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Michael Sorkin. Photo: LafargeHolcim Foundation.
Michael Sorkin. Photo: LafargeHolcim Foundation.

Michael Sorkin (1948–2020)

New York–based architect, urbanist, educator, and writer Michael Sorkin—a singular activist voice in the design field—has died of complications arising from COVID-19. He was seventy-one. As the director emeritus of the Graduate Urban Design Program of the City College of New York and the principal and founder of Michael Sorkin Studios and the Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research, Sorkin advocated strongly for sustainable urban design. “The future of the city lies not in the superposition of the next great idea but in the careful articulation and expression of many fresh and familiar differences,” Sorkin told Artforum in 2009.

Sorkin was born in Washington, DC, in 1948. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1970 and a master’s in architecture from the Manhattan Institute of Technology in 1974. He launched his career in the ’80s as a critic at the Village Voice, where he quickly developed a polemical, outspoken style. In the introduction to Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings (Verso, 1991), a collection of these early columns, Sorkin describes the postmodern movement as “an orgy of solipsism, narcissist architecture, absorbed with self-reference and façade.” In 1992, he edited Variations on a Theme Park (Hill and Wang), an exploration of parks, public space, and the limits of freedom. Over the years, Sorkin was a contributing editor of Architectural Record and regularly penned pieces for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Nation. He served as editor in chief of Urban Research from 2015 until his passing. He went on to write many more books, including Some Assembly Required (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), Starting from Zero: Reconstructing New York (Routledge, 2003), and Twenty Minutes in Manhattan (Reaktion, 2009), and edited copious others.

Sorkin founded his architectural practice, Michael Sorkin Studio, in the early 1980s; the firm is based in New York and has satellite offices in Shanghai and Xi’an, China. In 2005, he started Terreform, a nonprofit for urban research and initiative to “raise expectations, to show what the possibilities are, and to help give expression to dreams and desires that find difficulty reaching the mainstream.” While writing and designing, Sorkin taught at many schools, including at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, from 1993 to 2000, and as a visiting professor at the Cooper Union, New York, and the Yale School of Architecture, New Haven. He curated the Austrian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2010) and received a gauntlet of awards, most recently the National Design Award in the “Design Mind” category in 2013; a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in 2015; and the Collaborative Achievement Award from the American Institute of Architecture in 2019.