So You Want To Learn About: Michael Sorkin

The "So You Want to Learn About" series highlights books focused on a particular theme: think "socially responsible architecture" and "Le Corbusier," rather than broad themes like "housing" or "modern architects." Therefore the series aims to be a resource for finding decent reading materials on certain topics, born of a desire to further define noticeable areas of interest in the books I review. And while I haven't reviewed every title, I am familiar with each one; these are not blind recommendations.

This year's release of Michael Sorkin's latest collection of critical essays, What Goes Up: The Rights and Wrongs to the City, prompted me to put together a "learn about" post on the influential critic, educator, and designer of buildings and cities. An outspoken critic of misguided architecture, urban inequality, oppressive ideologies, and other impediments to truly egalitarian and sustainable societies, Sorkin is principal of Michael Sorkin Studio, president of the non-profit Terreform, and director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at City College of New York (CCNY). Need a Sorkin primer? This 2010 interview on CUNY TV, at the time of Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, is a good start.

Considering how much Sorkin has written, I've categorized his print output into six categories: criticism, design, New York City, editing, education, and UR (Urban Research). All titles are authored or edited by Sorkin, unless noted otherwise. Full disclosure: I attended the Urban Design Program at CCNY under Sorkin (2006-07) and have helped him with UR.


What Goes Up: The Right and Wrongs to the City | Verso | 2018 | Amazon / IndieBound
This title is the fourth collection of Sorkin's critical essays, covering the years 2010 to 2017. Many of the pieces come from The Nation, where he served as Architecture Critic from 2013 to 2016. Still, not quite half of the 48 essays originated there, meaning a mix of lectures, articles for other publications, book excerpts, and a few unpublished pieces fill the rest of the pages. Not surprisingly, the majority focuses on New York City, with the rest covering "Elsewhere and Otherwise." Only one essay is dated after Donald Trump's election win, and it doesn't even broach that elephant in the room; thankfully, Sorkin's introduction takes on Trump, albeit briefly.

All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities | Verso | 2011 | Amazon / IndieBound
It's hard to believe that the predecessor to What Goes Up was released seven years ago; it seems like just the other day that I wrote my review. All Over the Map packs in 76 essays (nearly twice as many as the new collection) that fall between 2000 and early 2011. Most were culled from Sorkin's Commentary columns in Architectural Record. I read those on a nearly monthly basis, given my subscription to the magazine, so I ended up gravitating to the articles from other publications. Given the timing of the book, September 11 and the responses of the 2001 terrorist attacks shaped the content of Sorkin's essays -- but not his progressive takes on architecture, cities, culture, politics, and society.

Some Assembly Required | University of Minnesota Press | 2001 | Amazon / IndieBound
Continuing backward in time, the second installment of Sorkin's criticism covers the years 1995 to 1999. Most of the 36 essays were pulled from two sources: Architectural Record and Metropolis. At only around 250 pages, it is the shortest of the four collection of Sorkin's criticism, though with great essays such as "Eleven Tasks for Urban Design," first published in Yale's Perspecta, quantity here is not an indicator of quality.

Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings | Verso | 1991 | Amazon / IndieBound
Which brings us to the one that begat the rest: the compendium of Sorkin's articles from his ten-year tenure (1978-88) at New York's Village Voice. The paper, which halted print publication last year and then sadly ceased publication entirely a couple months ago, was the ideal pulpit for Sorkin's progressive views. He could rail against Philip Johnson and other overrated architects, draw attention to ones he liked but were otherwise little known, and proffer alternative points of view on important developments in New York City. Although the book is subtitled "Writings on Buildings," it's clear that Sorkin was already focused as much on cities as on the buildings filling them.


Pamphlet Architecture 22: Other Plans: University of Chicago Studies, 1998-2000 | Princeton Architectural Press | 2002 | Amazon / IndieBound
I'll admit to being shocked that Sorkin was the author of one of the annual Pamphlet Architectures, since I tend to think of the roughly yearly publication as a forums for up-and-coming voices rather than established names. But Sorkin the designer had built little (if nothing) at the time, and #22 enabled him to showcase a project that should have led to a building commission. Sorkin's studio was hired by University of Chicago, one of his alma maters, to produce an alternative to its official master plan. Dropped as quickly as he was hired, his studio nevertheless trudged along on the task, foreshadowing the "voluntary" work of Terreform, established in 2005. As I wrote earlier this year when I unpacked the book: "They produced a plan that is undeniably 'Sorkin,' with wonky buildings curving among the old buildings on campus. But they expanded the canvas well beyond the U of C footprint, envisioning how commercial and residential development could aid not just the client."

Michael Sorkin Studio: Wiggle | The Monacelli Press | 1998 | Amazon
Four years before PA22, Sorkin put out a monograph emblazoned with, not one of his projects, but a cluster (army?) of frogs. The cover image and the book's title, Wiggle, certainly aren't at odds with each other, but it's clear to me that idea trumps image, particularly when compared to other architecture monographs. What those ideas or visions are is not spelled out in an essay; instead the projects — with some short but honest and helpful explanatory text — speak for themselves. They range from small exhibitions to city plans. Tying them together are Sorkin's distinctive "wiggly" designs and his beautiful (and underappreciated, I think) drawings. Most striking are the plans, which are dense with lines, have nary a right angle, and give the impression that social life would be much more intimate if we lived in Sorkin World.

Local Code: The Constitution of a City at 42°N Latitude | Princeton Architectural Press | 1993 | Amazon
Design for Sorkin is much more than lines on paper or a scale model. It is also the codes that determine to a large degree what those lines must follow and what shape those models will become. For most architects building and zoning codes are mandates to follow. But what if they could develop their own? What would they dictate? How would they be written? And what would be their underlying goals? Sorkin did what most architects and urban designers would never spend the time on: he developed a code, complete with a Bill of Rights and designed for a Utopia that will never exist. Hardly a text to be read cover to cover, Local Code is more a template for students of urban design to use in their projects; best I can recall, it was used that way in the past.

New York City:

Twenty Minutes in Manhattan | Reaktion Books | 2009 | Amazon / IndieBound
It's hardly a surprise that the New York-based Sorkin has dedicated hundreds of thousands of words to his home city. The best of his NYC books uses his short walk from home to office, both in Lower Manhattan, as a starting point for expounding on myriad things about cities in general, NYC in particular. As I wrote in my review in The Architect's Newspaper back in 2010: "Each realm of social interaction [in the walk] is a looping mix of descriptions, recollections, histories, critiques, and explications, with the tangential offshoots always returning to the walk, as if to acknowledge and elevate the importance of the individual’s experience in the city, both physically and mentally." Although much of the content was pulled from Voice and Record over a period of more than a decade, it reads as a fluid narrative rather than essays disconnected in time and setting.

Starting From Zero: Reconstructing Downtown New York | Routledge | 2003 | Amazon / IndieBound
Being not just a critic, September 11 was an opportunity for Sorkin to imagine Lower Manhattan with designs that veered far from the business-as-usual that eventually — but not surprisingly — filled the WTC site. There's still plenty of critique in the form of essays in Starting from Zero, but it's accompanied by numerous designs for the sixteen-acre site (including a memorial design) and a visual analysis of the WTC within the larger urban context. Best is when Sorkin treated the site as a green void rather than something to be built upon. The former makes sense in a later proposal in which Sorkin proposed (logically, I think) shifting the 10 million square feet of office space to be rebuilt to other parts of the city, infusing neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, among others, with money typically limited to Lower Manhattan and Midtown. (Unfortunately I can't find a link to that proposal so am not sure if I'm remembering it 100% accurately.)

After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City edited by Sorkin with Sharon Zukin | Routledge | 2002 | Amazon / IndieBound
Before Sorkin assembled critiques and designs into Starting from Zero, he teamed up with fellow CUNY (CCNY is part of the City University) professor Sharon Zukin. The urbanist and sociologist together are, in my mind at least, a heavenly match; I absorb and enjoy Zukin's book as much as I do Sorkin's. The two co-authored the introduction, but after that they express their own takes on post-9/11 New York City alongside a slew of other great minds: Marshall Berman, M. Christine Boyer, Keller Easterling, David Harvey, Neil Smith, and Mike Wallace, among many others. I didn't pick up this book until last year, much too long after its publication to have enthusiasm for the topic; like other New Yorkers, I've moved on, swept along by the city's Bloomberg-era transformations.


Indefensible Space: The Architecture of the National Insecurity State | Routledge | 2008 | Amazon / IndieBound
In addition to lots of writing, teaching, and designing, Sorkin finds time for the occasional editorial project. This seems to consist of setting a theme, writing an introduction and essay, and pulling in acquaintances from a wide sphere of academics and practitioners with aligned interests. Accordingly, there tends to be some overlap in terms of contributors and some consistency in terms of themes. Given how much Sorkin railed against the fortification of cities after 9/11, he was ideal for editing some essays about the erosion of public space and rights to the city in the face of increased security. The list of contributors is powerful and fitting for the topic: Teddy Cruz, Mike Davis, Stephen Graham, Dean MacCannell, Eyal Weizman, etc.

Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity edited by Sorkin with Joan Copjec | Verso | 1999 | Amazon / IndieBound
Although he edited this book with his wife, Sorkin's only contribution is the introduction, while Copjec pens one of the nine essays that follow it. Perhaps stemming from the two minds at editorial work, the book's theme is a bit more obscure and unclear than the titles above and below it; in turn, it's not as rewarding to me as other Sorkin titles. My favorite essay is Dean MacCannell's "'New Urbanism' and Its Discontents," which tackles a movement I love to hate.

Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space | Hill & Wang | 1992 | Amazon / IndieBound
Like Exquisite Corpse, this book is classic Sorkin. It's a timely and influential collection of essays on  a well-honed topic: critiquing the urbanism of the late 1980s and early 1990s that was marked by "megamalls, corporate enclaves, gentrified zones, and pseudo-historic marketplaces." Sorkin penned the introduction and the memorable essay "See You in Disneyland," which is accompanied by a photo of the sky above the theme park, given Disney's "litigiousness" and therefore difficulty in taking photos for publication inside. He's joined by names that would become usual suspects in his growing sphere of publications: M. Christine Boyer, Mike Davis, and Neil Smith, to name just three. At more than 35 years old, the book is ripe for an update — or maybe a 21st-century remake, where Boyer's analysis of South Street Seaport, for instance, morphs with its rebranding as Seaport District and "pseudo-historic marketplaces" give way to glass-box marketplaces.


Beyond Petropolis: Designing a Practical Utopia in Nueva Loja edited by Sorkin wtih Ana María Durán Calisto and Matthias Altwicker | Oscar Riera Ojeda Publishers | 2017 | Amazon / IndieBound
Sorkin's role at CCNY has led to some books coming out of the Urban Design program, including one on the year I attended. My classmates and I spent two semesters focused on creating a sustainable, post-oil master plan for Lago Agrio, the oil boomtown in Ecuador's rainforest. (My photos from a trip there in November 2006 were posted to this blog.) The project also roped in some architecture and landscape architecture students, and the book documents all of our contributions and includes some additional materials, including an article from The New Yorker on the drawn-out lawsuit against Chevron. Although the book, as most do, took much longer than anticipated, I'm glad to have such a nice documentation of close to a year of hard work — and fun.

The New York 2030 Notebook edited by Jeff Byles and Olympia Kazi | Institute for Urban Design| 2008 | Amazon
Sorkin is Vice-President of the Urban Design Forum, the "independent membership organization that advances bold solutions to urban challenges." It was formed a few years ago from a merger of the Forum for Urban Design and the Institute for Urban Design; Sorkin served as President of the latter, which was founded in 1979 by Ann Ferebee. In November 2007, the Institute hosted New York 2030, a day-long symposium that dissected Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, "an ambitious project to turn New York into the world’s most sustainable metropolis." Out of that event came this slim, 72-page book, with far-too-short contributions by Sorkin, Marshall Berman, Teddy Cruz, Richard Sennett, Sharon Zukin, and many more. Running along the bottom of each page, like a ticker, are the 127 initiatives of PlaNYC, most too broad or ambitious to be realized or even considered in the ensuing eleven years.

The Aarhus Protocols: The Michael Sorkin Workshop at the Arkitektskolen Aarhus by Anette Brunsvig Sørensen | Arkitekturtidsskrift B | 2006 | Amazon
If I didn't come across this book while digging through the shelves of a local bookstore, I wouldn't have known anything about it. I was intrigued because of Sorkin's role, but also because my wife spent a semester at the Aarhus School of Architecture. The Sorkin Workshop of the book's title was carried out across one week in October 2005, aimed at envisioning possibilities for Aarhus Harbor, the potential setting for the school's new building. (Twelve years later, the school selected a scheme in a competition [PDF link] for a new building in Godsbanearealerne, in the heart of Aarhus.) I've misplaced this pocket-sized book, but I recall the workshop paralleling the exquisite-corpse format that Sorkin taught us at CCNY, in which individuals create plots but then modify them based on a series of transformations. The result is a plan created by a variety of designers following certain rules and negotiating with each other along the way.

UR (Urban Research):

UR (Urban Research), the publishing imprint of Sorkin's non-profit Terreform, was launched in 2016 as "a book series devoted to cities and their futures." There are a dozen titles to date (six are pictured here), including one on the late, great Marshall Berman and three on various aspects of New York City. I'm familiar with the two titles highlighted below.

Downward Spiral: El Helicoide's Descent from Mall to Prison edited by Celeste Olalquiaga and Lisa Blackmore | UR | 2018 | Amazon
Although Downward Spiral was not published in time for the companion 2017 exhibition, El Helicoide: From Mall to Prison, at the Center for Architecture in New York, the book does not disappoint. In my review from earlier this year, I describe the book as "the definitive cultural history of El Helicoide," a spiraling inside-out mall built atop a hilltop in Caracas. Following from the diminutive exhibition's numerous artifacts, the book tells the historical story of the building, which would have enabled people to drive up to the store they wanted to patronize, but also its later use by the police as a prison. It's a perfect subject for UR: politically charged and fairly obscure beyond its local context — and therefore in need of a wider audience.

Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City edited by Terreform | UR | 2018 | Amazon
This is the book I'm reading right now (a full review is forthcoming): a collection of letters and other essays by Kongjian Yu, founder of Turenscape. These texts were, as far as I know, only available in Chinese beforehand, and some weren't published until Letters to the Leaders of China. Accompanying Yu's texts are critical essays by a half-dozen scholars and a great, rambling interview (the first thing I read) between Yu and artist Ai Weiwei. Those looking for pretty pictures of Yu's amazing "sponge cities" and other landscape projects will be disappointed, but those familiar with Turenscape should be pleased with some insightful background on what led to their thousands of groundbreaking designs all over China.