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Architect Michael Sorkin dies from Covid-19

The late intellectual saw architecture as vehicle for social and political change

Mr Sorkin's work - lectures, teaching, writings and projects - inspired audiences and students to use architecture to resist the status quo and help achieve social equity.

New York

MICHAEL Sorkin, an influential architecture critic, author, designer and urban visionary, died last Thursday in Manhattan at the age of 71. His wife and only immediate survivor, Joan Copjec, said the cause was the novel coronavirus.

Mr Sorkin was architecture's most outspoken public intellectual, a polymath whose prodigious output of essays, lectures and designs, all promoting social justice, established him as the political conscience in the field.

In lectures and in years of teaching, he inspired audiences and students to use architecture to change lives, resist the status quo and help achieve social equity. His motivational writings and projects helped reset the field's moral compass.

With degrees from the University of Chicago and Columbia University, and a master's in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he moved in 1973 from Cambridge to New York, a city he said he adored for its opera and toasted bagels. It remained his home for the rest of his life.

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He and his wife, a professor of film theory at Brown University, spent decades in a modest, rent-controlled, two-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village, from which he commuted daily on foot to his studio in TriBeCa. He based one of his dozen books, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, on his pedestrian odyssey.

His writings ranged in scope from urban theory to the Israeli border wall to issues of sustainability. He specialised in compressing biting wit and intellectual scope in irresistible sentences that buoyed serious arguments.

His designs, mostly unbuilt statements of theory, were equally wide-ranging: a small-lot apartment competition in New York, a master plan for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, vast urban-planning schemes for competitions in China.

He laced his urban proposals with green zones and designed lighthearted zoomorphic buildings, like a seaside hotel shaped like a jellyfish drifting in the current.

A natural radical who saw architecture through a political and social lens, he maintained an outsider's critical perspective even as he entered the establishment as head of his own architecture firm and director of the graduate urban design programme at the City College of New York. His practice, writings and academic position gave him a public platform.

At the beginning of his career, he made his reputation by speaking truth to power. When he achieved a degree of power, he continued to speak truth, as though still an outsider.

He first established himself as a public figure from 1980 to 1990 at The Village Voice, where he wrote searing critiques, leavened with humour, that were often delivered at the expense of people who lived uptown.

"He said what everyone was really thinking but were afraid to say," said Max Protetch, whose Max Protetch Gallery specialised in architects' drawings.

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 Mr Johnson's post-Modernist AT&T Building in Madison Avenue (1984), designed like a Chippendale highboy, calling it a tarted-up "Seagram Building with ears".

In the humour magazine Spy, he outed Mr Johnson as a former Nazi sympathiser, 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 (former Supreme Leader of Iran) 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.

"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 long-time contributing editor.

He 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 programmes 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.

He viewed urban design as an instrument of enlightened social engineering, political justice and power sharing. He inveighed against the privatisation 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. NYTIMES

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