Michael Sorkin, 72, Dies; Saw Architecture as a Vehicle for Change


Philip Johnson, long since ensconced as the dean of American architecture by the time Mr. Sorkin began writing, was a conspicuous target. He ripped into Johnson’s post-Modernist AT&T Building on Madison Avenue (1984), designed like a Chippendale highboy, calling it a tarted-up “Seagram Building with ears.” In the humor magazine Spy, he outed Johnson as a former Nazi sympathizer, a fact no one at the time dared whisper.

When he attacked Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic of The New York Times, in The Voice, Mr. Goldberger fired back that Mr. Sorkin’s writing “is to thoughtful criticism what the Ayatollah Khomeini is to religious tolerance.” The mischievous Mr. Sorkin advertised that retort as a credential when he used it as a blurb on the back cover of a volume of collected essays, “Exquisite Corpse: Writings on Buildings” (1991).

“I thought of Michael as a bomb thrower because his pieces always shook things up,” said Cathleen McGuigan, editor in chief of Architectural Record, where Mr. Sorkin was a longtime contributing editor.

Mr. Sorkin was an activist critic with a social agenda. He started his career identifying abuses of power while facing the headwinds of the conservative Reagan era. “Politics programs our architecture,” he wrote.

He advocated for housing and green energy rather than prisons and malls, and for citizens to participate in the design of their own urban destinies. As architecture’s largest expression, the city shaped how people led their lives, behaved and therefore thought, and he viewed urban design as an instrument of enlightened social engineering, political justice and power sharing. He inveighed against the privatization of public space.

“Ultimately Michael was a humanist: He believed in building for people, not the power structure,” said James Wines, founder of Site, a New York environmental arts firm, adding: “Within the scope of his broad theories, he focused on how people use street signs, roadways and infrastructure. He was a complex thinker, and he designed complexity.”

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