In Memoriam: Michael Sorkin (1948-2020)
March 27, 2020
Michael Sorkin (AB '69), whose contrarian imagination inspired generations of love for what cities can maybe be, passed away of the coronavirus on Thursday in New York. The following are just one set of reflections, of a man who was extraordinarily multiple.
Michael meant a particular lot to this institution. And he meant that lot in his own, challenging way, sometimes loudly—as in his treatise Other Plans, which questioned the University's master planning in the late 1990s as a way to generally confront administrative priorities in higher learning, and specifically live out the (weird) potential of this (weird) institution's built environment—but more often quietly, providing generous access and mentorship to wave after wave of our students, including many recent internships for undergraduates, who worked on ongoing Chicago projects in his studio. Michael's tree here runs deeper than any of us, I'd imagine, realize.
Michael was an urbanist, architect, instigator, educator, sage, and perhaps most vividly a writer of the city, in modes blurring critical and fictive. He tested the boundaries of all those terms. For years the architecture critic for the Village Voice, and a professor at City College in New York, he also ran a private studio that conducted both built and speculative design work. Known initially for his vibrant, fantastical drawings and profoundly freeing words, he'd spent more recent years developing proposals to tangibly combat the heaviest social questions of our time, from climate change to rampant spatial inequality.
For all his wit, charm and generosity, Michael wasn't always easy to engage... as one of his graduate students, I struggled over and over to find footholds in his pedagogy, which was often as minimal and puzzling as his writing was lucid and clear. He clearly hoped that we'd gruel through our own contradictions, with the space to do so, and find our own tools and voices along the way. And while the intent was apparent, in the moment, it's taken me a long while to appreciate it, largely because the contradictions we laid bare for ourselves have been (and continue to be) so central and raw. Michael's genius, in the face of his own contradictions, was to keep on smiling, keep on swimming, and keep on living for the lovely confusion, narrating and generating it alike toward beauty and social good.
In that vein, this final turn's something out of a cruel novel, dramatically right but poetically unjust. Messy, urban mingling was Michael's vocabulary; the rich, frenzied mess of the city was so much more than half his joy. But as his close friend Marshall Berman put it, amidst what Berman called "the maelstrom," Michael had long since committed to "developing himself and the world around him [and helping others do the same] to the very end." We can all admire that.
It's easy in memory to generalize, to edit out all the mess, to stick to the highlights, as if these artifacts are the person. But for me, and I'd imagine for a lot of his students, that salient point's beside the most salient point. We'll remember Michael for the struggle, for our efforts to confront our own contradictions, with city as love, face and foil, and turn ourselves toward an original, complex, utterly human and caring multiplicity—not Michael's, but our own—that can keep on challenging itself, and keep on (with impossible joy and cheer) as Berman again would say, "melting into air".
For a fuller version of these reflections, and reflections from many others, please visit the memorial page on City College's website. Visit here for a brief interview with Michael Sorkin for the University of Chicago Magazine.
Luke Joyner (AB '09 and City College MUD ’14)
Lecturer, Department of Art History