The Journey Of Four Decades In The Urban Realm: An Interview With Michael Sorkin

In the Michael Sorkin Studio, amidst an intriguing disarray of books, papers, and computers, is the manifestation of a story that began in a galleria of the University of Chicago over Plato’s ‘Republic’, 45 years ago.

“I still remember that moment.” he says, “At a tender age, having  little actual experience… I was studying in this Gothic campus of this great university. The light was getting dim, I was in this quadrangular cellar, and everything was getting reciprocated. The sublime continuity between the intellectual and the architectural experience…it was wonderful.”

Born in Hollen Hills, Michael, an advocate of the role of Democracy in Architecture, Sorkin also received education from Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He began his career as an Architect in the late 70s and established ‘The Michael Sorkin Studio’, which was later augmented with the supporting wings of ‘Urban Research’ and ‘Terreform’.

“I’ve had a hybrid practice.” he asserts, “I’ve always done all of it, so it wasn’t one thing leading to another.”

The Michael Sorkin Studio, presently before me as a small, yet fervent amalgamation of ideas and discussions, is described by Sorkin as a global design practice that aims to work towards innovative solutions that respect the natural environment, local cultures, and economic realities to produce designs that are both sustainable and beautiful.

The studio that also maintains satellite offices in Shanghai and Xi’an in China, boasts an award-winning master plan of a town for about 300,000 inhabitants and an environmental research park in Wuhan, China. In addition, the studio has completed designing a 1,000-unit resort in Coffs Harbour, Australia, and several complexes in Turkey, the Philippines, Malaysia and the United States.

“We do like to think about the ecology of all at once…” he says addressing the diversity of the projects. “…And if you’re in the business of making demands, I think it’s good to make extravagant demands.”

Pointing at a wall clad with sheets, he begins to explain a decade long project that aims at looking at the respiratory functions in the city of New York, and doing a study of each. As he excitedly travels through topics such as food, waste, mobility, energy, air, water, climate, and manufacturing, it becomes clear as to why he is called the Zohar of Planning.

“…that’s one of our big projects.” he concludes.

Moving on to ‘Terreform’, he conceived it to be an urban research studio and advocacy group. A non-profit organisation, assigned by him the mission to investigate the forms, policies, technologies, and practices that will yield equitable, sustainable, and beautiful cities for the urbanizing planet.

“We undertake self-initiated investigations.” he adds, “And make research and design available to community and other organizations to support independent environmental and planning initiatives.”

UR (Urban Research), the imprint of Terreform, seems to have begun from the understanding that no single approach is adequate to the problems of the Urban, and from a need to support the other two platforms created by him.

“We thought that that half of the studio will support this half,  but it didn’t actually work out that way…” he admits with an imminent smile ,”….somehow they’re both still going on.”

Widely regarded for his Critical essays, Sorkin always considered language an important medium to explore.

“You know you can’t make a living doing it, but if you must do it, you must!”

While he claims to be fond of a slightly elevated form of popular writing, he also considers it the one thing he sort of blundered into.

“… but I blundered into it early, and it’s a good way to support your other habits.” he clarifies.

Addressing the journey from his profound experience as a student in a small quadrangular cellar, to his emergence as the Planning Zohar of New York City, Sorkin explains that the fundamental perplexity of being an Urban Designer was that the idea of Master Planning is disreputable. Having taught Urban Design for many years now, he claims it to be sort of very crippling that one has to start with a general frame work, do the infrastructure, then think about a kind of array of building types, and that when the buildings are deployed one finally gets to the street plans.

“I would suggest that the way on ideals with this is by beginning anywhere,” he adds. “To me, invention emerges in the kind of oscillation between scales. So if you have an idea about a door knob, then why not?”

‘Yes. Why not?!’ I hear myself repeat, as the boy in a Gothic Galleria from 45 years ago, curiously peeps through the crinkled eyes of the 70 year old Michael Sorkin in front of me.

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