Remembering Michael Sorkin
Paul Finch, 21 April 2020
Michael Sorkin, whose premature death has robbed New York and architecture generally of a distinctive and important voice, had a wonderful way with words, writes Paul Finch.
Many younger architects may know of Sorkin and his practice Terreform as a result of pioneering design work in respect of city planning and environmental strategies. The huge (decade-long) research effort which culminated in a two-volume study into how New York City could feed itself was prescient. Typically, when I asked him how soon all this could happen, he replied: ‘I don’t think anyone is going to give up on strip sirloin any time soon’.
I doubt if there has been a wittier critic of architecture in recent decades. If you doubt that, read ‘Exquisite Corpse’ (Verso, 1991), now of course a grimly ironic title. Published 30 years ago, it comprises a compendium of his critical essays, many for ‘Village Voice’, written in the 1970s and 80s, a time of turmoil in the world of architecture in general, and Manhattan in particular.
What is fascinating about the essays is how little many of them have dated, and if they have, how readable they manage to be – even reviews of small shows in small galleries. You get a picture of the world seen through New York eyes, without ever becoming parochial because the issues in that city were being replicated across the world, just with different personnel.
With the confidence of youth, but the knowledge and critical faculties of someone much older, Sorkin was fearless in his criticism and sometimes outright condemnation of the leading lights on the NYC scene. This may explain the quote on the flyleaf from the New York Times’ long-time architecture critic Paul Goldberger: ‘Michael Sorkin’s brand of writing . . . is to thoughtful criticism what the Ayatollah Khomeini is to religious tolerance’.
This was no doubt in part a reaction to a devastating analysis by Michael of PG’s ambivalent (to put it mildly) attitude to some truly ghastly proposals for Time Square which did not attract the level of criticism required. Sorkin had an aversion to the way architectural politics were being dictated, and the fact that Goldberger was a complicit bystander: ‘American architecture is too important to be held prisoner by a bunch of boys that meets in secret to anoint members of the club, reactionaries to whom a social practice means an invitation to lunch, bad designers whose notions of form are the worst kind of parroting. It is for being the unquestioning servant of these that I accuse Paul Goldberger.’ Ouch!
The men-only Century Club, to which the reference applies, was the creature of Philip Johnson, for whom Sorkin had an unending contempt, not least because of the way he had wiped the slate clean of his fascist attitudes, actions and pro-Nazi journalism in the 1930s: ‘ Johnson, who grew up in Cleveland, even attempted a run at the Ohio state legislature in the mid-30s. Such an irony: just as the world might have been spared years of carnage if Hitler had only been admitted to architecture school, imagine the architecture that might have been avoided if the electorate had had the prescience to make young Philip a legislator.’ Ouch again.
It wasn’t just Johnson’s politics that Sorkin objected to. Here is an extract from a 1978 piece about the (in)famous AT&T headquarters, the tower with the broken pediment, which supposedly marked Johnson’s conversion from Modernism to Po-mo: ‘Cribbing the odd detail from Alberti, Boullée, McKim Mead & White or Raymond Hood is all well and good, but ultimately such historicism means little unless it abets some larger aim. Johnson’s borrowings are entirely decorative, a thin veneer meant to hide rotten goods. Decoration is a key word in the credo of post-modernism, an understandable reaction to its anathematization by many of the purists of traditional modernism. Johnson, though, has totally substituted décor for design, yielding AT&T no more than a decorated slab, little different than the despised modern buildings it purports to confound. AT&T is the Seagram Building with ears.’
The killer closing sentences of the piece say it all: ‘Johnson doesn’t so much design, he signs, a Louis Vuitton among architects. With a building like AT&T, though, we’re the ones that get stuck with the baggage.’
But Sorkin was not always a hostile critic, far from it. Perceptive essays on past and present architects (Wright, Rogers, a defence of Paul Rudolph, Lebbeus Woods) are accompanied by perceptive talent-spotting (Hadid, Diller & Scofidio, Peter Salter). He was a perceptive and constructive super-juror at World Architecture Festival. And his later architectural work was fundamentally optimistic about the possibility of creative futures founded on ecoligical urbanism.
But it is when he is being waspish in his writing that he is a his most compelling. He notes the unstoppable Manhattan phenomenon that was Donald Trump, as early as 1987: ‘I read in the papers that the Soviets have invited Comrade Trump to Moscow with an eye to having him build them an eyesore. If there’s a line at which glasnost lapses into counter-revolution, this is it. Centralised economic planning may have been a drag, but is Atlantic City the alternative?’
A witty dissection of the tower block as building type foresees, in one version of the future, that ‘physical contact becomes the privilege of the managerial elite. The vast clerical workforce is obliged to find its own space, at home, piece-working. The corporation frees itself of the need to provide health care, day care or any physical facility at all. In this calculus of dispersal, the non-producing component is simply turned off, excised from the network.’ Written in 1988.
An elegiac final chapter, Ciao Manhattan (1989), regrets the passing of New York almost in sorrow rather than anger: ‘The simple fact of the matter is this: New York is no longer a centre for the building of serious architecture.’
Happily, things changed for the better, a least in respect of architecture. In respect of Michael Sorkin, we were lucky to have him as long as we did.