The Anxin Archipelago – Anxin, China, 2018

Shenzhen Pedestrian Bridges, 2017
Jellyfish Hotel – Tianjin, China, 2010

Michael Sorkin architect, urban designer, professor, director and architectural critic has been claimed by the corona virus.  march 26, 2020  71 years of age.

he was my friend that i communicated with over the internet. we were close, but geographically far apart. a strange distant relationship. upon his death, i reading  endless praises by former students, colleagues, critics, writers, etc. that are astounding. he was a force to be reckoned with that made a huge positive impact on people and the planet.

architects by nature are all about thinking three dimensionally.  when an intellect comes along like Sorkin that can spell bound them with words , wisdom and systems, they perk up. but from the establishment reviews i read,  they feared him as well. calling him a radical.  

he understood what i had to say and wrote the most insightful letter of recommendation of my life’s work that i have ever received.   he championed my morality, directness , integrity, and talent.  he got it.
he with his literary talent took on the establishment and pounded away with his verbiage and activism.  he was called the outsider,  but was  in the trenches of the architectural world.  

Bill Menking the founder and editor in chief  of architect’s newspaper, in a personal letter to me, calling Michael  “the greatest architectural critic of our time”.    Michael was fearless and moral.  a combination that caused push back.  

when Michael came out with his criticism of Philip Johnson, upon his death,  of being a Nazi Huey Long backer and a hack of an architect.  i  applauded Michael’s boldness and guts.   a couple of recent books have substantiated his thinking.  phillip johnson viewing the invasion of Poland first hand as a nazi guest sympathizer and liked the charred gray frames of the destroyed buildings.  thus being the inspiration for the dark finish on his metal of his glass house.  

Michael pushed morality and green for the planet,   touchy subjects when powerful corporate developer architects are puppets.  who will design,  for any client with money,  outlandish perverted structures.  the social problems solutions having ridiculous subsides that the developers and architects benefit from, but do not solve the core issues to be dealt with,  because they do not have the holistic vision, talent,  smarts, nor morality to design.  a crisis we are now dealing with big time that Michael championed.

Sorkin did his  schooling  time,  at university of  Chicago, MIT,  and columbia university.  the last being a masters in english .  
the pen more powerful than the sword applies.  architects revere diction which made Michael respected.  this opened doors for him to speak his mind.  he used intellect, sarcasm and humor to get his points across.
Michael telling me china offered new cities to design,  which he designed green with urban systems of dealing with people, plants, and water .  he did have the visual whimsical organic side,  with his  jellyfish hotel structure in china. he claiming the trick being to collect the commission.
although Michael was upbeat and humorous,  he had no illusions about how we are saving the planet,  one step forward and two steps backward he told me,

Michael was a democratic socialist,  that respected democracy,  but supported human basis rights of life and the arts.  feeling architecture was for the people and the planet.  he never hooked up  with me in Nicaragua although we were in dialogue about my work there.  he made overtures to come visit.

Michael talked about  catalogs, shows,  lectures, workshop  etc. for me in new york. that did not happen.  a busy man with vision that had a lot on his plate. 

my last correspondence with Michael 10/27/19 when i was trying to meet up with him in new york to get some advice on how to proceed in this troubled world.  an opportunity to spend some quality personable time with him on his home turf of new york city.  after visiting my film maker daughter, Lucia Small, in november in Boston with cancer.  she doing fine now.    regrettably the visit to NY never happened,  but i and the world are blessed to have had his friendship.

Hi Glen!
Am heading off on an emergency trip to China.  Back next Friday.  Will respond in greater detail.
But€¦.advice is always cheap.  Even from me!
Solidarity, etc.

letter of recommendation from Michael Sorkin

Michael Sorkin studio a/ 180 Varick Street – Suite 1220 New York NY 10014 t/ 212.627.9120w/ sorkinstudio.com e/ sorkin@ting.net

May 15, 2012

To Whom It May Concern:

Glen Small is one of the true visionaries of American architecture and urbanism. For over four decades he has tirelessly €“ and fearlessly €“ pursued an architecture of formal originality and social purpose and he has been one of our great pioneers of sustainable design. His work is singular in its combination of practicality and expressive freedom and Small is revered for his dedication to principal, for his overwhelming sense of integrity, for his often solitary efforts to advance the common good.

I first came to know Glen Small’s work when he designed €“ and came close to building €“ his celebrated Green Machine in Venice, California back in the 1970’s. This project both summarized €“ and exceeded €“ much that was in the air at the time. But Glen’s synthesis €“ which moved in the same ether as Archigram, Metabolism, Habitat, Bucky, Arcology €“ was unique. Instead of a heavy system of bespoke pods, he stacked a ready-made €“ the Airstream trailer €“ on a green-covered space-frame, located it on a city-owned lot, and was ready to build it at astonishingly low price. This was both speculative and very realistic (it was supported by grants from both the NEA and HUD) and embodied what is most central about serious architectural research, an ability to combine cause and effect, to channel dramatically expansive ideas into a prospect for life as it might actually be lived.

The Green Machine moved in a speculative environment that Glen Small had been imagining for years in his on-going Biomorphic Biosphere project, a planetary-scaled fantasy of urban form attuned to natural process and the gargantuan needs of an exponentially growing population and an ever more ravaged environment.

The project shows both the fertility of Small’s mind, the wonderful qualities of his hand, and his apt sense of the necessary magnitude of the fit between problem and solution. But €“ and this is crucial €“ it’s the pairing of the Biomorphic City with projects like the Green Machine and Turf Town that truly make Small exceptional.

Because of the precision with which these projects are understood and because of their signal virtues as spaces of habitation and as interventions in particular urban situations, the potentially risky totalizing of the larger vision is domesticated, rendered instructive rather than oppressive. It is particularly inspiring to me that Small continues tirelessly to both expand and refine this research as exemplified by his recent “Downtown Tropisphere” proposal and his vital presence at the scene of architecture’s struggle for a more sustainable environment in his on-going projects and widely-read blog.

At the end of the day, Glen Small’s commitment to the essentials of architecture in service to people, place, planet, and art dance in the foreground: Small has always built and done so delightfully and memorably. In recent years, he has constructed striking projects for public gatherings in Nicaragua and his enduring legacy of house and other work in California and Oregon continues to provide architects with inspirational models of both form and practice. Small is an architect who devoutly embraces the unity of mind and hand.

Because Glen Small is so valuable in his thinking, his making, and his passion, it is vital he be engaged in communicating all of this both to his peers and to the generations who must take over the great project of building the planet. His place is surely both in the studio, the site of artistic invention, and also in the academy, in a place where people gather to probe the prospects for the future and invent the means for getting there. Small’s commitment to teaching and to students is legendary and he inspires students because he retains his own fire to learn. Glen Small does have a well-known resistance to compromise but this is the product of principle and a belief in working for the best outcome. How inspiring to have a man of such spine, wisdom, and creativity at a school of architecture.





  2. I’m so sorry Michael is gone. I didn’t know him as well as you did Glen, but Michael and I had begun planning my involvement on his NYC (Steady) State Project book on MOBILITY. He had just about finished FOOD, a 4 year project. He had recently asked me for some ideas on mobility related to the food book, our last email was 3 weeks from his death. He was pumped-up, excited about what I sent him. 3 weeks later I open my Instagram app late in the day, and the first think that popped-up was Michael’s obituary. I was totally shocked.

    While I have not seen every architects work of course, for over 30 years I’ve been interested to see if any architect saw the need for smaller vehicles around the neighborhood / community. Michael was the only one that had these smaller vehicles in his proposed new community designs. (Yes, I know you have a far more radical soft ball vehicle in your amazing mile high city).

    I was blown away to see Google with their billions of dollars look to start an eco moonshot in NYC, and bring all these hipster architects together, but unable to find and retain Michael. It was so sad to watch.

    I know in recent times Michael has lost a bit of energy. I know he’d call world-improvers he respected “comrade”. Not sure he ever called me that.

    If Michael has died on a motorcycle or something at age 31, that would have been a clear tragedy. But he lived another 40 years longer than that age. He left us too early, but I wonder if he won’t be more impactful in the other side. Michaels picture is framed and on my wall. On the picture is: “Obi-Wan Kenobi” – That is how I see Michael’s exit from the room, so quickly. He probably knew that COVID was exactly what humanity needed to change out our “operating system” to the new better one.

    But I really do miss talking to Michael and getting emails.

  3. Here are Michael’s thoughts on his NYC (Steady) State book on MOBILITY. Some of this is about which area of book he wanted to involve me:

    Nov 15th 2019
    From Michael Sorkin
    To: Dan Sturges


    “ Terreform’s book. Terreform is going to be the editor both because we’ve edited other books in the series and know the format and style. You do know that we’re flaming lefties and this perspective is crucial to our work. As I think I told you, it took us a decade to finish the first volume and I want to live to see several more! So, we’re dividing an conquering. Here’s a tentative list of topics:

    – The City Membrane. Something about how incoming people are sorted at our borders and at intermediate points. When American Airlines scans your passport at JFK, Beijing knows your coming. Strong relationship to questions of privacy. Mainly conceptual.

    – Slow Motion. Unpacking the culture of speed and speculating about the efficiency of slowing down, using less energetic means. The somehow fits into the whole slow food, slow everything, model. A cultural studies piece.

    – An Autonomous Neighborhood. Terreform will design a self-contained, self-sufficient neighborhood to suggest that the key to mobility lies on the demand side.

    – Revising the Subway. We’ve already done a fair amount of work refitting the subway to become part of a city-wide logistics system

    – The Particle. This is where you come in. I understand the particle to be a discrete moving object. Starting with human bodies, looking at systems to replace the current surface mix and conduce to more equitable, beautiful, and sustainable urban form and behavior. Big questions about interfaces. Energy. Convenience. Difference and individuality. Social class and privilege. Ordering take-out. Can include plenty of gadgets and technology but always with an eye to their impact on the city, urban life, and global environment.. The Surface of the City might emerge as a separate piece (by you). Autonomous vehicles would fit here. And bikes. And Roomba sweet cleaners.

    – Z-Axis All the big companies are investing heavily in UAV’s. (red is your color) If they’re allowed, they’ll engender big transformations, including moving the ground plane to the roof, Defining a hierarchy of points (I’m assuming these things will only work in a point to point system for human transport), Not sure about how drones will factor in. Pizzas to stoners in Queens or freshly harvested human organs to the OR at New York Hospital.

    – The Right to Move. A more theoretical piece about about “mobility justice,”a more theoretical argument.

    – Local Content. We’ve got an intern working on a subway car factory within the city. We’ll see what can of industrial ecology can be developed. What else can be fabricated from local materials. Subways from Coke cans and the rebar from demolished highways. Bikes from bamboo. Printed cars. Etc. Hope you will think about particulate design in terms of life-cycle.

    And more to come as the thing develops and new collaborators brought on board. Eager to chew the rag about all of this. All comments welcome! And suggestions for additional colleagues!

    Let’s do some phone.


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