Remembering Michael Sorkin Through ‘Exquisite Corpse’

Michael Sorkin in 2005.
Photo: Fairfax Media via Getty Images

If ever you are lucky enough to spot a copy of Exquisite Corpse in a basket of used books or picking up dust on someone’s shelf, grab it. The author, Michael Sorkin, was the architecture critic for the Voice of the village in the 1980s, and the book brings together his greatest hits from that tenure. They are, I’m here to tell you, really awesome – a crackling, combative series of how New York City crawled out of the ’70s to emerge in the bright lights of the’ 80s powerfully mixed on who and what. she represented. .

I recently reread Exquisite Corpse to remember Michael, who died of COVID a year ago this month, and that enlightened me as much as when he was released. It was three decades ago when I worked for a magazine called Metropolis, my first job outside of college, and Exquisite Corpse saved my neck.

The year was 1991; the aftermath of the ’87 crash still hung over New York City, and the media business was in the trash. I had aspirations to write for magazines, but the only one that offered me a job covered architecture and design, subjects I knew next to nothing about. So every night before I got home, I grabbed a few books from the office library and stayed up late reading. Or tried. Usually these homework knocked me out. There is a reason why books on architecture are not more popular; most of them are dull, pedantic, just plain bad. But one day the editor, Susan Szenasy, handed me a copy of Exquisite Corpse, a strong and well-made hardcover from Verso. If I remember correctly he came with a slight warning like “Michael Sorkin is brilliant, but don’t try to imitate him.”

“What Tom Wolfe doesn’t know about modern architecture might fill a book. And, indeed, he has, although thin, ”begins a Sorkin column erasing Wolfe’s successful 1981 controversy. From the Bauhaus to our home. “Modern architecture has triumphed not because a few emigrants have succeeded in fooling a class of totally recumbent clients or because of the constant gullibility of Americans hopelessly drawn to any idea presented with an accent. Modern architecture triumphed because it met both the expressive and functional demands of those who built it … These buildings were the cheapest you could build and as reproducible as the Model T. “

Oh, man, I was hooked. What an emotional experience this book has been; it left me both thrilled and panicked. The first because here, incredibly, there was an architectural writer who could match the prince of New Journalism on his rhetorical knifes, and the second because, damn it, I didn’t understand half of those columns. As he explains in the intro, Michael was not a writer who covered architecture; he was an architect who used writing to refine his own ideas about building. It was his practice. Seriousness, specificity, and technical know-how have soared above my undergrad-inquiry-class pedestrian knowledge base, not to mention my vocabulary. The last pages of my copy contain a long list of scribbled words that I had to research: trabeation, acromegaly, dybbuk, burnous, latifundia …

Rereading it now, a little less uncertain but still outclassed by the high-speed lexicon, I see how skillfully Sorkin used architecture to illuminate New York’s identity crisis of the 1980s. Immigration had once nurtured and defined the shape and character of the city, the influx of yuppies and suburban tourists became the catalyst for change. Massive redevelopment projects were underway – Times Square, the West Side Highway, Columbus Circle, Battery Park City, downtown Brooklyn – and architects lined up for their big chunk of the loot. Money knew no bounds. (The sums involved seem almost strange now; we had no idea how far that would go.)

Sorkin believed in the power of architecture to humanize market forces and that architects had a responsibility to engage in the mud and grime of the real world, to know what was going on and not just drift with the currents. He blended old-school hippie articles of faith – spacious housing and decent workplaces for all, generous endowments of public amenities, vigilant protection of scarce natural resources – with an insightful love for art, eccentricity and spiciness.

What Sorkin feared and hated in the 1980s was that as payments rose, ideas shrank. Exquisite Corpse is simply blunt about the cowardice of the architectural profession. He pokes fun at the self-righteous ease with which his top practitioners shirk social responsibility and pounce on themselves to apply unnecessary “design” polish to meretric megaprojects. “Architecture has been devalued by its real owners at Madison Avenue,” he writes. “A certain skill will do the trick for the endless repackaging that drives the architectural economy. The real issues are territorial: by what means and at what time can homogenizing scaling be introduced to every corner of Manhattan? This is the developer version of Manifest Destiny, the claim that it is the natural right of white people to occupy the entire island. “

Many big names outside of architectural snowshoeing are getting thrown brick sticks. Regarding the upward creep of Donald Trump’s multiple failures to build the tallest tower in the world, Sorkin notes, “Was a man ever more concerned with getting him up in public?” But Sorkin reserves his harshest reproach for transgressors on his own team, like the merry old Philip Johnson.

Johnson, you may remember, was the fabulously bespectacled grandmaster of the architectural world of New York, loved by many for the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and less and less for such landmarks. than the old AT&T tower at 56th Street and Madison Avenue. (Sorkin hated for years. the profession with a backroom clique of friends and supplicants. “American architecture,” Sorkin writes, “is too important to be held captive by a bunch of boys who meet in secret to anoint club members, reactionaries for whom a social practice means an invitation to lunch, bad designers whose notions of form are the worst kind of parrot.

This last line happens to be taken from a long hit track titled “Why Goldberger Is So Bad”, about Paul Goldberger, then architecture critic for New York. Times. Sorkin despises his rival, calling him a “sycophant” and “toad” and noting his “radar instinct for the buttery side of bread,” although he slyly allows Goldberger to do the worst damage himself. Sorkin quotes an independent Goldberger story in which he praises a pre-war estate in Louisiana: “The main house is of good design quality, but it cannot be compared to the slave quarters as than an architectural experience. ” Now there is a stench that waters the eyes.

Sorkin hands the very last words of the book to Goldberger, a back cover blurb: “Michael Sorkin’s handwriting mark… is to thoughtful criticism what Ayatollah Khomeini is to religious tolerance.” Sorkin, an authentic Voice of the village– Er, also took printed photos of his own boss, referring to owner Leonard Stern as “my oppressor, the man who ultimately takes advantage of my willingness to write for peanuts.” Who needed Twitter?

As deliciously wicked as Sorkin can be, the real pleasures of Exquisite Corpse are the resistance fighters, the marginalized and the obstinate geniuses that he proposes as the soul of the profession: George Ranalli, Paul Rudolph, Zaha Hadid, Lebbeus Woods. The most indelible of these praises is that of his friend Alan Buchsbaum, who died of AIDS in 1987. “While his hospital room was better than most, Alan’s presence was a constant rebuke of his shortcomings. . [he] read environments immediately and with nuance, deeply understand their mentalities and respond directly. He loved smart and comfortable places and designed them better than anyone I know.

Shortly after reading Exquisite Corpse, I introduced myself to Michael at a conference and over the years we have become friends. Not close friends – I have never met his wife or been to her apartment. But we continued as New York acquaintances do, meeting on the street and arranging for a drink. After leaving the Voice, he became a legend on the academic circuit, teaching in the best schools of architecture, roaming like crazy. He also ran his own studio, an uncompromising working lab that embraced durability and bold, futuristic shapes. Hearing him present a project, I sometimes felt what I was doing when I first read his book, ideas that flew to me faster than I could process.

The last time I saw him we had a drink with an architect friend of his who played for a professional women’s football team in the 1970s, the Los Angeles Dandelions. He thought his experience was a great idea for a movie. The three of us sat down at a beer garden in Tribeca and had a gallon or two of rosé. The conversation ricocheted in a million directions. I don’t think we understood the movie.

I wish Michael was there for everything to come here in New York. It’s all too easy to see us fall back into a time like the early 1980s, the city bending down to welcome all the assholes with a smooth pitch and a suitcase full of borrowed money. This will be the time to take a lucid look at the agreements reached and stick to our guns. I would love to hear it on trendy bromides like the supposed obsolescence of the shared workplace. Oh wait, it’s here. “In the possible near future,” he wrote in 1988, “physical contact becomes the privilege of the managerial elite. The vast office workforce is forced to find its own space, harnessed to the CRT at home, piecework. Society frees itself from the need to provide health care, child care or any other physical facility. “

The dark side of all this gleeful talk about “remote working” – it’s the kind of thing Michael challenged architects to take responsibility for. And the rest of us too.

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