by Lisa Landrum, Associate Professor & Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Architecture, University of Manitoba
What makes cities not just livable but lovable is their capacity to generate happy accidents. They are also sites of struggle and misfortune.
On March 26, 2020, Michael Sorkin—a prolific champion of felicitous serendipities—tragically succumbed to a most unhappy accident: complications from COVID-19. This deadly virus thrives amid the very conditions of social intimacy and community interaction that Michael Sorkin promoted through provocative words, propositional works and personal praxis.
The internet now resounds with detailed and heartfelt tributes to this award-winning architect-urbanist, author-activist, distinguished professor and director of the graduate urban design program at City College of New York.(See notices at Terreform, the non-profit urban research center he founded in 2005, and articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, Apollo Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Artforum, e-flux, Jacobin, MAS Context, Progressive City and Quartz).
These tributes extol Michael’s exceptional wit, ferocious criticism and visionary verve in fighting for the city as a vital instrument of social justice, while also emphasising his empowering charisma and generous humanity.
In my view, the hyperbole is warranted.
In 1994, I had the privilege of being a student of Michael Sorkin’s at Carleton University, where he led a studio for a winter term at the invitation of then-director Benjamin Gianni—himself a former student of Michael’s at Yale. Of the 29 schools where Michael taught, this was his sole Canadian gig (although he lectured at many).
That studio was unlike any I had experienced before; and, ever since, I’ve been striving to live up to its playful yet principled expectations. The studio was framed by speculative propositions from his 1993 book Local Code. Dubbed “a regulatory prescription for an urban fantasy,” Local Code reads like a cross between an official zoning document and a surreal set of rules for an eco-sci-fi party game. Inspired by its uncannily common codes, my classmates and I collectively designed an entire city: the best, most enchanting city imaginable.
We made individual “Urbanagrams” (personal visions of wonderful cities and desirable urban qualities), and interdependent “Nabes” (the most delightful kind of neighborhoods for varied forms of social aggregation). We plotted continuous “Tectonic Vector” parades and discovered unmapped ‘Mysteriosos.’
All this was manifested in a collective wooden “ARP” (Analogue Relief Plan)—a gigantic city model, the size of a small theatrical stage, necessitating creative collaboration and clumsy gymnastics akin to a multi-dimensional twister game.
In the first five days of studio, we each attempted five times thirty-six architectonic interventions—intricate, textured and differentiated elements that might become the basis for a city. Events of accumulation were punctuated by episodes of group discussion, interpretation, evaluation, agreement, disagreement and revision.
The muse for our iterative group work was the Exquisite Corpse. This Surrealist entertainment involves both constraint and accident. Its simple rules—to draw a bit, fold the paper to conceal the drawing, then pass it to the next player to draw again—spawn uncanny juxtapositions and surprising outcomes. This delightful interplay of order, disorder, autonomy and heterogeneity provides a powerful metaphor for city-building as a self-actualizing and collective cultural project.
As our exquisite city developed, we governed via role-play as Ministers of Green, of Blue, of Movement, of Recreation, of Cocktails and Entertainment. I became Minister of Documentation and Dissemination, thus inaugurating my 25-year intermittent correspondence with Michael, who conducted our studio via periodic visits and frequent faxes from New York City and Vienna. Rereading those faxes now (yes, I still have them) lays bare his contradictory embrace of both coherence and chaos. Every cryptic constraint was coupled with jovial goading toward freedom and fantasy, exercising our eco-ethical imagination. Likewise, his personal visits demanded hard deliverables and soft dérives, like a late-night ice-skating adventure on the frozen Rideau Canal, Ottawa’s own Tectonic Vector, to trek five slow miles (7.8 kilometres) to the Byward Market for a beer and beavertail. (He had never skated before, so he claimed). Similarly, our Manhattan field trip entailed both grand and simple pleasures, such as doodling together on the paper tablecloths at the Ear Inn, New York’s oldest bar, where I enjoyed many conversations with him over the ensuing years.
I learned many lessons in that studio. I’ll highlight two. First, the productive pleasures of propinquity—of being physically close together—student by student, citizen by citizen, stranger by stranger—while negotiating possibilities and differences. As I later learned by charretting in his Hudson Street studio, propinquity was also part of his team’s embodied drawing process, involving multiple players around a ginormous site plan, coloured pencils in hand, all sketching organic patterns in exuberant polychromatic rhythms mimetic of future urban vibes. For Michael, working closely together—in a shared space and on a shared space—was a model of urban life and a social practice prerequisite for democracy. Propinquity is also the premise of his 1999 book, Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity, co-edited with Joan Copjec, his brilliant wife of nearly 40 years.
Second lesson: the reciprocal discovery of new architectures with new words, and old words turned anew. Like his pedagogical instructions, Michael’s copious corpus of writing and lectures demonstrates the revelatory agency and inventive potency of language. He deployed a full bag of linguistic idioms: playful metaphors, groovy neologisms, low-brow street talk, highfalutin’ jargon, heteroglossic proverbs, arcane wisdom, and the straight talk of common sense. A loose and lucid lexicon was key to his persuasive poetry and brazen invective, helping us all to probe the ‘depths of desire’ and ‘heights of folly’ (#247 and #248 of “Two Hundred Fifty Things an Architect Should Know”).