Dezeen Magazine

"We have a tendency to look at representations of new cities as a kind of pornography" said Michael Sorkin

Ahead of Monday's collaboration between Virtual Design Festival and reSITE , the Prague urbanism conference has shared a video of a lecture by Michael Sorkin, in which the late architect and critic quashes the lure of glamorised future city proposals.

In the talk, which took place at the 2015 reSITE conference, Sorkin highlighted problems of the idealistic representations of future urban plans.

"We have a tendency to look at representations of new cities and quarters as a kind of pornography, the gaze that maligns and entraps," Sorkin said.

"For many years, these representations have often come in a protective, dystopian wrapper, reinforcing the idea that the visionary is ipso facto evil."

Sorkin was a "fierce and brilliant critic, perhaps the best"

Sorkin, who died last month of complications due to coronavirus, was regarded by many as the most important architecture critic of our time.

"I am heartbroken. This is a great loss," tweeted New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman on hearing news of Sorkin's death.

Financial Times architecture correspondent Edwin Heathcote described Sorkin as a "fierce and brilliant critic, perhaps the best".

In his reSITE lecture Sorkin, who was director of the graduate programme in urban design at City College of New York (CCNY), recounted asking students to bring in visuals of ideal cities.

"Images of undeniable graphic power but ultimately completely sinister meaning"

He said he became concerned when a number chose dystopic, science fiction films, like Blade Runner, which presented a heavily controlled, futuristic Los Angeles in glamorous cinema.

"There was a long and troubling period when a very large percentage of them brought in an image from Blade Runner, the Fifth Element or similar," Sorkin continued.

"Images of undeniable graphic power but ultimately completely sinister meaning," Sorkin added. "I think this reflects both the incompetence and bad motives of authority and a kind of negative celebration of popular empowerment."

"One of the bugaboos of the politically correct is the idea of the masterplan"

Sorkin said that beyond these idealistic visuals, plans for cities are also associated with the idea of the all-powerful planner and authority.

"One of the bugaboos of the politically correct is the idea of the masterplan," he explained.

"Stinking of patriarchy, authoritarianism, insensitivity and the hubris of every kind of overreach, this territory of expressive inquiry is simply too suspect."

To contrast the dystopian and authoritarian examples, he cited Eutopic and historic city plans that pervaded his youth and early start in architecture. The "formidably planned Washington DC" where he grew up, a Kibbutz and a model he created of Brasília are among his references.

"My first architectural model sometime in grade school was a Brasília," he said. "Unable to think of another way of constructing a dome, I used a half grapefruit for the Congress Hall, an obvious early example of my commitment to green architecture."

Sorkin developed proposal for a self-sustaining New York City

Sorkin focused on the masterplan to provide a backdrop for projects created by his non-profit research group Terreform and his eponymous architecture studio.

The examples he cited are a self-sustaining New York City and Weed, a prototype for "a small sustainable, post-industrial, post-automotive city" in Arizona.

Sorkin headed architecture firm Michael Sorkin Studio and was president of Terreform. He had also taught at a number of institutions including London's Architectural Association and American schools Cooper Union, Harvard University and Columbia University.

He death on Thursday 26 March 2020 triggered shock and an outpouring of warm tributes from architects, critics and writers around the world.

Sorkin's talk took place at the 2015 reSITE conference called The Shared City.

On Monday 27 April, reSITE will take over Dezeen's Virtual Design Festival, presenting a series of highlights from its 2019 REGENERATE conference including talks by Ravi Naidoo of Design Indaba and Chris Precht of Studio Precht. For full details see the VDF schedule.