Michael Sorkin’s former students recall the spirit of their loving professor

On the first death anniversary of New York-based architect Michael Sorkin, four of his students reminisce fond moments and the biggest learning from their mentor.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Mar 25, 2021

On March 26, 2020, acclaimed American architect, urban designer and critic Michael Sorkin died from complications linked to coronavirus.

His legacy of the belief against architecture for architecture’s sake inspired many while he was alive, and continues to inspire the younger crop of creative professionals. Sorkin’s extensive writings and designs focus on social justice and sustainability and illustrate an array of urban issues and solutions to make his beloved New York, where he lived and worked since 1973, a more livable place to be in. Spanning an architectural and academic career of over four decades, he advocated the need for architects to be observant of their environments and for students to be curious and fearless in their design expressions.

Michael Sorkin (1948-2020) was regarded as one of architecture’s most outspoken public intellectuals | Michael Sorkin | New York | STIRworld
Michael Sorkin (1948-2020) was regarded as one of architecture’s most outspoken public intellectuals Image: Tommy Chevalier (2015), Courtesy of the Harvard Graduate School of Design

While the world may remember him as one of architecture’s most influential and outspoken public intellectuals, to some he will always be the most favourite teacher and the greatest mentor whose understanding nature and unconventional teaching style continues to guide even today.

In a conversation with STIR, four of Sorkin’s former students reminisce fond moments and the biggest learning from their mentor.

"He never rejected a good question - a difference compared to most professors of architecture"

Milota Sidorova (left), and her friend Karolina Vojackova (right) with Michael Sorkin during a reSITE conference in Prague | Michael Sorkin | New York | STIRworld
Milota Sidorova (left), and her friend Karolina Vojackova (right) with Michael Sorkin during a reSITE conference in Prague Image: Courtesy of Milota Sidorova

"I remember this complex man as a provocateur and a passionate, witty and humorous intellectual passing the infectious criticism towards neoliberal urban development in an elegant and poisonous way.

Michael was a tutor during my Fulbright scholarship in NYC between 2013-2014. What struck me the most was that he as an architect was able to master words in a glorious way. From his emails down to hours spent in discussions, he taught me how to use them to enhance my understanding of the city. It was for a study of NYC that he said I should walk miles and miles in the city, observe its daily life and write 500 words every day. I would come to him and he would ask me what I have seen and why was that so. Sometimes he would stop work at the studio and pose my question to everyone. 

He had a sense of drama, humour and he never rejected a good question - a difference compared to most of my professors of architecture!

Even if it sounds trivial, he totally pushed me towards observing a city, getting to the exploration of social inequalities, racism, investments and made me connect all these subjects. 

We miss his voice, but rest assured, if he had an impact on me during a couple of months, imagine the magnitude of his thoughts and values shaping hundreds, maybe thousands of us. I am sure with this we will carry the message he was after for decades of his life.”

Milota Sidorova, urbanist, planner, author
Bratislava, Slovakia

"Writing is essential to the development of a project"

Juan Miró (left) with Michael Sorkin | Michael Sorkin | New York | STIRworld
Juan Miró (left) with Michael Sorkin Image: Courtesy of Juan Miró

“Michael was a friend and a mentor for the last 30 years. He was my professor at Yale School of Architecture in 1990, and, not surprisingly, he proposed an intellectually intense studio topic. When reviewing my work, he sensed that it would be easier for me to write about it, rather than talk about it. I was puzzled, my English was very limited at the time. “You can write,” he insisted. He was right and my writing became essential to the development of the project. Like good teachers do, he opened a door for me that I did not know was there, and to this day, every time I venture through it, I am grateful that he did".

Juan Miró, Miró Rivera Architects
Austin, Texas

"Design something delicious for me"

Mahshad Ahmadzadeh (second from right) with Michael Sorkin | Michael Sorkin | New York | STIRworld
Mahshad Ahmadzadeh (second from right) with Michael Sorkin Image: Courtesy of Mahshad Ahmadzadeh

"My name is Mahshad Ahmadzadeh and I am from class of 2013 of Master’s in Urban Design from the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, New York. We are from 'poor man’s Harvard' as he used to call The City College of New York. I am honoured that he was my mentor and teacher but more than that he was always there for his students. He was our fan and our biggest critic at the same time. He always returned our emails and phone calls and whenever we needed to talk, he was available at 180 Varick street, every single time.

I still remember what he once told me, "Mahshad, there is no limit and boundaries here, there is no restriction or censorship. Design something delicious for me"."

- Mahshad Ahmadzadeh, architect, urban designer
New York, USA

A style like no other

Michael Sorkin from a trip to Ecuador (2014) | Michael Sorkin | New York | STIRworld
Michael Sorkin from a trip to Ecuador (2014) Image: Courtesy of Chen Li

"Michael was a good person and his work really impressed me. Even right now when I am in China and have my own architecture studio, his theories continue to inspire me.

He once explained the idea of 'movements in space' where he just twisted his body with a smile. It was very funny, and that picture would forever be on my mind.

This photo of us together is from a trip to Ecuador for a diploma project in 2014".

Chen Li, Sensor Architecture Studio
 Shanghai, China

In an earlier article published on STIR, New York-based novelist and poet, Laurie Sheck, remembers Sorkin as 'the generous and loving gadfly’ for whom 'nothing was too small for his interest or excitement'. In the heartwarming tribute, she says,"I think of Michael that way—at once utterly, plainly human but also uncannily alchemical. All of it endearingly mixed up together. Nothing was too small for his interest or excitement. As much as he was a gadfly, he was also an appreciator and learner".

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