Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Urban Outfitter

Dean Almy


As a practicing architect and a leading critic, Michael Sorkin is a unique voice in the debate over how to construct and sustain the city. His dual vocation allows him to bring a special urgency—and no small measure of poignancy—to the persistent question of how our cities can retain their meaning in the frenetically globalizing marketplace. “Urbanism is in crisis,” he writes, “the condition for billions of people in our cities is wretched, and we need to rapidly refit our dysfunctional metropolises for justice and sustainability.” To meet the urgent challenges of planning the postmodern city on a humane scale, he writes, we must reconfigure the entire project of urban design as “a merger between social, environmental, and formal practices.”

It’s a fitting testament to Sorkin’s work, then, that the essays collected in All Over the Map are indeed just what the title says: The loose compilation maps the evolving status of the city while also highlighting how architecture must shift its attention to some of the most basic coordinates of urban life. Take, for example, the protracted, deeply cynical negotiations over the erection of the September 11 memorial site in Lower Manhattan, which Sorkin has masterfully dissected, here and in his other writings. Summing up the process by which developers and area political leaders reviewed submissions for the project, Sorkin writes that the proceedings were mainly there “to convey the appearance of sincerity about architectural quality and to offer the image of due diligence in the pursuit of the public weal.”

Drawing on essays published in Architectural Record, the Harvard Design Magazine, and Sorkin’s earlier chronicle of the World Trade Center battle, Starting from Zero (2003), All Over the Map can also be read as a sort of real-time chronicle of New York’s urban distempers at the start of the new millennium. And New York, of course, is a perfect template for engaging the broader debate on the fortunes of the city. This great American metropolis has suffered from extreme acts of violence and cynicism together with simple malignant neglect, while the beleaguered institutions charged with envisioning and shoring up the civic identity of New York—the architectural establishment very much among them—have largely succumbed to professional ineffectiveness and theoretical angst.

At the same time, Sorkin also uses the essays collected here to deliver more personal reflections on how New York has evolved—rarely for the better in his view: “We save the facades of our buildings,” he drily notes, “but have little concern for their human content.”

So much of the prevailing discussion about the city’s sustainability flows from either blind faith in technological invention (leading to projects such as Dickson Despommier’s vertical farms) or in the pragmatic-sounding incremental gains won from negotiated settlements (such as green-development tax incentives). Yet the question always remains: To what end? What will the actual experience of urban living be like in this new metropolis? Sorkin suggests that the city needs to be reconceived in such debates as the central forcing bed of social ethics. The city’s embodiment of place-centered sensibility, its embrace of cultural diversity, and the political deliberations that determine its democratic freedoms—all these forces become, in Sorkin’s view, a critical repository of social resources. Hence, the chief task of architectural criticism, he contends, “is to rise in defense of public space. Threatened by the repressive sameness of global culture, contracted by breakneck privatization, devalued by contempt for public institutions, and victimized by the loss of habits of sociability, the physical arena of collective interaction—the streets, squares, parks, and plazas of the city—are, in their free accessibility, the guarantors of democracy.”

Sorkin’s essays betray a telltale debt to the field’s great midcentury populist voice, Jane Jacobs—and share her core understanding of cities as integral to human culture. Like Jacobs, Sorkin is keenly attuned to what it means for citizens—the archetypal urban residents who are also the ideal modern political subjects—to experience the diversity of urban society, the value of density, and the freedom inherent in the democratic organization of a city’s daily life. “Urban design—a discipline born in rebellion against the received wisdom of modernist planning—derives many of its central formulations from their foundational articulation by Jacobs,” Sorkin writes, in a moving tribute to her impact on New York. Yet his formulations expand upon some of her foundational ethics, searching for new ways of defining the future. “Is it possible to make a new city based on her ideas?” he asks. The answer is, in his view, a qualified yes—and he sketches the foundation for an overhauled urban plan, rooted in the Jacobs legacy: “There must be a new kind of city—one that builds on thousands of years of thinking about and making good cities . . . one that takes the survival and happiness of the species as its predicates, one that finds and defends numerous routes to meaningful difference, and one that advances the project of freedom.”

Sorkin clearly holds an abiding belief in the potentially restorative qualities of the good city—its ability to serve as a laboratory of democracy amid all the convulsions of global markets that surround and shape it. This makes for a tonic reminder of the enduring, and indispensable, character of our urban life—especially as theorists and practitioners of urban architecture either professionally bemoan their own irrelevance or retreat to the banal comforts of new urbanism. While Sorkin’s work doesn’t exactly abound with optimism, he nevertheless writes from a core faith in the founding values of his professions as both critic and designer, which turn out in these essays to be anything but old fashioned.

Dean Almy is director of the graduate programs in urban design and landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Austin.

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