consults with architects and engineers interested in communicating more profitably; his webinars are available from ExecSense. He can be reached at nweinstein@q.com.

 

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