Michael Sorkin, brilliant and prolific writer on urbanism, architect, distinguished professor, and founding director of the City College Urban Design Program, will be greatly missed by legions of current and former students and colleagues. Michael, quite literally, put City College ‘all over the map’ of global urban design pedagogy. As tributes to his career stream out, we leave the recounting of his achievements to be googled or instagrammed. Michael’s legacy within the school of architecture is deeply personal. His incisive observations were animated by a profound idealism and he found and gave joy in exhorting students to imagine alternatives to unjust, environmentally degraded cities. Every faculty member, student and alumnus will recall his wit, intellect and extreme generosity of spirit.
As much as we at City College feel the loss of our mentor and friend, we want to celebrate the scope of Michael Sorkin’s contribution to the discourse of urbanism and to the built fabric of cities around the world. Through his writings as architecture critic, first at the Village Voice and later The Nation, his many books, edited essay collections, and the publications presented by his non-profit research and design office, Terreform, Michael’s thinking has transformed global design and planning culture. Cities are now widely understood to be enmeshed in larger ecological and social systems, and advocates for equity in accessing the pleasures of urban life are heard loud amid the babble of efficiency experts and cost estimators. His influence on other writers, designers and planners created a wave that will continue to wash away normative assumptions and allegiance to banal ‘best’ practices.
At City College, our mission is not only to ride the wave that Michael Sorkin generated, but to fuel it and funnel it into continuously emerging channels opened by climate change, escalating inequities of privilege, the rise of surveillance regimes, and social authorisation of violence. And with Michael in mind, we will do so with ideals that push us to look beyond solving problems to create material culture – and a culture of material – that values wit and builds his sense of joy into everyday life.
Trained as an architect, but extending the field to embrace critical thought and practice in urbanism, the politics of development, and the exploitation of the whole Earth, Michael was a weathervane of truth-telling on the entire human environment. Architectural critic of the Village Voice, founder of Michael Sorkin Studio and Terreform, and teacher of generations of architecture and urban students throughout the world, he was the voice of reason, and a spirit of compassion. For over forty years he personified the role of guide, mentor and ironic observer of environmental follies, writing and designing with acerbic wit, empathy and deep understanding of the social and economic, aesthetic and professional implications of planning and design. Taken from us by COVID-19, we have lost the very voice that might have guided us through this new terror; his example will sustain us.