Michael Sorkin Taught Me How to Look at New York

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

If you’re ever lucky enough to spot a copy of Exquisite Corpse in a used-book bin or gathering dust on somebody’s shelf, snatch it. The author, Michael Sorkin, was the architecture critic for the Village Voice in the 1980s, and the book collects his greatest hits from that tenure. They are, I am here to tell you, truly great — a crackling, combative serial of how New York City crawled out of the ’70s only to emerge into the bright lights of the ’80s mightily mixed up about who and what it stood for.

I recently reread Exquisite Corpse to remember Michael, who died of COVID a year ago this month, and it lit up my mind as much as it did when it came out. That was three decades ago, when I worked at a magazine called Metropolis, my first job out of college, and Exquisite Corpse saved my neck.

The year was 1991; the aftereffects of the ’87 crash still hung over New York City, and the media biz was in the dumps. I had aspirations to write for magazines, but the only one that offered me a job covered architecture and design, subjects I knew practically nothing about. So every night before I went home, I grabbed a couple of books from the office library and stayed up late reading. Or tried to. Usually, this homework knocked me out cold. There is a reason books about architecture are not more popular; most of them are dull, pedantic, just plain bad. But one day, the editor-in-chief, Susan Szenasy, handed me a copy of Exquisite Corpse, a hefty, well-made hardcover from Verso. If I remember correctly, it came with a gentle warning along the lines of “Michael Sorkin is brilliant, but don’t try to imitate him.”

“What Tom Wolfe doesn’t know about modern architecture could fill a book. And, indeed, he has, albeit a slim one,” starts a Sorkin column obliterating Wolfe’s 1981 best-selling polemic From Bauhaus to Our House. “Modern architecture triumphed not because a few emigres managed to dupe a class of clients gone totally supine or because of the abiding credulity of Americans hopelessly drawn to any idea presented with an accent. Modern architecture triumphed because it fit both the expressive and the functional requirements of those who built it … Those buildings were the cheapest you could build and as replicable as the Model T.”

Oh, man, I was hooked. What an emotional experience that book was; it left me feeling both elated and panicked. The former because here, incredibly, was an architecture writer who could match the prince of New Journalism on rhetorical knife skills, and the latter because, holy shit, I didn’t understand half of these columns. As he explains in the intro, Michael wasn’t a writer who covered architecture; he was an architect who used writing to refine his own ideas about building. This was his practice. The seriousness, specificity and technical savvy soared above my pedestrian undergraduate-survey-class knowledge base, not to mention my vocabulary. The back pages of my copy have a long, scrawled list of words I had to look up: trabeation, acromegaly, dybbuk, burnoused, latifundia …

Reading it through again now, somewhat less insecure though still outclassed by the high-velocity lexicon, I see just how deftly Sorkin used architecture to illuminate New York’s identity crisis in the 1980s. Where immigration had once fed and defined the shape and character of the city, the influx of suburban-bred yuppies and tourists became the catalyst for change. Massive redevelopment schemes were afoot — Times Square, the West Side Highway, Columbus Circle, Battery Park City, downtown Brooklyn — and architects lined up for their fat share of the spoils. Money knew no bounds. (The sums involved seem almost quaint now; we had no idea how far it would go.)

Sorkin believed in architecture’s power to humanize market forces and that architects had a responsibility to engage with the muck and grime of the real world, to know what the fuck is going on and not merely drift along with the currents. He mixed old-school hippie articles of faith — spacious housing and decent workplaces for all, generous endowment of public facilities, vigilant protection of scarce natural resources — with a discerning love of art, eccentricity, and pizzazz.

What Sorkin feared and loathed about the 1980s is that, as the payouts grew, the ideas shrank. Exquisite Corpse is plain brutal on the architecture profession’s cravenness. He lampoons the self-satisfied ease with which its top practitioners shrug off social responsibility and fall all over themselves to apply a pointless veneer of “design” to meretricious megaprojects. “Architecture has been devalued by its real proprietors to the level of Madison Avenue,” he writes. “A certain cleverness will do for the endless repackagings that drive the architectural economy. The real issues are territorial: by what means and by what time can the homogenizing upscaling be pressed into every corner of Manhattan? This is the developer version of Manifest Destiny, the assertion that it’s the natural right of white folks to occupy all of the island.”

Many big names outside the architectural racket get brickbats thrown their way. About the ascendant creep Donald Trump’s multiple failures to build the world’s tallest tower, Sorkin notes, “Was ever a man more preoccupied with getting it up in public?” But Sorkin reserves his harshest opprobrium for the transgressors on his own team, like jolly old Philip Johnson.

Johnson, you may recall, was the fabulously bespectacled grandmaster of the New York architectural world, beloved by many for the Glass House of New Canaan, Connecticut, and by fewer for landmarks like the former AT&T tower at 56th Street and Madison Avenue. (Sorkin hated that building.) For years, Johnson paraded around as America’s greatest living architect, surrendering that sobriquet only at his death in 2005. Sorkin paints Johnson as a mirthful fraud who dabbled in fascism in the 1930s, pilfered all his ideas from others, and ruled the profession with a backroom clique of pals and supplicants. “American architecture,” Sorkin writes, “is too important to be held prisoner by a bunch of boys that meets in secret to anoint members of the club, reactionaries to whom a social practice means an invitation to lunch, bad designers whose notions of form are the worst kind of parroting.”

This last line happens to be from a lengthy hit piece entitled “Why Goldberger Is So Bad,” about Paul Goldberger, then the architecture critic for the New York Times. Sorkin heaps contempt on his rival, calling him a “sycophant” and a “toady” and noting his “radar-like instinct for the buttered side of the bread,” though he slyly allows Goldberger to do the worst damage to himself. Sorkin quotes a freelance story of Goldberger’s in which he praises an antebellum estate in Louisiana: “The main house is of good design quality, but it cannot compare with the slave quarters as an architectural experience.” Now there’s a stink that waters the eyes.

Sorkin hands the very last words of the book over to Goldberger, a blurb on the back cover: “Michael Sorkin’s brand of writing … is to thoughtful criticism what the Ayatollah Khomeini is to religious tolerance.” Sorkin, a genuine Village Voice–er, also took shots in print at his own boss, referring to owner Leonard Stern as “my oppressor, the man who ultimately profits from my willingness to write for peanuts.” Who needed Twitter?

As delightfully mean as Sorkin could be, the truest pleasures of Exquisite Corpse are the holdouts, misfits, and obstinate geniuses that he offers as the soul of the profession: George Ranalli, Paul Rudolph, Zaha Hadid, Lebbeus Woods. The most indelible of these encomiums is about 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 to its shortcomings … [he] read environments immediately and with nuance, deeply understood their mentalities, and responded directly. He loved artful, comfortable places and designed them better than anyone I know.”

Not long after I read Exquisite Corpse, I introduced myself to Michael at a conference and over the years, we became friends. Not close friends — I never met his wife or went over to his apartment. But we kept up in the way that New York acquaintances do, by running into each other on the street and arranging to catch up over drinks. After leaving the Voice, he became a legend on the academic circuit, teaching at the top architecture schools, jetting around like a madman. He also ran his own studio, a laboratory of uncompromising work that embraced sustainability and daring, futuristic forms. Hearing him present a project, I sometimes felt the way I did when I first read his book, ideas flying at me faster than I could process them.

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

I wish Michael were around for whatever’s coming next here in New York. It’s all too easy to see us slipping back into a period like the early 1980s, the city stooping to accommodate every jackass with a slick pitch and a suitcase full of borrowed cash. It will be a time for taking a clear-eyed look at the deals being struck and for sticking to our guns. I’d love to hear him on trendy bromides like the supposed obsolescence of the shared workplace. Oh wait, here it is. “In one possible near-term future,” he wrote in 1988, “physical contact becomes the privilege of the managerial elite. The vast clerical work-force is obliged to find its own space, harnessed to the CRT at home, piece-working. The corporation frees itself of the needs to provide healthcare, day-care or any physical facility at all.”

The dark side to all this happy talk of “remote work” — that’s the kind of thing Michael challenged architects to take responsibility for. And the rest of us, too.

Michael Sorkin Taught Me How to Look at New York