MISSING MICHAEL SORKIN
Michael Sorkin, Tom Angotti and Ho Chi Minh (left to right) in Sorkin’s studio
Every semester during the years I taught at Hunter College, I was greeted by this message from Michael Sorkin. He sent it to me and a small group of professors from diverse disciplines and multiple campuses of the sprawling City University of New York (CUNY). His missive, from the Graduate Urban Design program he headed at City College of NY, asked that we send him our scheduled classes so that he could cross-fertilize the progressive, radical seedbeds at CUNY and advise students who, like us, sought to escape from the disciplinary and administrative silos around us and move towards more profound, critical approaches to the city. As a result of his appeal, many Urban Design students joined my urban planning classes.
Sadly, Michael died on March 26, 2020, a casualty of COVID-19, at the age of 71. He left behind a rich practice at Terreform, the urban design studio he headed, more than 20 books that he authored or edited, and the many brilliant articles he wrote in The Village Voice, The Nation, and architectural and design publications. He was an architect but habitually crossed disciplinary boundaries to write critically about cities and the built environment. He was truly an urbanist, who lived and worked in the same part of Manhattan as Jane Jacobs, with whom he shared a deep love for the ways that people animate the built environment and a sharp critique of the ways that architects and planners at the service real estate violate our rich urbanity. Michael characteristically employed his sly, insightful sense of humor to cut down the enormous pretensions built up by the design and planning professions and to help us imagine better futures.
The rebel spirit brought Michael and I together in lasting collaboration and friendship. In the period immediately preceding his untimely death, we renewed a longstanding discussion about how the “comrades” among the architects, planners and the design professions we were part of, could best come together to amplify our voices. These recent discussions included how to sustain Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), a vibrant advocate for peace and justice, an organization we both had belonged to in the past. As a long-time member and leader of Planners Network, an organization of progressive planners founded in 1975, I shared Michael’s expansive, activist view of the urban professions. This seemed to us more urgent now than ever, with climate change, unbounded speculative real estate development, endless wars, the insatiable pursuit of profit driving urban life, and the chronic injustices driven by racial, class, and gender bias.
Michael was respected by the small community of urban designers in New York City who sought to reach beyond the logic of the individual building commission. He drew me into the Urban Design Forum he helped found, fully knowing that I would pepper their meetings with provocations against orthodoxies. I don’t think either of us was able to overcome the inexorable dominance of form over function that forever plagues all of the urban professions, but we tried.
While Michael recognized the enormous barriers we all faced, he always used his podium as a leading practitioner and critic to boost his “comrades.” For example, a few years ago I approached him with the proposal that his recently founded publishing project, UR Books, release a book that I co-edited with Sylvia Morse, based on work and research that emerged from opposition to gentrification and displacement in New York City. I argued that the book would serve the grassroots community movements that were gaining steam in their opposition to city-sponsored rezoning plans. Michael recognized immediately, as he had often done in his own work, the potential that our professional expertise could serve progressive activism. The result was a beautifully designed, affordable book that, because of its timely release and accessible format, helped to bolster the community efforts that thwarted and stopped the rezonings that were displacing low-income communities of color.
Other books that Michael shepherded through publication by UR Books are a testimony to his rebel spirit and creative imagination. They include The Architecture of Extraordinary Rendition at CIA Black Sites; Letters to the Leaders of China, which challenged China’s leaders to learn from its innovative and environmentally conscious architects; and playful treatises that offered sensible, colorful and provocative alternatives to the architectural and planning mediocrities decorating the latest urban renewal sites in New York City. These latter include Gowntown, a provocative re-imagination of Columbia University’s expansion plan that ratcheted up displacement pressures in Harlem.
Among Michael’s most admirable and politically progressive work was his plan for Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state. It is unfortunate that he did not live to see the release of UR’s forthcoming book on Gaza, Open Gaza. These bold efforts from a Jewish New Yorker are examples of Michael’s unbounded humanism and commitment to the design and construction of just and sustainable urban environments.
RIP Comrade Michael! We will miss you.
Professor Emeritus, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY