The nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly afflicted the architectural community. First, from Italy, came the news of Vittorio Gregotti’s passing, at age 92. Then, on March 26, from New York, we learned that renowned architecture critic Michael Sorkin had succumbed to the deadly virus. He was 71 years old.
With a career spanning 40 years, Sorkin was a towering intellectual figure and the most recognized architecture writer in the U.S. Often labeled as “radical,” “fierce,” and “acerbic” because of his incisive and witty style, Sorkin’s writings consistently focused on his fight for cities to become more equitable, sustainable, and humane. The fact that these are hardly considered radical goals in today’s urban design discussions is one of his contributions to the field.
Sorkin was both an architect and an urban designer, and he clearly understood architecture and the city to be inextricably connected. For him, the city was “the source of architecture’s meaning.” He also advocated for architecture that is, above all, for people’s benefit. “Architecture for architecture’s sake is just narcissism,” he used to say. There is nothing radical about these statements either.
Sorkin started his career in the 1980s, serving as the architecture critic of The Village Voice when he was still in his 30s. He quickly established himself as a fresh new voice in the architecture world. Founded in New York City in 1955 and considered the first alternative weekly, The Voice was the perfect venue for Sorkin to freely express his stinging and provocative opinions, especially in the context of Ronald Reagan’s conservative presidency.
“Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings,” published in 1991, collected his columns for The Voice and brought him wide recognition. His writings in other publications, such as Architectural Record, The Nation, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, were compiled in other books: “Some Assembly Required” (2001), “All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities” (2011), and “What Goes Up: The Right and Wrongs to the City (2018).
Sorkin wrote passionately about New York City, his home. An admirer of activist Jane Jacobs, he continued her advocacy for social justice and livable, pedestrian-oriented cities. He was particularly focused on defending public space and routinely took to task architects, developers, city officials, and politicians for their role in slowly turning Manhattan into what he called “the world’s largest gated community.”
Supremely gifted as a writer, he was equally comfortable with ultra-academic parlance and the latest popular culture jargon. He could write beautifully about anything that piqued his interest. His columns were rich in vocabulary and full of memorable one-liners, akin to Oscar Wilde’s epigrams. And, just like with the Irish genius, Sorkin’s writing was always both insightful and witty. Unapologetic for his bluntness and razor-sharp criticism, he was also generous, warm, down-to-earth, often self-deprecating, and unafraid to share self-doubts.
Michael was my friend and mentor for the last 30 years. He was my professor at Yale School of Architecture in 1990, and, not surprisingly, he proposed an intellectually intense studio topic. When reviewing my work, he sensed that it would be easier for me to write about it, rather than to talk about it. I was puzzled, as my English was very limited at the time. “You can write,” he insisted. He was right, and my writing became essential to the development of the project. As good teachers do, he opened a door for me that I did not know was there, and to this day, every time I venture through it, I am grateful that he did.
I am also honored that Michael wrote about the professional work of my firm, Miró Rivera Architects. The first piece he did for us was for the catalog of our exhibition in the Aedes gallery in Berlin 10 years ago. More recently, he wrote the introduction for our forthcoming monograph. To the world, it will be one of Sorkin’s last pieces of published writing. To me, rereading it will be a humbling reminder of gratitude and admiration for a brilliant man. Thank you, Michael.
Juan Miró, FAIA, is co-founder of Miró Rivera Architects in Austin and the David Bruton, Jr. Centennial Professor in Urban Studies at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture.