The cause was complications from the coronavirus disease covid-19, said his wife, film theorist Joan Copjec.
Mr. Sorkin was an architectural gadfly, known for biting attacks on structures that he deemed pretentious or lacking in social purpose. He called the flourishing postmodernist style of the 1980s “an orgy of solipsism, narcissist architecture, absorbed with self-reference and facade,” and approached buildings from the perspective of a person on the street, asking how a new office tower or apartment block would contribute to a more just and equitable city.
“For the woman staring at the CRT screen in the windowless back office, whether the doo-dads on the roof are Tuscan or De-Con will be of no great import,” he wrote in his 1991 book “Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings.” It mattered far more, he believed, for architects and critics to consider questions of how a person should live and work, and to examine the political forces that caused luxury towers to rise and playgrounds to fall.
Mr. Sorkin, who wrote or edited 20 books, variously served as the architecture critic for the Village Voice and the Nation, led the Urban Design Forum in New York and directed the graduate program in urban design at the City College of New York’s Spitzer School of Architecture. He also presided over his own firm, Michael Sorkin Studio, and an urban research institute, Terreform.
His designs were whimsical, ambitious and often unabashedly idealistic. He developed an alternative master plan for New York and dreamed up a “postindustrial, post-automotive city” known as Weed, Ariz.; created a “House as Garden” proposal that reimagined a narrow Harlem lot as a terraced, light-filled affordable housing development; and brought an emphasis on sustainability to numerous projects in China, including a jellyfish-shaped hotel in Tianjin and a master plan for Xiongan, a new city south of Beijing.
Relatively few of his proposals came to fruition. But they served as a platform for Mr. Sorkin to advance his ideas, including his belief in the importance of public spaces, the primacy of pedestrians over cars and the “cheek by jowlness” that makes cities so vibrant.
“He was probably our most impassioned advocate of architecture as a means toward social justice,” said architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who sparred with Mr. Sorkin in the 1980s before reconciling in recent years. “He believed passionately in public space and the city. He believed in equality. He believed, I think it’s fair to say, that architecture was inherently political and reflected social power . . . and he relentlessly pushed architecture to do better and to stand for more than it did.”
Mr. Sorkin was primarily known for his criticism, which he described as “architecture by other means.” A polymath who studied Persian literature in college and received a master’s in English at Columbia University, he studied architecture at MIT in the 1970s and turned to criticism after deciding that it was almost impossible to work as a designer, at least in the way he wanted.
“I have always had, shall we say, a certain penchant for invective; always thought my aim truer from the hip,” he wrote in “Exquisite Corpse,” which collected many of the Village Voice articles that brought him to prominence. “Certainly, writing about culture in the Reagan era offered endless inducements to reach for my revolver. For this I have no regrets.”
His work took aim at architectural giants such as Philip Johnson, whose AT&T tower in Manhattan Mr. Sorkin derided as “the Seagram building with ears.” (Mr. Sorkin was once kicked off a panel examining the future of Times Square, according to critic and philosopher Marshall Berman, because Johnson “refused to appear in the same room with him.”) He also went after peers such as Goldberger, who was then at the New York Times and embodied, in Mr. Sorkin’s telling, “the aesthetics of yuppiefication.”
Responding in kind, Goldberger declared that Mr. Sorkin’s writing “is to thoughtful criticism what the Ayatollah Khomeini is to religious tolerance.” An unabashed Mr. Sorkin went on to use that quote as a blurb on the back of his books.
“That was probably what was most endearing about him — he was one of the only radicals I’ve ever known who had a light spirit to him,” Goldberger said by phone. “Earnestness doesn’t marry well with cruelty. He was a kind person, not an insane, crazy polemicist.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Sorkin could be unusually forthright in his views. He once interrupted a public meeting on the post-9/11 fate of Ground Zero, the World Trade Center site, by shouting an expletive at the moderators. Mr. Sorkin, who lamented that luxury developments were turning Manhattan “into the world’s largest gated community,” had called for the site to serve as a public space that encouraged “peaceable assembly.”
“Passing the site several times a week, I am increasingly struck by its power and coherence as a space,” he wrote in a 2003 essay. “No building will ever achieve the eloquence of this void in speaking of the event. We do not hallow this ground simply by filling it with buildings.”
Michael David Sorkin was born in Washington on Aug. 2, 1948. His mother was a social worker, and his father was an engineer and metallurgist who rose to direct an office of the Naval Sea Systems Command, assembling a collection of model boats that served as playthings for his only child.
The family settled in Fairfax County, Va., where Mr. Sorkin became fascinated by architecture while exploring the mid-century modern buildings around his neighborhood of Hollin Hills. One of his neighbors had worked for the Olmsted brothers, the esteemed landscape architects, and became a “surrogate grandfather,” Mr. Sorkin told Architect magazine.
His actual grandparents lived in New York, which Mr. Sorkin visited on holidays, increasingly intoxicated by its skyline “in the image of a bar graph.” On road trips, Mr. Sorkin liked to say, he passed the time by editing the landscape in his mind.
Mr. Sorkin graduated from the University of Chicago in 1969 and, three decades later, was commissioned by the school to design an alternative to its architectural master plan. He continued on for nearly three years, even after the school dismissed him, in a self-
described “quixotic, self-financed, kamikaze process” to reimagine the campus, developing a proposal that featured rounded buildings and interconnected dorms.
He received a master’s degree from Columbia in 1971 and began his architectural studies at MIT that fall, only to leave school in 1973 and complete a master of architecture degree in 1984. He taught at schools including the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna before joining the City College faculty in 2000.
In 1982 he married Copjec, his sole immediate survivor.
Mr. Sorkin’s books included “All Over the Map” (2011), a collection of articles he wrote for Architectural Record, and “Twenty Minutes in Manhattan” (2009), a conversational account of his daily walk from Greenwich Village — where he and his wife lived in a rent-controlled apartment — to his studio in Tribeca, sprinkled with digressions on stoops, stairs and the links between politics and architecture.
It was a theme that Mr. Sorkin continued to explore in recent years, notably in an Architectural Record essay published two months before the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president.
“Civilizations are marked by their priorities,” he wrote, “and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture — that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”
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