New York

Michael Sorkin

Widely known for his wry, sharp-shooting criticism, Michael Sorkin put writing aside in order to develop an architectural practice. Thankfully he did not stop writing altogether, though it is more often as a theorist than as a critic that he chooses to commit his thoughts to paper.

Neither wildly implausible nor easily realizable, Sorkin’s models for living occupy the inadequately mapped region between theory and practice. Even to those who pretend to embrace a variegated architectural practice, Sorkin’s unruly, unfamiliar work is frequently mystifying. Though his ungainly amalgamations might cause purists to shrink in horror, there is a certain theoretical momentum in current architectural thinking that goes hand in hand with these bold departures from conventional practice and forms.

Local Code, 1994, Sorkin’s latest book, describes a city in terms of the rights and duties of its inhabitants: it includes a bill of rights, community expectations, and design guidelines for constructing a new metropolis at 42 degrees north latitude. The text relates the various elements that comprise a participatory democracy to the forms that enable and represent it. Eschewing simpleminded environmental determinism, the book underscores the fact that how a city looks and changes is less a matter of self-expression on the part of architects than a consciously calculated use of form to further social, cultural, and economic agendas.

For the exhibition, “Fleeting Suburbs of Utopia,” Sorkin and his studio presented recent projects in an appropriately unorthodox fashion. One wall of the gallery was painted an in-your-face turquoise from which models and studies of single buildings entitled Sheep, Dog, Slug, Frog, and Aardvark projected like a collection of stuffed trophies. Amoebae-shaped lamps of plaster-coated fabric hung from the ceiling, shedding light at irregular intervals on rows of drawings sandwiched in soft, folded plastic suspended from clear plastic tubing.

One project exhibited here, a design for the Brooklyn Waterfront, was emblematic of the issues and forms that are particular to the studio’s work. This proposed development evinces a certain frustration with formulaic responses to urban waterfront design. Without completely disregarding the economics that drive such solutions, the Sorkin Studio included a convention center, a hotel constructed from an old cruise ship, an amphitheater, and a new industrial site for a barge-building facility. The remainder of the site was designated as a park composed of pier fragments and walkways, radically transforming the architectural unity of the structures along the river’s edge and providing a means of stabilizing the environment by opening it to change.

In another project, for Spreebogen in Berlin, the architects depicted a government district composed of various small elements and anchored by the Reichstag and the train station. Here the construction of the space was aligned with the objectives of a participatory democracy—the search for a common ground for a diverse constituency. A riotous, speculative, three-dimensional model of a city, constructed with a group of Sorkin’s students, directly referenced the participatory nature of his creative process.

As a writer, Sorkin raised the critical pitch of architectural discourse, always reminding readers of the social content of urban design. As an architect, using often awkward and frenetic forms, he offers new ways of visualizing our urban environment.

Patricia C. Phillips