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Remembering architect, designer, critic, and pedagogue Michael Sorkin (1948–2020)

Michael Sorkin lecturing at the GSD

The Harvard Graduate School of Design community celebrates the legacy of architect, designer, critic, and educator Michael Sorkin, who has died at 71 after contracting the coronavirus.

For decades, Sorkin contributed inspiration, incisive criticism, and forward-minded design around the halls of the Harvard GSD. He studied at the GSD in the 1970s and taught there in 2002 and in 2015. He also participated in a variety of review panels and public programs over the decades. In 2015, he joined fellow architecture critics Christopher Hawthorne, Florencia Rodriguez, and Oliver Wainwright for “Writing Architecture,” an event moderated by the GSD's Michael Hays.

News of Sorkin’s passing was shared among the design world via social media on March 26, and was confirmed to Archinect by Lesley Lokko, Dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, where Sorkin was a Distinguished Professor and Director Emeritus of Graduate Urban Design Program. As Archinect writes, “Sorkin is widely celebrated as one of the top architectural minds of the last half-century and his influence has been felt across the world, particularly through his teaching.”

“This is a great loss. He was so many things,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman via Twitter. “He was a supremely gifted, astute and acerbic writer. He wrote with moral force about big ideas and about the granular experience of life at the level of the street.” Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin added, “Whether or not one agreed with Michael Sorkin didn’t matter in the end. He was a great activist critic—fearless, unafraid to challenge received wisdom or powerful figures, and, because of his wit and insight, a pleasure to read.”

Born in 1948 in Washington, DC, Sorkin graduated from the University of Chicago in 1970 and went on to earn a master of architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974. He formed his eponymous studio—a global design practice working at all scales with a special interest in the city and green architecture—in the 1980s in New York City. In 2005, he founded the nonprofit Terreform to focus on research into the forms and practices of just and sustainable urbanism.

Aside from Sorkin’s portfolio of built works, his legacy of sharp, illuminating criticism, often regarded as “fierce” and “brilliant,” shines radiantly. He served as architecture critic for the Village Voice starting in the 1980s, and he authored a series of books, critiques, op-ed features, and theoretical analyses, contributing to publications including Harvard Design Magazine, The Architectural Review, Architectural Record, and Architect’s Newspaper, among others. Most recently, he served as architecture critic for The Nation. In 2013, Sorkin won the the “Design Mind” category of the National Design Award; and in 2019, the American Institute of Architects honored him with the Collaborative Achievement Award for his decades of helping to diversify the field of design.