For Michael Sorkin
Locked down in stunned, helpless isolation with the exit sign switched off, I heard that Michael had died, without a warning or a goodbye. The contemporary prophet of public space and urban conviviality died in a hospital — one of the last places where physical proximity is still possible, indeed, unavoidable. The virus diagrams the kind of social interaction that Michael championed in a vibrant city that had now nearly totally close down, the price of human contact having become too high.
On the evening when the horrible message arrived, the people of our London neighbourhood, seeking some form of communion, stood each at their own window to clap for the medical workers like those who were by Michael’s side in his last days, risking their lives to try to save his and ours. Michael was our family friend—Alma, my daughter, was spoilt being his god-daughter—and so we were at our window, simultaneously sobbing, clapping and hitting pots with wooden spoons, giving Michael the send-off we thought he’d appreciate. The rest of the mourning must be done in isolation—and my heart goes to Joan who cannot benefit from the proximity of those that loved them dearly.
Michael was also my architectural god-father. In a number of small but crucially corrective interventions, he put me on my path. He read my books when they were still drafts, giving comments, helping find titles and publishers. Only a few weeks ago he took the time to campaign for me when I was not allowed to travel to the United States, just as he often did for others less privileged.
We met in 1994, when, as a young admiring student at the AA, I was one of those campaigning for him to be the new director of the school. When Michael finally won the vote and got the post, he decided to decline it, opting instead to pursue his own singular path: he set up his studio, founding the research organization, Terreform, the publishing imprint UR (Urban Research); and became the Director of Graduate Design at the City College, where he was Distinguished Professor. In short he constructed on his own a polymorphous entity through which to realize various aspects of his wide urban visions. At the same time, he continued to advocate his ideas in a stream of essays and books, and to sketch them in numerous visionary schemes and drawings. (Many of the latter are still unpublished, but Joan assures me that they will coming out soon.)
Drawing on the vocabulary of 1970s New York activism, he expanded the spectrum of architectural and urban action: sit-ins, town-hall-meetings, petitions, appeals, the writing of codes and bills of rights. Learning from his struggles with the kind of New York developers that now run the US, he brought his sense of urban justice, and feisty activism to Palestine, Northern-Ireland and the US Mexico border. Since architecture was part of the problem, it owed a certain debt and Michael encouraged architects to pay up by inventing solutions.
In 1998, an impish trickster, Michael seduced a group of Palestinian and Israeli architects and other intellectuals to a conference on occupied and segregated Jerusalem at a lake-side villa in Bellagio, Italy. It was here that I first met Suad Amiry, Rashid Khalidi, Omar Yusuf, and Ariella Azoulay. We listened together as Michael insisted, more optimistically than most of us, that we could use architecture to do something about this injustice, although he understood that, by itself, unaccompanied by the fundamental political changes we must all struggle for, architecture could do very little. His subsequent book-projects on Palestine “The Next Jerusalem”, “Against the Wall”, and “Open Gaza” demonstrate what he meant.
He was right, at a time when the grip of architecture tightens all around us, when the builders of walls, towers, and digital surveillance systems are in charge, and when authoritarianism is using the global health emergency to encroach on our civil liberties—we all need to channel something of Michael and continue the fight. He will now bring his to gods and angels. Go on Michael, give them hell!