Michael Sorkin: 250 Things Architects Should Know

“Two hundred and fifty things that architects should know” is written in cheerfully colored letters on the elegant light gray cover and while you’re still wondering how that’s supposed to work, 250 things in such a handy format, you’ll be hooked with the first few pages disabused by Michael Sorkin’s last book: Because this publication is a condensate of brilliant architectural teaching, a haiku, so to speak, about the love of places where people feel comfortable. At the same time, it is also a confession for precisely this reason: that the profession of an architect is actually crazy because it suggests that you can use your knowledge to design something where another person feels comfortable, maybe even for the rest of their life.

The New York architect Michael Sorkin has published numerous books. He has taught at some of the most prestigious architecture schools in the world, including New York, Harvard and Vienna. He has worked as an architecture critic for the US weekly magazine The Nation and earlier for the legendary The Village Voice. And of course Michael Sorkin also designed architecture, some buildings, but even more entire districts, which were characterized by their greenery, mostly in Asia, especially in China.

“The feeling of cool marble under bare feet.”

Most importantly, Sorkin had a gift for inspiring others in his discipline. The sad news of his unexpected death in March 2020 underscored how much and how many that was with a depressing finality. Sorkin was one of the first corona victims in New York. The architecture community around the world mourned Sorkin’s death. The slender gray booklet is nothing less than his legacy.

How it works? Michael Sorkin lists. It is a kind of staccato literature, a poem in 250 points, with an enormous density, but without being overpowering. This has a lot to do with Sorkin’s holistic approach to architecture. For example, the first thing he thinks architects should know is: “The feel of cool marble under bare feet.” Followed by: “How to live with five strangers in a small room for six months.” And finally the third: “With the same strangers for a week in a lifeboat”. This alone makes clear the nature of Sorkin’s view of architecture. The global refugee catastrophe comes up, as does the question of the necessary minimum of private retreat and intimacy, but also the beauty of precious materials that can be felt with one’s own foot.

When reading, you almost automatically begin to design in your head and think spatially

In fact, almost every single one of the 250 points could be deepened enormously, just the “difference between a ghetto and a neighborhood”, which architects should know, should fill several meters of gentrification literature. But the questions “Where materials come from” and “What gradient ratio of stairs is comfortable for a six-year-old child” also tie in with central discussions that not only the world of architecture has to have at the moment. Because how child-friendly, to pick up just one thread of this dense fabric, is the built world really? Not so long ago, during a walk through Vienna, a camera at a height of one meter filmed exactly what you can see from this perspective. The result was sobering even for a whipped cream city like Vienna: because even there, children’s eyes often only see radiator hoods and concrete walls.

It’s amazing how quickly Michael Sorkin, with his staccato method, turns the reader of his booklet into an architect – regardless of whether he really is one or not. But when it says “How to turn the corner, design a corner, sit in a corner”, then you almost automatically begin to design in your head and think spatially. How was the corner designed, where you felt at home and safe? And where did it seem crowded and cramped for you instead?

Sorkin’s plastic language also helps in this thought experiment, his ability to create a spatial situation in three or four words in such a way that one can physically imagine it. At the same time, he succeeds in outlining the constraints of his own job without slipping into laziness. Architects should also know “what the customer (or the customer) wants, what the customer thinks he wants, what the customer needs, what the customer can afford.” Anyone who has ever sat in a municipal council meeting dealing with a public building project that is not all that complex, let’s say a kindergarten, knows how many glacier-deep chasms of knowledge can gape between them.

What is also striking is what Michael Sorkin lists, everything that you can recommend to everyone, no matter what profession he or she pursues, because you should know it anyway – for life – or at least have an idea of ​​it. How to listen carefully, for example, the rate of sea level rise or Friedrich Engels’ housing issue. At the same time, you will not find any of the many technical terms in the booklet that still anesthetize the most exciting urban planning debate. Instead of taking up the concept of density and explaining at length what qualities it can have, Sorkin prefers to write that one should know: “What it feels like to walk down the Ramblas,” Barcelona’s most famous street.

His enthusiasm is absolutely contagious

Behind the 250 points one can sense a thinking that was driven by great curiosity, both for the past – “How pyramids were built and why” – and for the places of the present from Tianjin to Medellín and the question of how can express justice for people and nature in architecture. Sorkin recommends “Jane Jacobs inside and out”, he wants architects to know “what the planet can afford” and “how many people in New York City are getting rent subsidies”. The social question is important to him, the great social and ecological responsibility that goes hand in hand with architecture, regardless of whether the person who designs it also sees it that way. But Sorkin also wants architects to jump over their own shadows when he advises them to know “the joys of suburbia” – and “the horrors”.

And above all, Michael Sorkin wanted everyone to love their discipline as much as he does, because it is also about the beauty of this world, “the blooming season of azaleas”, “the migratory pattern of songbirds and the migratory behavior of other animals”. His enthusiasm for so many things is absolutely contagious, you immediately start googling what vastu is (the Indian architectural theory about the correct placement of land and buildings and their design and construction according to the natural laws of the five elements), “what’s wrong in Fatehpur Sikri ran” and what was in the Pruitt-Igoe settlement. Or who Rachen Carson and Michael de Klerk were, the latter a Dutch architect, the former an American biologist and environmentalist from the very beginning.

Michael Sorkin’s demands on the architecture were enormous. Which does not mean that his view of it was not also characterized by great humor, which one encounters again and again in the narrow volume, as well as his joy in enjoyment, in a good beer, for example, or in the “right mix of a gin and martini”. Above all, however, Michael Sorkin shows what great madness lies in architecture: it wants to make the world a better place. With this little book, Michael Sorkin has at least managed to do that.

By Editor

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