Architect, Educator, and Author Michael Sorkin Remembered

man with gray hair and glasses leans on a podium, an orange, green, and white cityscape sketched behind him.
Sorkin in 2009 delivering the keynote lecture for the Case Studies in Urban Development Symposium at AAP. William Staffeld / AAP
man with grey hair gesturing with hands sitting with another person with long dark hair
Sorkin was invited as a guest critic for the 2016 architecture final reviews William Staffeld / AAP
Sorkin in 2009 delivering the keynote lecture for the Case Studies in Urban Development Symposium at AAP. William Staffeld / AAP Sorkin was invited as a guest critic for the 2016 architecture final reviews William Staffeld / AAP
March 27, 2020

Renowned architect, urbanist, and critic Michael Sorkin passed away on March 26 in Manhattan at the age of 71 due to complications resulting from COVID-19.

Sorkin, the principal and founder of Michael Sorkin Studios and president of the nonprofit urban research group Terreform, is being remembered for a career of accomplishments and dedication to architectural education for social change. A visiting critic at Cornell AAP since the late 1990s, he also gave the keynote address for the 2009 Case Studies in Urban Development Symposium and the fall 2014 Clarence Stein lecture How Green Was My City. Sorkin was highly regarded for his teaching and critical perspective, and visited AAP as a guest critic during architecture final reviews in the spring of 2016, alongside Lily Chi, associate professor in architecture and M.S. AAD program coordinator.

"The loss of this passionate, imaginative, original, and provoking voice is truly difficult to accept for all of us who learn and teach," said Chi, who was actively planning a studio module that Sorkin would teach in the M.S. AAD summer 2020 semester.

"I last talked to Michael a mere 16 days ago. As usual, he was energetic with ideas, enthusiasm, and humor. Poignantly, this planned studio completes a conversation we had a few years ago when, on hearing my enthusiasm about our super-charged M.S. AAD semester in New York City, Michael asked to be invited, and I promised to do just that."

Chi recounted how a studio led by Sorkin began in a partitioned section of Rand Hall, but quickly spilled into adjoining areas as the students worked and held passionate discussions. "This was the kind of engaged, active urbanism that Michael sought to inspire and protect in his writings and teaching," she said.

Associate Professor Val Warke recalled teaching an architecture studio also adjacent to Sorkin's, and noted his particularly inventive methods for teaching architecture and urban design.

"Several years ago now, I was teaching a studio based in Iceland in the corner of the third floor of Rand and Michael Sorkin was teaching the next studio over," recounted Warke. "It was quite adventurous — even extravagant — for the time, applying 'exquisite corpse' concepts. The center of the studio was dominated by a huge, highly eclectic bricolaged construction that seemed to expand and contract each day.  It was something between the model of a city and a smörgåsbord. Michael and his students were always delighted whenever one of us dared to ask a question about the 'thing.' I wondered how he might know if one part was somehow better than another and he wondered how I could teach a studio about ghosts."  

"It struck me at the time that only a critic of great facility, with a tremendous vocabulary of forms and ideas, historical and contemporary cultures, and a balance between humor and concern could engage this kind of work. Michael Sorkin was exactly that critic," added Warke.

Sorkin held degrees from the University of Chicago, MIT, and Columbia University. He was professor and director of the Institute for Urbanism at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (1993–2000), distinguished professor and director of the urban design program at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York City, and a visiting professor at The Cooper Union, Yale School of Architecture, Harvard GSD, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, among many others in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to his practice and teaching, Sorkin was well-known as the architecture critic for the Village Voice in the 1980s, editor-in-chief of Urban Research (UR), a contributor to magazines and journals, and the author of many books. In 2019, the AIA awarded Sorkin the 2019 Collaborative Achievement Award in recognition of more than 40 years of helping to diversify the field of design, and fieldwork in Johannesburg, Havana, and post-Katrina New Orleans.

Gale and Ira Drukier Dean J. Meejin Yoon also acknowledged Sorkin for his teaching style and good humor, as well as his work and contribution to interdisciplinary practice and discourse in architecture. 

"Michael Sorkin was a true original, courageous as a critic, and inspiring as an educator," Yoon said. "His wit and humor were only matched by his commitment to social and political ideals. He was a pioneer in ecological thinking and truly interdisciplinary work between architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism."

By Patti Witten

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