Julio Salcedo-Fernández and his colleagues at Terreform, the not-for-profit research and design studio founded by Michael Sorkin in 2005, select extracts from Sorkin’s writing on architecture, cities and Donald Trump

The wit & wisdom of the late Michael Sorkin

250 things an architect should know

136. The history of big machines, including those that can fly.
137. How to calculate ecological footprints.
138. Three good lunch spots within walking distance.
139. The value of human life.
140. Who pays.
141. Who profits.
Extract from ‘250 Things an Architect Should Know’, published in,  What Goes Up, 2018. 

City planning

‘The very idea of city planning had been made disreputable by postwar experience and its two spectacularly failed models: urban renewal and the suburbs. Physical planning is still flinching from the disrepute of this love-enslavement to social engineering, and had been almost entirely abandoned as a municipal function in the United States; the public realm reduced to reacting to the shoves and slaps of the invisible hand.’
Exquisite Corpse:  Writing on Buildings, 1991

Philip Johnson’s AT&T building

‘Not to put too fine a point on it, the building sucks. The so-called “post-modern” styling in which AT&T has been tarted up is simply a graceless attempt to disguise what is really just the same old building by cloaking it in this week’s drag.’
‘Philip Johnson:  The Master Builder as a Self-Made Man’,  The Village Voice, 30 October 1978, reprinted in Exquisite Corpse, 1991

On Philip Johnson’s skyscrapers

‘As with so much of Johnson’s work, one sees only the outline of architecture, building more described than designed. The problem – skins, clusters of towers – gets stated but remains unsolved. Philip’s tragedy is that the polish and politesse that has permitted his free movement among the older monied has deflected the delicious Robertson Boulevard sensibility that might otherwise have emerged.’
Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings, 1991

 The relationship between architecture and capital

‘All architecture distributes: mass, space, materials, privilege, access, meaning, shelter, rights. The inevitable nexus of architecture and capital is one of its core fascinations, one of the reasons it can be so efficiently and abundantly read. That the legibility of the ostentation all around Zuccotti Park – and the deployment of every conceivable police technology to assure Wall Street’s perquisites remained unassailed – is only the zillionth instance of architecture’s insistence on making its role perfectly clear. In the main, architecture only abets the transparency of capital’s inequities. Even the most robust architectural revolutionaries seldom do more than currency conversion, exchanging the material for the symbolic.’
‘Afterword: Architecture Without Capitalism’, in Peggy Deamer (ed), Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present, 2014


‘I see criticism – and there is some utility in separating it from theory – as a service profession. Not that I think of myself as an architectural barista brewing up steaming cups of truth, but that my perspective is increasingly both quantum and moral and that here criticism truly must be practical. The main issues confronting the planet are distributive – the apportionment of resources and equity – and architecture fascinates not just for its capacity to map, but to serve. It isn’t that its power to charm – to move – is negligible, uninteresting, even less than central, but criticism must situate the nature of its own urgency. Many registers – from the urban to the micro-tectonic – demand many criticisms and the search for a unified field, even as a metaphor, seems unproductive, particularly given the rapid shifts of taste among both theoretically minded architects and those with other operational reflexes.’
‘Critical Measure:  Why Architectural Criticism Matters’,  The Architectural Review, June 2014

The Manhattan skyline

‘The Empire State was for decades the tallest bar in the graph of real estate values that is the Manhattan skyline. But it was more than a monument to quantity. Along with other buildings of the great Deco efflorescence – most notably its dance partner the Chrysler Building – it signified both the high-water mark of a style immensely indigenous to New York, but also its collapse in the great depression, after which buildings were very different. It was the emblem of a capitalism that demanded buildings in which many different firms of many different sizes were housed together. And it was the preeminent symbol of what the Manhattan economy does so uniquely: turn the sky into land.’
‘New York Triptych’, in What Goes Up:  The Right and Wrongs to the City, 2018 2018

New Urbanism

‘They’ve been preparing the battleground for years, insisting that they alone have found the one true condition of equipoise. New Urbanists defend their superior wisdom in three areas: the preferability of the “traditional” city of streets and squares to the universally discredited Corbusian model, a claim to special access to knowledge of sustainability, and a faux-populist derision of practices that are “avant-garde”. None of these arguments is interesting or particularly controversial. No designer of conscience (or consciousness) resists the idea of cities with streets built for people on foot or fails to pay at least lip service to a sustainable – even equitable – environment. Insisting otherwise is just disingenuous.

‘But there is something interesting going on in thinking about the design of cities, informed by questions of sea-level rise and climate change, massive pollution of air, earth and water, and a broad realignment of public consciousness about the limited bearing capacity of the Earth. Like virtually everyone in the disciplines, both Landscape Urbanists and New Urbanists recognise this and have produced projects that address it. It’s the war over formulae that’s a waste. The New Urbanists continue to dine out on the enervated notion of a regulating “transect”, a gradated wash of conditions from rural to urban, derived from Patrick Geddes, which they serve up with all the nuance of Creationism.’
‘Rumble in the Urban Jungle’, Architectural Record, August 2013

Donald Trump

‘Trump’s well-documented history of racial discrimination, tenant harassment, stiffing creditors (including architects), evasive bankruptcies, predilection for projects of low social value – such as casinos – and his calculated evasion of the taxes that might support our common realm are of a piece with his larger nativist, sexist and racist political project. We do not welcome Donald Trump to the White House and will revile and oppose him until he can conclusively demonstrate that the hideous pronouncements and proposals of his campaign have demonstrably been set aside and in favour of positions and actions that genuinely seek to serve our national cause and purpose – to build a better America rooted in the principles of justice, equity, and human dignity.’
November 2016 in response to the American Institute of Architects’ statement announcing its intention to ‘work closely with Donald Trump to strengthen the nation’s ageing infrastructure’


‘Not every block is created equal, and although the time constraint can be treated as a constant, fluctuations in density are enormous. The city has blocks that are filled by high-rise apartments and others that are essentially suburban, thousands of dwelling units versus tens. If an individual dwelling is understood as the centre of a walking radius, each neighbourhood resident will find a greater or lesser degree of her quotidian circle in adjacent neighbourhoods, suggesting that the idea of neighbourhood itself must be treated elastically.’
Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, 2009

On technology and the city

‘With the precise prescience of a true Master of the Universe, Walter Wriston recently declared that “the 800 telephone number and the piece of plastic have made time and space obsolete”. Wriston ought to know. As former CEO of the suggestively named Citicorp, he’s a true Baron Haussmann for the electronic age, ploughing the boulevards of capital through the pliant matrix of the global economy.

‘The comparison isn’t meant to be flip: Wriston’s remark begs fundamental questions about urbanity. Computers, credit cards, phones, faxes and other instruments of artificial adjacency are rapidly eviscerating historic politics of propinquity, the very cement of the city. Indeed, recent years have seen the emergence of a wholly new kind of city, a city without a place attached to it.

‘This ageographical city is particularly advanced in the United States. It’s visible in clumps of skyscrapers rising from well-wired fields next to the Interstate; in huge shopping malls, anchored by their national-chain department stores, and surrounded by swarms of cars; in hermetically sealed atrium hotels cloned from coast to coast; in uniform “historic” gentrifications and festive markets; in the disaggregated sprawl of endless new suburbs without cities; and in the antenna bristle of a hundred million rooftops from Secaucus to Simi Valley, in the clouds of satellite dishes pointed at the asynchronous blip, all sucking Arsenio and the A-Team out of the ether.’
Variations on a Theme Park, 1992