Michael Sorkin, one of architecture’s most provocative public intellectuals of the last 40 years, died of COVID-19 in his beloved New York City on March 26, 2020.
Michael Sorkin dedicated his life to democratizing the city. He challenged exclusionary urban-design and planning agendas through the lens of a civic imagination, beginning with his years as architecture critic for the Village Voice, in the 1980s, and through the decades that followed with his prolific work as urban, architecture, and social provocateur; educator; and designer of cities. He saw architecture as a tool to spatialize social justice and transform the contemporary city into a laboratory for inclusion and coexistence.
Michael was a distinguished professor of architecture and the director of the graduate program in urban design at City College of New York from 2000 to his death, as well as president of his eponymous firm and the nonprofit research organization Terreform. Prolific author of more than 20 books, he was fearless and polemical—indefatigably committed to urban justice and the public vocation of architects and urbanists in an increasingly privatized world. His many influential treatises, such as Exquisite Corpse, Traffic in Democracy, Some Assembly Required, and Indefensible Space, will continue to inspire public-interest architects and public intellectuals who see the city as the ultimate site for defending a plural and inclusive democracy.
Difficult to put weight to with only a few words, Michael’s legacy, for sure, is an enduring one that spans many critical contributions across design, cities, and democracy, and that inspires an entire generation of young architects to think more socially and politically about their work. To recognize his influence, many memorials have taken place across the world. In the following reflections, we will focus on his work related to borders.
Borders framed much of Michael’s scholarly work and also influenced ours at the San Diego–Tijuana border. Our intellectual exchanges and collaborations with Michael sought to counter the construction of borders everywhere, and to declare them as sites of urban, architectural, and political creativity.
Could architecture and design transform a place like Gaza, and do so with justice? One of Michael’s last projects tackles exactly those questions. Taking the form of a book—called Open Gaza, to be published in December 2020, by Terreform / American University in Cairo Press—his project was dedicated to imagining possible futures for Gaza.
He produced a platform for collaboration among scholars and practitioners living and working across borders. The goal was to anticipate Gaza’s reconstruction and to propose infrastructural, urban, architectural, and social-ecological paradigms that a new city-state could pursue in a realty beyond the injustice of occupation.
Open Gaza exemplifies what Michael did best: assemble coalitions of social and urban-justice intelligentsia “to resist the idiots” and “tell a different story.” For Michael, telling a different story was always a double task—a project of simultaneous deconstruction and creative reconstruction, both framing conflicts in the existing real, and, through them, projecting possible futures.
For Gaza, this meant exposing the historical and political processes, as well as the normative and institutional mechanisms, that produced so much injustice. The next step was proposing social, economic, urban, and environmental strategies to transcend the conflicts and produce a more equitable, sustainable future for Gaza.1 Such strategies included remapping and reframing Gaza with a more agile and resilient urbanization; re-ecologizing Gaza; restitching the vulnerable urban fabric through new public spaces and hydrological and mobility infrastructures; and other spatial, conceptual, and bottom-up design projects to support urban Gaza’s sustainability and self-determination into the future.
While Gaza was the engine for speculative design, these propositions were grounded in the drama of its social and economic reality. Michael’s utopian architectural and urban dreams, in fact, were always fueled by a realist belief in political, social, and economic transformation, even in sites of precariousness and violence.
This critical optimism is what brought us together as collaborators. It linked the San Diego–Tijuana border, where we live and work, with Gaza and many other geographies of conflict across the globe. Our shared goal with Michael was to form a new atlas of critical spatial practices—a coalition of border crossers exchanging notes and strategies for political action against the proliferation of walled worlds everywhere.
Michael inspired a generation of architects and urbanists to reflect critically on our own practices, methods, and procedures as the most urgent sites of critical intervention.
This is why, as we reflect on Michael’s life, we inevitably reflect on our own lives, on the way he changed us—the lucky ones who called him our friend, who were lifted personally and professionally by his infectious optimism for a better world. Michael was our favorite border crosser, always smuggling a sense of hope and, with it, a commitment to action.
Border walls exist to be transgressed. And isn’t that the ultimate aspiration of the creative process? To transcend our own fears and conventions?
Michael was a trafficker in public culture, transgressing every imaginable indefensible space.2 He exposed the irony of barricading our cities with hard and soft power—ironic, because strategies of division always inevitably devolve into their opposite. The picket fences, the urban gating and theming, the surveillance and border walls are ultimately self-inflicted wounds. These infrastructures of insecurity, blithely embraced by so many, actually damage us, as we try—and fail—to distance ourselves from the “other.”
Michael always transformed the “other” into an agent of collective vision. Comrades, he would call us, all of us—a gesture of radical respect, which signaled that we are in this together, and that, together, we must “call it for what it is,” expose it, resist it, and aspire beyond it.
Architecture was the political tool—for Michael—with which to change the narrative, to visualize injustice, and to spatialize rights. As such, Michael will remain the architecture field’s social and political consciousness. He believed architects should take a position against what is morally and ethically wrong. He believed that architects could use their voices and their work to say that inequality is wrong, that xenophobia is wrong, that building border walls is wrong.
To achieve these goals, Michael advocated new strategies of engagement—counterprocedures, research tunnels—to shape yet-unknown activist platforms, with the goal of visualizing urban conflict and confronting the violence of unjust power. The best example of this advocacy is the formation of his nonprofit, Terreform (and research publishing platform, UR), which functions as a medium and a support structure, so that designers and researchers could collaborate on projects for a progressive and—as he called it—“liberated urbanism.”
He also insisted that we challenge our own clichés and platitudes, our banal ways of practicing—that we keep ourselves in check. He inspired an entire generation of architects and urbanists—us included—to reflect critically on our own practices and on our own methods and procedures as the most urgent sites of critical intervention. Michael taught, wrote, and practiced by example.
We began working on Open Gaza with Michael in 2015. Our last editorial exchanges with him happened in December 2019, a few months before his death. We were still ambivalent about our contribution. During our last conversations, we shared with Michael our anxieties about carrying out our border work at San Diego–Tijuana into Gaza.
Our experiences and thinking about borders have always been refracted through the context of political injustice—not in Gaza but at the US-Mexico border. It is perilous to compare sites of conflict. The dynamics of every situation are unique and historically specific, and we worried about making naive comparisons, or drawing simplistic lessons. We feared that one fraught border had little to teach another.
But Michael insisted we try, insisted that, with lyrical sensitivity, we could share our own experiences and provoke new thinking about “citizenship” in a deeply contested territory like Gaza. For the last decade, we had been experimenting with ideas of “citizenship culture” at the US-Mexico border. The goal was to foster a citizenship culture not rooted in the identitarian politics of the nation-state but, instead, in the shared challenges, aspirations, and affective ties that often flow beneath the radar across divided territories such as ours.
We confided in Michael that we were uncertain about advocating such an idea elsewhere, particularly in a stateless context, where the mere mention of “citizenship” could seem tone-deaf and irresponsible. But he reassured us that it was the right time to “say it the way it is,” that empathy and interdependence can be mobilized—from the bottom up—as political tools.
He provoked us to get more specific, through the lens of an actual project inspired by these reflections on cross-border citizenship culture. We told Michael about our longer-term strategies to “un-wall” citizenship in the border region through an embedded cross-border infrastructure of partnerships we call Community Stations. This is a network of field stations located in migrant neighborhoods on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border, where education and urban research is cocurated by universities and grassroots organizations. The network constitutes a reciprocal knowledge platform to facilitate two-way flows: to bring the knowledge of communities into universities in order to reorganize research agendas and decolonize learning, and to bring the knowledge of the university into communities in order to increase agency and capacity.
Equipped with tools and resources, the Community Stations are committed to cultivating “cross-border citizenship culture” through pedagogy and community processes. Public space becomes a site of contestation and dialogue, where diverse knowledges meet to visualize interdependence and weave together new strands of trust and cooperation in order to coproduce a more equitable border region. In the last two years, we have built two of four stations, one on each side of the wall, in collaboration with our community partners, advancing the idea that social justice requires the redistribution of resources and knowledges across divided jurisdictions. Could a similar infrastructure of partnerships and spaces be conceived for Gaza during reconstruction in the upcoming decades?
The idea of connecting activist communities in conflict zones to exchange knowledges, methods, and strategies, to mobilize dissent from the bottom up through education and practice, excited Michael—and, so, we pushed on with an essay entitled “Interdependence as a Political Tool.”
Can we envision the end of capitalist greed? The reemergence of a progressive welfare state? A commitment to more equitable cities?
During these conversations, Michael reminded us about the time he came to the San Diego–Tijuana border in the early 2000s to help us fight federal plans to install new surveillance infrastructures, which would wreak social, economic, and environmental havoc on the local neighborhoods that flank the wall. Through a series of dialogues, he engaged the local communities we partner with; he inspired us all to invent a new political language to confront polarizing, racist American rhetoric that justified the divisive actions of Homeland Security. Michael encouraged us to retool ourselves discursively, to design bottom-up counterproposals shaped by propinquity.
Michael introduced us to this word: propinquity. In Traffic in Democracy, Michael defined propinquity as being physically together in space, and he saw this as necessary for the exercise of democracy. This idea was illuminating to us then; and we wondered how we had ever lived without it.
Not that our democratic heritage has been without flaws! Michael lamented how democracy had become complicit with neoliberalism in recent decades, smoothly aligning itself with unregulated free markets and a negative conception of freedom that demands we be “left alone” to our individual choices. Instead, Michael wanted a democracy comprised of equitable linkages, connections, flows, and exchanges, where “freedom” is a civic concept—active, positive, participatory.
We have never in our lifetimes needed Michael’s propinquity more than we do today. Democratic norms and institutions are being dismantled by economic and political power and corruption, the polarization of public and private interests, the destruction of civic imagination, the denigration of science, and the construction of borders everywhere.
Bunkers, Buffers, Borders
What a moment he left us in. We need Michael’s infectious optimism and energy, his ability to find potential within the rubble of conflict, injustice, and alienation. He would probably tell us right now, in a renewed key, that we need to retool ourselves. Tell us that the COVID crisis—which took him—might be the strange harbinger of something better, exposing the idiocy of selfishness during a collective crisis; the catastrophe of freedom thinking, isolationism, and disinvestment from public goods; and the eroding of our social safety net.
Maybe, following Michael, this moment can instigate a paradigm shift in our public priorities once we bodily reunite? Can we envision the end of capitalist greed? The reemergence of a progressive welfare state? A commitment to more equitable cities? The reorganization of institutions to confront racial injustice?
Perhaps, from this dystopian moment, a renewed collective consciousness can emerge, organized around urbanizations of propinquity that celebrate social proximity—Michael’s vision. The urban visions he drew over decades, made of strange organic architectural shapes, unfolding seamlessly within social and ecological systems, threading public space and housing as integrated social scaffolds, were both anarchic and unyieldingly civic. They manifested a commitment to progressive governance and the agency of bottom-up self-organization and civic participation. Michael’s writings, sketches, and the echo of his words will always remind us of our radical interdependence beyond borders.
This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava.