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Remembering Michael Sorkin, Critic and Activist
The wickedly funny Sorkin, known to many as Comrade, was a social justice warrior. He maintained perpetual outrage in the course of writing 20 books and hundreds of articles, honing his invectives for gentrification, Disneyfication, waste, and conspicuous consumption. We have lost a polemicist who urged us toward the best of our architectural principles.
By Katie Faulkner, FAIA
May 21, 2020
Editor’s note: This tribute was originally slated to run in the next issue of the Boston Society of Architects’ digital journal ArchitectureBoston. On May 13, BSA/AIA announced that the journal is being put “on pause.” ArchNewsNow.com is pleased to give Katie Faulkner’s thoughtful homage to our much-missed friend a home.
Architectural criticism today is generally not all that critical. Photogenic buildings are filtered through copious social media platforms, and you can populate your inbox daily with superb images from all over the world, pre-screened as noteworthy. But not much is said about the rest of the buildings going up during this historic building boom. Nowhere is this more evident than in Boston, where – apart from a few gems – we may be witnessing the most unremarkable architectural expansion in the history of our city.
Most of us have accepted our impotence in the face of massive capitalist expansion, and this was underscored when Michael Sorkin died on March 26. That day, we lost a warrior. As a critic, teacher, and designer, Sorkin championed social and environmental justice, wielding the power of architecture. He could not suffer quietly those projects he deemed frivolous, wasteful, or vain. In 1991, he published Exquisite Corpse: Writings on Buildings (Verso), a decade’s worth of acerbic columns written from his perch as architecture critic for the Village Voice, proclaiming that he was retiring from criticism to focus on his architectural practice. So much for promises. He maintained perpetual outrage for 30 more years, and in the course of writing 20 books and hundreds of articles, honed his invectives for gentrification, Disneyfication, waste, and conspicuous consumption.
An intellectual with a capacious vocabulary and dizzying facility with history, Sorkin was wickedly funny. That made him accessible. Rereading his articles (with dictionary at hand), I was reminded of the legendary architecture critic Lewis Mumford, mixed with Seinfeld creator Larry David and a dash of gossip columnist Liz Smith. Sorkin’s kvetching could swing in a minute from the master plan of Chandigarh to his skinflint landlord to the latest gossip among architecture’s in-crowd. He liked to occupy the margins of dissent. For the now-folded satirical magazine Spy, he once riddled the TV-famous architect Robert A.M. Stern for lending his brand to a glossy advertisement promoting “patrician dwellings”: “Bob Stern. Bo Bern. Banana Fana. Fo Fern. Fee Fi. Mo Mern. What is it about a name?”
Sorkin was not afraid to bite the establishment, be it developers, government officials, critics, or his fellow architects. Woven through his decades of prose was profound contempt for Philip Johnson’s iconic stature as America’s leading modernist. In All Over the Map: Writings on Buildings and Cities (Verso, 2011), he opined that Johnson was emblematic of everything revolting about architectural culture and its “club-house conduct of architectural patronage.” From the late 1950s through the ’90s, Johnson maintained a successful practice, influential board seats (notably with the Museum of Modern Art), and was famous for holding court at New York’s once all-male Century Association, dispensing prestigious architectural commissions to (all-male) anointed up-and-comers. That Johnson had been a known Nazi sympathizer was all the more galling.
In equal measure, Sorkin adored Jane Jacobs. His 2013 Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (North Point Press) was a love letter to that patron saint of his Greenwich Village neighborhood. Like Jacobs, he considered the neighborhood to be the building block of a sustainable and equitable city, with all the serendipity and diversity of humanity. In All Over the Map, Sorkin outlined his admiration for Jacobs: “…the restlessness of her curiosity, her rejection of disciplinary compartments, and for keeping up the fight to the very end.” He could have been describing his own crusade.
In the span of his 40-plus-year career, architecture progressed through Post-Modernism, Deconstructivism, and Blobitecture to the current heterogeneity of style that favors sophisticated geometries, material expression, and high performance. Sorkin celebrated that architecture has never been more artistically vital, but continued to feel that the profession is failing the environment spectacularly. Many would agree. Half of global emissions come from the building industry; 10% of the world lives in extreme poverty, and there is an extraordinary housing shortage. Oft quoted by Sorkin was the presumption that if everyone on earth consumed at the rate of the United States, we would need two additional earths. Right now.
All of this begs the question of the relationship between architecture and activism. Every building should demonstrate a positive contribution to civic life, and every building should aspire for net zero emissions. Who then will call upon the stewards of the built environment? Who shall enforce architecture’s implied Hippocratic Oath?
The notion that we would regulate ourselves (or one another) assumes an altruism potentially in conflict with the survival instincts of the profession. Never a commercial success, Sorkin was first to admit that his kind of critical architecture fell into two categories: paper (i.e., never built) and humanitarian, the latter demanding “Ghandian levels of commitment and self-sacrifice,” as he wrote in What Goes Up: The Right and Wrongs to the City (Verso, 2018). Architecture firms are businesses trying to maintain profits. Thus, we may be unlikely to criticize the hands that feed us. Who among us would forgo a choice commission at Hudson Yards in Manhattan or in Boston’s Seaport District in favor of criticizing its developments as skin-deep real-estate grabs?
Here in Boston, there is plenty to talk about, but not much is being said. The Seaport District, high-rise living, neighborhood overhauls, and institutional expansions have put dozens of new buildings on the horizon. Are they all so good that no one has a harsh word? In 2015, Boston Magazine’s Rachel Slade came out swinging with an article titled “Why is Boston so Ugly?” Citing projects in both Chicago and New York, Slade wondered if we needed to go out of town to find designers who understood civic legacy and architectural ambition. The article unleashed debate among local developers, designers, and citizens. Boston real estate growth was being called out as an insider’s game. Indeed, the city with its embarrassment of riches of design schools and talented practitioners was fertile ground for such healthy discourse. But that was five years ago. Who’s talking now?
New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman took on Hudson Yards last year in a rare confrontation, postulating that the all-star-designed $250 billion development was a museum to Architecture and luxury branding with the headline: “Hudson Yards is Manhattan’s Biggest, Newest, Slickest Gated Community. Is This the Neighborhood New York Deserves?” As a critic, not a practitioner, Kimmelman is positioned to defend the public among the competing interests of money, politics, and power. Not only does he translate the aesthetics, he holds the developers accountable for adequate green space and other promised amenities. Critiques like Kimmelman’s can change the climate of the discussion, informing people who might otherwise not understand what is at stake. Suzanne Stephens of Architectural Record and an adjunct professor at Barnard College agrees that criticism can change the climate of discussion for the better. She bemoans the paucity of outlets for true architectural discourse. Not only are there fewer architecture writers, there are fewer platforms from which those writers can access the public.
In losing Sorkin, we lost a polemicist who urged us toward the best of our architectural principles. Perhaps most remarkable about him was the colossal energy to go beyond the page and literally practice what he preached. A celebrated author, he had infinite job security in academia. Yet he chose to persevere with both Michael Sorkin Studio and the nonprofit Terreform, with its imprint UR (Urban Research), and with sincere ambitions to see his dreams come to life. After all, you cannot write a building. Certainly, he’d have much to say and draw about our current predicament of social isolation. Michael Sorkin is gone too soon. Fortunately, he has left us to contemplate his yards of text and glorious depictions of a better future.
If you read nothing else, find a copy of What Goes Up and turn to “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know.” See Number 198: Why you think architecture does any good.
Katie Faulkner, FAIA, is owner and principal of WestFaulkner, an architecture firm in Boston.
(click on pictures to enlarge)
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