All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities

Flora Samuel welcomes an exuberant attack on a sphere dominated by greed and lack of vision

September 22, 2011

For jaded architectural academics awaiting the start of a new year, this book is a shot in the arm, as Michael Sorkin unabashedly exclaims: "I do love the thrill each year of welcoming students from across the planet to share the adventure of imagining happy, just and sustainable futures for our cities."

Clearly a product of the 1960s, Sorkin remains almost impossibly optimistic despite the depressing nature of his subject matter. Contested space is his speciality, whether it is the Occupied Territories, the bodies of women or the void left by the Twin Towers after 9/11 - "a mad act of urban renewal". Indeed, the aftermath of those terrorist attacks forms a continuing riff throughout this book - Sorkin's second collection of essays - which covers his written work since 1991. And if you believe the world is run by excessively greedy and out-of-control corporations, then this volume will confirm all your worst suspicions, as Sorkin determinedly traces the links between the realms of global finance and that of architecture.

Writing from within the architectural profession, Sorkin uses his knowledge of practice to offer, "via critique or proposal", spatially based solutions to complex questions. Accordingly, this book is accompanied by details of the occasional Sorkin project, often polemic in the visionary manner of Buckminster Fuller, a particular favourite of his, along with the legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs.

"Here is the central dilemma for utopia, for master planning, for any architecture that proposes to make things better: what exactly is meant by 'better'? And better for whom?" For Sorkin, the central question is "how to simultaneously value artistic expression largely directed to the privileged and to rail against a world going to hell in a hand-basket because of a crisis". He acknowledges that there are no simple answers and apologises for what he calls the slight schizophrenia of his offerings.

The greatest villains in all this, Sorkin argues, are the corrosive corporations and developers whose impact on the environment, both in the US and elsewhere, is so harmful, not just in terms of sustainability, but in terms of the decimation of communities - such as, he notes, the estimated $6 billion (£3.7 billion) clean-up job left behind in Ecuador after the departure of petroleum company Chevron.

Another corporate-level example on which he trains his focus is that of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Sorkin meticulously maps the story of the 9/11 site ("not a moment for slippery relativism and ethical agnosticism") as the LMDC-helmed project morphs into yet another business development-cum-shopping mall - this time with a memorial attached. There was no chance, it seems, that the landowners would consider giving such a prime development site over to something so unproductive as a garden. Instead, the project was given aesthetic and symbolic authority through the involvement of Daniel Libeskind, who now appears to have a monopoly on memorial architecture as he continually reworks the groovily sharded language of his very successful Jewish Museum in Berlin.

The problem is, Sorkin argues, that corporations such as LMDC use star architects such as Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas to give leverage to projects of "dubious ethical provenance". He notes sharply that Koolhaas, perhaps the most interesting and cynical brain in architecture today, fails because of his "fogy disdain for the political and his inability to tell us what he really wants (so uncool)".

Meanwhile, the ascendancy of "starchitecture" is facilitated by those who give these architects their authority - namely, the "unflagging hegemony of the sixty-something and seventy-something cadre that rules, that formulated the parameters of the depoliticized, desocialized post-modernity that swept architecture in the seventies and eighties" who are still very much in charge. Closely associated with this group is the Congress for the New Urbanism - or the "Opus Dei of urban design". He bemoans the lack of rebellion in this generation of architects, and our fundamental inability to remain "faithful to the heritage of the avant-garde" by challenging the brokers of power.

But Sorkin's real bete noire is Philip Johnson, the deceased Post-Modernist architect known for his Chippendale-topped AT&T tower in New York City. For Sorkin, Johnson was "emblematic of everything revolting about architectural culture". There is no messing about here: he alleges that not only was Johnson "fascist" in his leanings, he was loathsome for his "club house conduct of architectural patronage" and his "promiscuously banal sense of style". "Basta! Good riddance! Shut the door!" proclaims Sorkin. This is refreshing stuff, I must say, as someone who experienced this scene in all its revoltingness as a student at Princeton University in the 1980s.

Sorkin next conducts a forensic survey of who gets the most attention in the architectural columns of The New York Times. Time and again, the same practices are shortlisted for the big competitions and the outcomes are nearly always the same, just as they are in the UK. Just look at the Stirling Prize shortlist this year, where Sarah Wigglesworth's sensitive and successful Sandal Magna primary school in Wakefield has been squeezed out by the judges, seemingly on aesthetic grounds, in favour of a range of more corporate schemes. The message that this sends to the public is that architects value superficial glamour above ethics, social engagement and sustainability. No wonder our profession is so undervalued.

For architectural critics and, by extension, the judges of these well-publicised competitions, Sorkin has some trenchant words of advice: "The duty of the critic, therefore, is both to consider the larger meanings of his or her preoccupations or circumspections and to empower his or her readers with an analytical tool with which to make the environment more comprehensible and tractable - to make the public more critical."

This is the absolute heart of the matter. We have to help people understand what makes up the complex social and sustainable web of good architecture. In Sorkin's words, "architectural criticism is obliged to support the primary duty of architecture itself: making life better". Empty aesthetics are not enough.

This brand of honesty is rare in architectural circles. It is certainly not the sort of honesty that helps you to get a job. Indeed, Sorkin tells the story of Richard Rogers, who was "threatened with the loss of two giant commissions in New York - the $1.7 billion expansion of the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center and the $1 billion Silvercup Studios project - for his (guilt by) association with Architects and Planners for Justice", a small organisation known for its condemnation of the "fragmentation of Palestinian land". The result was, Sorkin recounts, a "monumental and humiliating grovel" by Rogers to save his commissions. Such is the life of the architect.

"All architecture is political," Sorkin insists. He is ever-supportive of those on the peripheries "in the space of Michael Hardt and Anthony Negri's 'multitude', the living and subversive democratic alternative growing in the maw of the empire". He wears his heart on his sleeve and I love it. This is certainly a book that I will recommend to students, and not just to help them write - although his skill in the construction of brief, engaging, witty and incisive journalistic pieces is exemplary - but to show them why and where architecture is so badly needed. We have a duty to fight for the quality of our built environment, as, in Sorkin's words, "everyone has the right to architecture".

The Author

Michael Sorkin is distinguished professor of architecture and director of the graduate urban design programme at the City College of New York. He undertook architectural training at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and also received degrees from Chicago and Columbia universities.

More than 30 years ago he established Michael Sorkin Studio, a design practice, in New York. It has been recognised by i.D. magazine's annual awards and has won a Progressive Architecture Award. Its recent projects include a park in Queens and planning and design for a "highly sustainable" city of 300,000 near Wuhan, China.

Sorkin, who says he is dedicated to urbanism, directed studio projects in 2005-06 for the post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction of Biloxi and New Orleans. He won an American Academy of Arts and Letters 2010 Architecture Award.

He has a fondness for puppies and Slovenian wines, and says his greatest satisfaction is being stopped and asked for directions in cities he is visiting for the first time.

All Over the Map: Writing on Buildings and Cities

By Michael Sorkin

Verso, 320pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781844673230

Published 5 September 2011

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