Variations on a Theme Park

Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space
Michael Sorkin (Editor)
Hill and Wang, 1992

Paperback | 6 x 9 inches | 252 pages | 9 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-0374523145 | $20.00

Publisher's Description:
America's cities are being rapidly transformed by a sinister and homogenous design. A new kind of urbanism--manipulative, dispersed, and hostile to traditional public space--is emerging both at the heart and at the edge of town in megamalls, corporate enclaves, gentrified zones, and psuedo-historic marketplaces. If anything can be described as a paradigm for these places, it's the theme park, an apparently benign environment in which all is structured to achieve maximum control and in which the idea of authentic interaction among citizens has been thoroughly purged. In this bold collection, eight of our leading urbanists and architectural critics explore the emblematic sites of this new cityscape--from Silicon Valley to Epcot Center, South Street Seaport to downtown Los Angeles--and reveal their disturbing implications for American public life.
dDAB Commentary:
On Thursday evening I sat down to compose a review for this blog for the following day, when a text alerted me to the death of Michael Sorkin, the great architecture critic and a mentor of mine. I studied under Sorkin in the Urban Design program at the City College of New York back in 2006 and 2007. Although a short, two-semester graduate degree, the UD program led to lasting friendships with my classmates and a relationship with Sorkin beyond graduation day. In the years since, I saw Michael at least a few times a year and in a couple instances worked with him on things, most notably helping him launch the UR Books imprint of Terreform in 2015.

One year ago Michael generously donated his time and energies to do a book talk for my NYC Walks at Rizzoli Bookstore; never would I have thought that he would be asking me questions in such a venue. Last month we corresponded via email, when he agreed to contribute something to the book I'm finishing up and we made plans to have lunch when things warmed up. Although I knew he had health issues, I did not want to entertain the thought that he would be an at-risk victim of COVID-19. The devastating news on Thursday shocked me and the many admirers and colleagues of Sorkin. Sadly, just as Michael died alone (COVID-19 patients in hospitals don't have contact with people, even at their moments of death), we are forced to grieve alone and online: through Twitter, Facebook, and tributes on websites. Who knows if and when Michael will get the funeral he deserves, one that many people no doubt would want to attend.

Most of the tributes posted online have touched on the influence of Michael's writings: his criticism at The Village Voice in the 1980s and in many publications in the decades since; the more than 20 books he wrote and edited; and his teaching and the lively lectures he gave all over the world. There was also the aforementioned UR Books imprint, which is getting ready to release its 13th book and saw Michael continuing the progressive provocations of his writings, but with authors culled from China, Venezuela, and other places, not just New York City. I devoted a "so you want to learn about" post to Michael's books in October 2018, when his latest collection of critical essays, What Goes Up: The Rights and Wrongs of the City, was released. I couldn't help tweet that post on Thursday night, assuming other people, like me, would want to read some of Michael's words.

Of all the Sorkin books I've read, the ones that influenced me the most are Exquisite Corpse, a collection of essays from his Village Voice years, published in 1991; Variations on a Theme Park, a collection of critical essays on public spaces in the United States that he edited around that time; and Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, published in 2010, a highly descriptive account of Sorkin's daily walk from his Greenwich Village home to his Tribeca studio and a summation of his takes on New York City and cities in general. Variations is a solid collection of essays with a great list of contributors, most part of Sorkin's strong network of progressive scholars: M. Christine Boyer, Margaret Crawford, Mike Davis, Neil Smith, and Edward Soja. About half of the essays are devoted to places in NYC and LA, but Sorkin left himself the tastiest place in need of skewering: Walt Disney World. Of course, the essay is about much more than Disneyland and Disney World, but the main point is how those theme parks influenced the American psyche and actual American cities; Disney World may resemble Utopia, but it's all spectacle and fabrication. Variations has not even ten illustrations, but the one accompanying "See You In Disneyland" is perfect (click image to enlarge the caption), both for the essay and as a summary of Sorkin's criticism: acerbic and humorous but always with a clear position. 

Author Bio:
Michael Sorkin, an architect and writer, teaches at Cooper Union and Yale, and is the author of The Exquisite Corpse. For ten years, he was the architecture critic of The Village Voice. [from back cover]
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