Without Michael

March 30, 2020

Jonathan Solomon remembers urbanist, architect, author, and educator Michael Sorkin.


Mas observations 2020 without michael 01

Michael’s studio in 1999, early in the morning before anyone else got there. Michael’s chair, facing the Bondi Blue iMac, is in the right corner, beside the model of the sheep housing. A map of the South Side of Chicago and assorted memorabilia is pinned to the wall. Photo by the author.

Like many people who write, I hate writing. Even when, every now and then, a piece of writing turns out well, I can’t say I enjoyed the act of writing it. I certainly hate that I have to be writing this.

Michael loved to write, and he did it constantly, and so well. Anyone could tell by reading what he wrote, but watching him write, the joy was contagious. Leg bouncing involuntarily, his hand would fly over a yellow legal pad gripping a trademark Bic Stic, or dance on the keys of a Mac, and out would come lists. Names, places, projects; problems, solutions; organized in long columns, sometimes several pages long. Paper would shuffle, references would stack, the lists would grow into sentences, paragraphs, then texts: emails, project descriptions, recommendations, articles, introductions, afterwards, books.

I started working for Michael Sorkin early in 1999, while I was still an undergraduate at Columbia University. On Fridays, and other days after class, I would take the subway from Morningside Heights to Tribeca, where Michael’s office was. “Where do you live?” Victoria Marshall, friendly but with a hint of suspicion, asked me on my first day. When I told her, she looked askance. “Usually Michael only hires people who can walk to work,” she responded, returning to her drawing.

At this time, the studio was located on 145 Hudson Street, before the building was bought and converted into luxury condos and Michael had to move several blocks north. The studio faced east, overlooking the exit plaza of the Holland Tunnel. Light would pour in each morning. From the back stairs, where Michael and others in the office would mysteriously disappear later in the afternoons, you could see the sun going down over Hudson River.

The studio had just published Wiggle, a monograph with a picture of a muddy orgy of frogs on the cover. I flipped through it lasciviously: a project for a city called Weed, AZ; a tree planted in the middle of an intersection, bleeding green ooze, as “urban acupuncture;” a Tokyo megastructure that managed to evoke both Godzilla and a mushroom cloud; houses shaped like fish and sheep. The book began, Joyce-like, in mid-sentence, or in this case, mid-drawing; a series of floating islands on a lake in Hamburg.

I was not invited to draw for several months. I was put to work first organizing a conference, The Next Jerusalem, a meeting of Palestinian, Israeli, and other architects to speculate about the future of a united Jerusalem. It was to be held that summer at Bellagio, in the Italian Alps; a prospect which seemed to animate Michael as much as the politics of the project.

This was in the period after the Wye River Agreement of 1998, and before the 2000 Camp David Summit. There was a sense that, while radical, the possibility of a shared city might be within reach. I was responsible for making travel arrangements, organizing a schedule of presentations, collecting manuscripts, and communicating the conference center’s strict dress code (Michael sent me to Canal Street at one point to buy ten or fifteen of the most garish ties I could find, because a venue required the men wear them). I also checked Michael’s email, printing out important messages for him to read and file in one of his many stacks of manila folders. I met Christine Boyer, Lebbeus Woods, and of course Keller Easterling. I corresponded with Eyal Weizman, Rassem Khameisi, and Oren Yiftachel; I exchanged faxes with Jafar Tukan and Amir Fink.

As manuscripts came in, Michael read and took notes. He would pile the notes beside books and make lists and these would become drafts of his own text. Eagerly, I would read these drafts as they emerged: exhaustive, but never exhausting, bristling with optimism, saturated in a confidence in camaraderie. The conference took place later that year, and no, I did not travel to Bellagio to attend.

If The Next Jerusalem had Michael reading, writing, and convening at his best, it was not an easy time for his design practice. Michael had just been overlooked for a competition for a vision for Hudson Yards organized by the Canadian Center for Architecture, officially the CCA Competition for the Design of Cities; and for a job planning the campus of the University of Chicago, his alma mater. He continued on both projects, under a framework he called the “unsolicited masterplan”. While he seemed more comfortable working this way, on his own schedule, and responsible to his own values, he took both developments badly. He skewered the CCA Competition, the prize for which eventually went to Peter Eisenman, in the pages of Metropolis magazine; and he forged ahead with his own, earlier work on the West Side waterfront. He persisted with a plan for the University of Chicago. “Commissioned to produce an ‘alternative’ masterplan we had barely begun when we were perfunctorily dropped,” Michael wrote in the introduction to Other Plans, the Pamphlet where he published the project in 2001. “But the campus held the studio too tightly in its grip and so we have pushed on.” And push we did.

At Michael Sorkin Studio we worked in large hand drawings in colored pencil, first on tracing paper then on mylar; and large relief models in plasticine. Usually there were several of these for each project at different scales. The work was directed by Michael, and completed by a small team overseen by Andrei Vovk, a charismatic Russian émigré and Michael’s business partner for a decade, who would smoke cigarettes, drink deli coffee, and mumble direction in heavily accented English. The oils, pencil shavings, cigarette ash, and coffee stains formed a sticky film across the surfaces of the studio, which Michael would occasionally make a show of whooshing through with Windex and a paper towel. This was never effective. Layers of dust would settle, only to be folded in by attempts to brush them away.

Out of this viscous miasma would unfurl drawings of great complexity, beauty, and most importantly, indeterminacy. Unlike architectural drawings which communicate precise, fixed relationships, the drawings that emerged from Michael’s studio revealed new possibilities every time you looked at them. At a time when architects interested in animate form were producing boring blobs, the studio’s drawings seemed alive: figures wandered across plazas, planted platforms meandered across rivers, planted paths wafted between buildings. While other architects seeking to shock the discipline out of complacency left life out of their work, what emerged from the studio was immediately graspable, allowing for an empathy with the tiny bodies moving through them; relations, not (just) forms.

Fascinatingly, the drawings and the models were also literally animated. Michael was focused on process over form, “the space between the fish and the wiggle;” comfortably confident in the indeterminate. So plasticine was constantly reshaped over months, or even years, as projects dragged on from the few representations made for a competition, publication, or occasional client. One dome atop the green machine bubbled into three, then five. On the drawings, pencil rubbed easily off the mylar, hands followed hands repairing smudges and revising as they repaired.

There are two kinds of people in the world, or at least in the “architecture world.” The first kind makes you work constantly for their support. If you pay tribute with your creativity and vitality, they will support you (within limits); but if you miss that payment once all your prior contributions are forfeit, the support is gone. The other, much rarer kind, will love you unconditionally. You may contribute to their project, but their support isn’t tied to this. Only if you betray them significantly, repeatedly, will they step away from you. Michael was this rarer type. He had more vitality than anyone else, he didn’t need to compel yours.

I betrayed Michael many times, stubbornly refusing to come home to him as I pursued my own career, but never enough for him to stop actively, generously supporting me. He remained a constant friend and eager confidant. He supported 306090 Books, a publishing project classmates and I had started in graduate school, by sending us projects and recommending young authors. He would write recommendation letters and forward me job searches. We would speak on the phone, or I would visit him in his new office. New York went through a lot in that time: 9/11, Occupy Wall Street, the 2008 financial crisis, Hurricane Sandy, and ever-spreading gentrification. Michael stayed atop all of this. I’d bring two plastic cups of iced coffee from the deli and collapse on the couch amid piles of books, notes, the previous day’s empty plastic cups of grayish ice coffee ice-melt. Michael would sit with me and talk.

When I did return to Michael, the results were always productive. In 2010 I invited Terreform, a non-profit research and publishing project Michael had founded, to contribute to Workshopping, the exhibition I curated in the US Pavilion at that year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The project he exhibited imagined how New York City could autonomously feed its population without relying on imports. “New York City (Steady) State” refused to let the exhibition escape the transcendent issue of global climate change; the fact it was unfinished even up to installation helped check my own hubris. He proposed a “great green grid” before there was a Green New Deal: “we believe that this systemic, integrated, large-scale master-planning approach is exactly the type of reorientation that governments, planners, developers, architects, engineers, designers, and citizens urgently need to consider,” Michael wrote, setting the stage for a decade of ongoing research.

In that decade, Michael seemed to be everywhere at once. From his new position as architecture critic at The Nation he wrote, joyfully as ever. He taught, traveling with his City College students to Havana or Hanoi, Bogota or Biloxi. He continued to plan and design for sites around the world, to advocate for more equitable cities, and to support the work of others doing the same. Insisting on the power people held when they gathered together, he continued to make allies, including groups like The Architecture Lobby, connecting to a new generation through the politics he had always championed.

If I had to choose one word to embody Michael, it would be “propinquity,” a word I often find I have to define when I use it. Like Michael’s work in any media, this performance of definition establishes a space for ongoing conversation, rather than insisting on a single meaning. Michael used it in the title of a book he edited with his wife Joan Copjec, Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity, in 1999. In the introduction, adapted from his 1997 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture at the University of Michigan, Traffic in Democracy, Michael writes: “Propinquity—neighborliness—is the ground and problem of democracy.” This was indeed to be the problem of our time.

Propinquity was at the core of Michael’s deepest held values and his most popular critiques. It fueled his strong commitment to leftism at the same time as it animated the urgency with which he called for authoritarian solutions to climate change. Michael never lost confidence in neighborliness to make the neighborhood. When I think about how I can come back to Michael, now in this time when chance encounters are suddenly deadly, it is this confidence I remember.

I last spoke to Michael in January. I had seen him bedridden before, overcoming injury and illness, and I can imagine how frustrated he must have been to be forced to hold still, to stay indoors, to give a pass on propinquity. I am sure he found it especially frustrating that COVID-19, a disease spread through neighborliness, would do him in. I imagine he was furious at critics that are blaming the density of cities for the epidemic’s spread, and I realize that I am too, and that I should do more about it.

Even when we weren’t proximate, we were close. So, I prefer not to think of Michael as gone. Like the mornings I would get to the studio first, his world bright with light, without him but electrified by his potentials, I would rather imagine he is just yet to arrive and get to work.