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Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: All Over the Map

All Over the Map: Writing on Building and Cities by Michael Sorkin
Verso, 2011
Hardcover, 320 pages

In 1991 Verso released Exquisite Corpse, a collection of essays by Michael Sorkin, who was architecture critic at the New York City alternative weekly Village Voice from 1978-1988. That collection consisted mainly of Sorkin's Voice pieces, and it introduced his biting critiques -- from Philip Johnson and Disneyfication to any part of the architectural status quo -- to a larger audience. If anything, the book established Sorkin as a strong voice for the city, democracy, and architectural freedom. The book's name is taken from the Surrealist game that results in a random composition created by numerous hands, what Sorkin likens to city-building. This fact became more apparent to me when I attended the Urban Design program at City College under Sorkin, where our studio created an exquisite corpse of a city in model form, something each class does before embarking on individual projects. So when one party's interests take precedence over others -- be it corporations, security, what have you -- the city fails in being a place for all people. Such is the crux of Sorkin's critiques that continues to this day.

All Over the Map is similar in many ways to Exquisite Corpse: Primarily it also collects published essays by Sorkin, but this time the majority are from Architectural Record, where he regularly contributed a Commentary column. Yet while the first collection was written across the corporate rise of the Reagan years, it is the terrorist attacks of September 11 and George W. Bush's response that provide the context for these writings twenty years later. (Writings from the decade in between, a time of less writing and more practice for Sorkin, can be found in Some Assembly Required.) Actually, only the first two pieces in All Over the Map predate 9/11. So this makes the collection very specific in its subject (at least for a good chunk of it) but also a valuable record for a point of view that was all but squashed by the players who triumphed in the rebuilding at the World Trade Center site. From the early days after the attacks Sorkin called for elevating Ground Zero as a place of gathering and remembrance over commercial interests. Further he suggested via essays and even proposals for a redistribution of the Twin Towers' office space throughout the five boroughs, in response to the changing state of Lower Manhattan as a residential district and toward improving other parts of the city through building and commerce. Even though the National September 11 Memorial is the first element to open, we all know the path of the bigger picture, which also includes the continued militarization of public space, something Sorkin rails against.

As somebody who had read all of Sorkin's pieces in Record when the print issues arrived in the mail, I was drawn to the essays in All Over the Map that were published elsewhere, which includes Harvard Design Magazine, Domus, and his book Starting from Zero. The rest comprise pieces from books, be they writings on the city or introductions to monographs on architects, and a few unpublished essays. One of the latter is a candid piece on prison-building and ethics, from the point of view of a member of a design jury for a prison in the Bronx. While I'm not sure of its intended publication, the length points to Record, in which case it was too controversial, even though the magazine gave Sorkin a good deal of leeway as a critic, an esteemed one at that. These nuggets within the collection basically extend Sorkin's point of view into areas not tread in the pages of Record, such as film, as well as giving followers of his writing something new to chew on.

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