Michael Sorkin (1948–2020)

Michael Sorkin. Photo: Aundre Larrow.

I LOST A FRIEND, AND CITIES LOST THEIR FIERCEST, MOST PASSIONATE ADVOCATE with Michael Sorkin’s death from the coronavirus. He was one of only a few friends whom I consider—considered—brilliant: skillful beyond belief with words, master of arcane knowledge, and always quicker than anyone else at making connections. The sensuality of nature and angular modernity; vulgarity, narcissism, and a taste for autocracy. Dreams of a just society and projects that made artists and intellectuals feel they could really create one. Michael was always on the front lines, yet he was also off to the side, both orchestrating the action and composing a trenchant critique: of walls and occupations, empire and oligarchy, grandiose museums, our bureaucratic university.

He created an extraordinary oeuvre of critical writing about cities that perverted the democracy of the streets into monuments to plutocracy—about corporations and real estate developers that reduced the hungry masses to a hunger for distraction, about a New York that should be self-sustaining and self-governed but could not free itself from capitalists, politicians, hypocrites, and hyper-individualists of all kinds. After 9/11, Michael and I put together a book of essays by New York urbanists who dared to both grieve the annihilation of three thousand lives in the Twin Towers’ fall and regret the arrogance of an architectural complex that claimed to be the financial center of the world. This was hardly a popular position, certainly not at that time, when most commentators spoke of the World Trade Center site as hallowed ground. Neither was Michael’s suggestion, in this book and other writings, to leave the site an undeveloped void, at least for some years of reflection, met with widespread approval. But he always wrote what was in his mind.

How do you grieve this brilliant friend? I see Michael jiggling his foot with impatience, one leg crossed over the other, when someone would take too long to make a point. I hear him call me “Dah-link” with an exaggerated Mitteleuropean accent. I remember how, for many years, he favored a certain Italian restaurant in the Village, because they kept grilled endives on the menu.

I am old enough to know that when a friend dies, you often discover they had other lives and other friends about whom you knew nothing. Michael indeed had many of both, yet, somehow, we all knew, or knew about, each other. He told the same truth to everyone. He delighted in bringing people together. He always had time to meet a visiting architect, writer, or anyone with a project—for which he always agreed to write something that nearly always turned out to be the most insightful piece in the collection.

Michael was an architect’s writer and a writer’s architect. Born in the nation’s capital, he became an echt New Yorker and a citizen of the world. A public intellectual, a mentor to his students, a loving husband, a generous friend. Like everyone else, I miss him greatly.

Sharon Zukin is professor emerita of sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.