Aundre Larrow

Michael Sorkin couldn’t have left the stage at a worse time. American architecture’s first (and hopefully last) noted victim of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was distinct among the critics who came to prominence in the latter portion of the 20th century, not only because of his rare wit and clarity of voice, but because of his consistent bravery in speaking truth to power.

We weren’t close: I don’t have a charming Sorkin story to share, though I did have the too-brief pleasure of working with him on the Spontaneous Interventions exhibition, which was the official U.S. contribution to the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. The show’s theme was right up his alley: It celebrated small, local, and independent design responses to systemic flaws and injustices that the Great Recession had lately laid bare.

As it turns out, the Great Recession was just a preview for the even larger and more terrible event we’re currently undergoing.

Sorkin was 71, which from my 48-year-old vantage point seems much too young to die. His departure is not only tragically premature, it is cruelly ironic, in part because the seemingly unstoppable political and economic forces that he railed against for decades are presently colliding with the immovable, microscopic wall of the disease that killed him.

In an interview upon winning the 2019 AIA Collaborative Achievement Award, Sorkin self-effacingly told ARCHITECT, “When I look back at my writing all I can see are the infelicities and unmade arguments.”

All I can see, by contrast, are the felicities: Sorkin was that lone voice in the wilderness; he took on gentrification, mass incarceration, and other ills; he defended the public realm. As for unmade arguments, I badly want to know what he’d make of architecture, urbanism, and the systems that shape them in this new pandemic age.

And not just to satisfy my own curiosity. At few moments in our nation’s history has power needed to hear truth more desperately than it does right now. Sorkin’s first thought about a place was its effect on people. Leaders need such lessons in empathy.