New York

Michael Sorkin

Michael Sorkin’s Model City, 1989, is a project about urban form and growth, both prescriptive and spontaneous. But it is also about interior space, about the articulation and violation of the space in which the viewer encounters art. The project works both as a conceptual model, a tactile manifestation of inquiry, and as an object in space. While the urban research and propositions are competent and promising, the project’s most startling and original quality is its aggressive occupation of space. Ironically, the installation succeeds more as architecture than as speculation about architecture.

The work consists of a 16-foot-square slab of wood, one that stretched the dimensions of the small room in which it was installed. A large circle is articulated on the surface of the slab; some axes originate from the circle, others simply cross and overlap it. Beyond the circle, a random matrix of rectangular and triangular forms spill across the plane. The cacophony of forms suggests roads, routes, and passages, open spaces and building sites, as well as undetermined structures. Aside from its polemical intentions, the surface is almost decorative, with a rich play of materials, such as wood, Masonite, metal.

As it was installed here, the entire structure tilted back about 30 degrees. One could pass behind the piece through a narrow passage. The structural system supporting the work created four small chambers, each of which held a wooden chair. In opposition to the strong, confrontational surface of the structure, the back was private, dark, and idiosyncratic. It recalled the fire escapes, makeshift patios, and laundry lines that are often at the back of urban buildings.

Viewing this project completely was a calculated impossibility. (A wall caption by Sorkin notes that the project is intended to be “radically incomplete.” I have some doubt that the incomplete can be considered a radical idea or condition these days.) In order to see the front in its entirety, the viewer was compelled to push back against the wall of the room or to step outside it. There was no comfort, no ease of contemplation with the exception of the quiet, dark, but claustrophobic cells in the back of the piece.

The installation had a case of planned gigantism; while the urban proposition was intentionally scaleless, the actual object had a monumentality that overwhelmed its modest circumstances. Sorkin provided one other oblique frame for the structure. He cut a small horizontal slice into the wall opposite the piece. The narrow rectangle was placed at a height of about eight feet; it allowed for fragmented views of the installation, views that were shaped by the viewer’s movement. The cutaway was a great tease, frustrating a more comprehensive experience of the project.

These kinds of contortions were not simply gestures of play or pointless manipulations. They expressed viscerally what the project addressed conceptually. The work’s precarious position between chaos and coherence, between question and postulate, between planning and fortuity, encompasses the same dialectics that stimulate the growth of all cities. Sorkin investigates the plausibility of an urban constitution that is both prescriptive and flexible enough to allow improvisation and invention. As the site of all of these opposing forces, the city is dense, compressed, and distorted. This installation challenged utopian notions of urban design, even the limits of the space in which it was housed, in order to convey the incompatible insistences of the urban condition. Seeking a comprehensive account of this installation was as futile as the apprehension of the modern city; they can be seen neither completely, clearly, nor concisely.

Patricia C. Phillips