Propaganda of Optimism: A tribute to Michael Sorkin (1948-2020)

Creating joyful, just and sustainable cities remains our urgent task!

Michael Sorkin’s 2019 talk at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Muriel Richardson Auditorium, part of the University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture Cultural Events series, supported by the Manitoba Association of Architects.

What makes cities not just livable but lovable is their capacity to generate happy accidents. They are also sites of struggle and misfortune.

On March 26, 2020, Michael Sorkin—a prolific champion of felicitous serendipities—tragically succumbed to a most unhappy accident: complications from COVID-19. This deadly virus thrives amid the very conditions of social intimacy and community interaction that Michael Sorkin promoted through provocative words, propositional works and personal praxis. The internet now resounds with detailed and heartfelt tributes to this award-winning architect-urbanist, author-activist, distinguished professor and director of the graduate urban design program at City College of New York. (See notices at Terreform, the non-profit urban research center he founded in 2005, and articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, Apollo Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Artforum, e-flux, Jacobin, MAS Context,  Progressive City and Quartz). These tributes extol Michael’s exceptional wit, ferocious criticism and visionary verve in fighting for the city as a vital instrument of social justice, while also emphasizing his empowering charisma and generous humanity.

In my view, the hyperbole is warranted.

In 1994, I had the privilege of being a student of Michael Sorkin’s at Carleton University, where he led a studio for a winter term at the invitation of then-director Benjamin Gianni—himself a former student of Michael’s at Yale. Of the 29 schools where Michael taught, this was his sole Canadian gig (although he lectured at many). That studio was unlike any I had experienced before; and, ever since, I’ve been striving to live up to its playful yet principled expectations. The studio was framed by speculative propositions from his 1993 book Local Code. Dubbed “a regulatory prescription for an urban fantasy,” Local Code reads like a cross between an official zoning document and a surreal set of rules for an eco-sci-fi party game. Inspired by its uncannily common codes, my classmates and I collectively designed an entire city: the best, most enchanting city imaginable.

We made individual “Urbanagrams” (personal visions of wonderful cities and desirable urban qualities), and interdependent “Nabes”(the most delightful kind of neighborhoods for varied forms of social aggregation). We plotted continuous “Tectonic Vector” parades and discovered unmapped ‘Mysteriosos.’ All this was manifested in a collective wooden “ARP” (Analogue Relief Plan)—a gigantic city model, the size of a small theatrical stage, necessitating creative collaboration and clumsy gymnastics akin to a multi-dimensional twister game.

In the first five days of studio, we each attempted five times thirty-six architectonic interventions—intricate, textured and differentiated elements that might become the basis for a city. Events of accumulation were punctuated by episodes of group discussion, interpretation, evaluation, agreement, disagreement and revision.

The muse for our iterative group work was the Exquisite Corpse. This Surrealist entertainment involves both constraint and accident. Its simple rules—to draw a bit, fold the paper to conceal the drawing, then pass it to the next player to draw again—spawn uncanny juxtapositions and surprising outcomes. This delightful interplay of order, disorder, autonomy and heterogeneity provides a powerful metaphor for city-building as a self-actualizing and collective cultural project.

As our exquisite city developed, we governed via role-play as Ministers of Green, of Blue, of Movement, of Recreation, of Cocktails and Entertainment. I became Minister of Documentation and Dissemination, thus inaugurating my 25-year intermittent correspondence with Michael, who conducted our studio via periodic visits and frequent faxes from New York City and Vienna. Rereading those faxes now (yes, I still have them) lays bare his contradictory embrace of both coherence and chaos. Every cryptic constraint was coupled with jovial goading toward freedom and fantasy, exercising our eco-ethical imagination. Likewise, his personal visits demanded hard deliverables and soft dérives, like a late-night ice-skating adventure on the frozen Rideau Canal, Ottawa’s own Tectonic Vector, to trek five slow miles (7.8 kilometres) to the Byward Market for a beer and beavertail. (He had never skated before, so he claimed). Similarly, our Manhattan field trip entailed both grand and simple pleasures, such as doodling together on the paper tablecloths at the Ear Inn, New York’s oldest bar, where I enjoyed many conversations with him over the ensuing years.

I learned many lessons in that studio. I’ll highlight two. First, the productive pleasures of propinquity—of being physically close together—student by student, citizen by citizen, stranger by stranger—while negotiating possibilities and differences. As I later learned by charretting in his Hudson Street studio, propinquity was also part of his team’s embodied drawing process, involving multiple players around a ginormous site plan, coloured pencils in hand, all sketching organic patterns in exuberant polychromatic rhythms mimetic of future urban vibes. For Michael, working closely together—in a shared space and on a shared space—was a model of urban life and a social practice prerequisite for democracy. Propinquity is also the premise of his 1999 book, Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity, co-edited with Joan Copjec, his brilliant wife of nearly 40 years.

Second lesson: the reciprocal discovery of new architectures with new words, and old words turned anew. Like his pedagogical instructions, Michael’s copious corpus of writing and lectures demonstrates the revelatory agency and inventive potency of language. He deployed a full bag of linguistic idioms: playful metaphors, groovy neologisms, low-brow street talk, highfalutin’ jargon, heteroglossic proverbs, arcane wisdom, and the straight talk of common sense. A loose and lucid lexicon was key to his persuasive poetry and brazen invective, helping us all to probe the ‘depths of desire’ and ‘heights of folly’ (#247 and #248 of “Two Hundred Fifty Things an Architect Should Know”).

A selection of books published by Urban Research, the imprint of Terreform, a nonprofit urban research studio and advocacy group founded in 2005 by Michael Sorkin.

Participating in Michael Sorkin’s studio the year before I graduated swayed the trajectory of my architectural life. It affirmed my decision to move to New York City in 1995, and led to my first job there with Gaetano Pesce, as well as my second with the design-builders who had built Storefront’s funky façade and models for Lebbeus Woods. My sustained encounter with Sorkin Studio has fostered formative and enduring friendships with international urbanites, strengthening my commitment to complex cities, social advocacy and experimental pedagogy. I have since led multiple urban studios with my own students, some deploying Sorkinesque twists, like incorporating literary utopias into a ‘Mythopolis.’ And I consistently strive to make the experience of architecture school not merely a straight-up rehearsal for status quo reality, but a radical crucible to cook up and distill desirable, fantastical and eco-ethical alternatives.

There are surely innumerable variations of this story. Michael Sorkin inspired legions of students, students of students, colleagues and strangers. Though he ruffled a few feathers, his convivial jouissance nourished and cross-fertilized many widely dispersed comrades, justice-seeking allies, artistic simpaticos and eccentric rebels.

Last April, I introduced Michael Sorkin at the Winnipeg Art Gallery ahead of a much-anticipated talk he entitled The Last Lecture. I admit my heart sank when he sent me this foreboding title, but I chose to take it as a riff on F.W. Murnau’s Last Laugh and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. As he purported more practically in his preamble, lecture preparation had become for him “weeks of torture for an hour’s entertainment.” I don’t regret putting him through it, and (as always) he had fun at the mic.

For this Last Lecture (available online here), he traced the arc of his career and an array of inspirations: from early lessons of Hollin Hills and the DC-NYC environs where he grew up; through the civil rights movements, activism and thespianism, which schooled him as much as multiple degrees at fine institutions; to his perpetual longing for more meaningful modes of architectural practice, fueled by the likes of Aalto, Bookchin, Chomsky, Harbarkan, Jacobs, Lefebvre, Markelius and Mumford, as well everything alternative from Ant Farm to Zomeworks. The Last Lecture ended with a whirlwind tour of zoomorphic creations and speculative designs for sustainable, equitable and beautiful cities from Weed to Wuhan.

Michael Sorkin’s 2019 talk at the Winnipeg Art Gallery was entitled “The Last Lecture;” this slide shows Jean-Luc Godard, one of many wide-ranging references made in the talk.

When asked by an audience member about ethical considerations while working in controversial contexts, Michael ultimately emphasized his penchant for propaganda, a “propaganda of optimism” spread far and wide. This propaganda of optimism aims to liberate, stimulate and empower people to resist forces of oppression and to envision an expanded repertoire of freer and fairer possibilities for society.

If we could ask Michael a question today, it would undoubtedly be about his vision for the future of cities after coronavirus. With its mandate of “social distancing” (the antithesis of propinquity urbanism), the current crisis has already exacerbated conditions that sacrifice the idea of the city as a welcoming place of happy accidents, spontaneous physical connection and meaningful community.

Accessible public space and freedom of assembly have always been cornerstones to Michael’s democratic city-building. These rights remain essential for demonstration and dissent, as millions of people around the world have shown by participating in recent and ongoing social movements, like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, Idle No More, Pride Parades, Women’s Marches, and global Climate Strikes. Restrictions on assembly, association and free movement—though necessary as temporary measures in the present pandemic—risk reinforcing and amplifying existing mechanisms of segregation, surveillance and suppression. Will balcony socializing (for those with balconies), drive-in communal events (for those with vehicles), and Zoomified communications (for those with Zoom) be enough to sustain faltering democracies?

For designers and urban activists, the current crisis is not just about how to temporarily get by with clever and digitally-commodified workarounds, but to intensify our spatial, political and artistic struggle for desirable and environmentally just forms of social aggregation, without succumbing to false fears, destructive intolerance, and alienating disembodiment. As Michael urged in “After the Fall,” written immediately after 9/11: “What shall we build now? And who will decide? The only answer to terror is an excess of democracy” (my emphasis). This conviction is expanded in “Fear Factor,” his introduction to the collection of essays entitled Indefensible Space (2008), and reiterated in a 2012 interview on “The Struggle to Reclaim the City.” It’s present in virtually everything he wrote since he proclaimed, in Variations on a Theme Park (1992), “The effort to reclaim the city is the struggle of democracy itself.”

The truth is, we live in a time of overlapping crises, as Naomi Klein stressed in a recent conversation on “Coronavirus Capitalism”. When this current pandemic is over, ongoing threats of global warming, nuclear war, massive economic inequity, and the deterioration of democracy will remain. Michael Sorkin’s response to our present predicament may well have pointed to these and other dismal facts. Yet, he would have also offered ways forward with his “propaganda of optimism.”

Reminding us that personal health depends on healthy ecosystems, he would have held up his forthcoming multi-volume UR book, New York City (Steady) State, which (elaborating the first steady principle from Local Code) provides an ecological vision for a completely self-sufficient New York City. This multi-year interdisciplinary research project is a detailed working-through of the logic of the local to make the city’s ecological footprint commensurate with its political boundaries.

A masterplan from Terreform’s project New York City (Steady) State.

Finally, in response to the question—what now?—I think Michael would insist that “propaganda of optimism” is more urgent than ever, and that we must work closely together to seek and show the just, joyful and sustainable cities that might be brought to life through persuasive arguments, compelling representations and beautiful fictions. Channeling Lewis Mumford’s Story of Utopias, perhaps he’d declare, “Our most important task at the present moment is to build castles in the sky”—with their foundations in solid ground. With this, we must reconceive the meaning of utopia less as “no-place” (u-topia) and more as “good-place” (eu-topia).

A rendering from Terreform’s project New York City (Steady) State.

Though I tear up to think it, I imagine Michael Sorkin’s last words to be as bold and ironic as the title of his last euphoric chapter in All over the Map: “Eutopia Now!”

Lisa Landrum is Associate Professor and Associate Dean Research in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.