Saturday, July 16, 2011


It was the promotional text on the rear cover of the book that attracted the interest. The text was located at the top of the page, the first blurb of six pieces. The words were clear and blunt:
[Michael Sorkin] is brave, principled, highly informed, and fiercely funny. Read him and laugh; read him and weep; but read him, to see why the ‘80’s were so bad for American building.
I was tempted but flicked down the list of other reviews to see if this opinion was shared. I chose another randomly – the fifth one down:
A thorn in the flesh of America’s more complacent architects – especially the postmodernists – Sorkin proves that it’s possible to write with wit, passion and insight about architecture.
This was a more muted, measured appraisal that suggested a few characteristics similar to those noted by Hughes. I was still interested.
Who was Michael Sorkin? The smaller text on the back cover below the blurb told me:
Michael Sorkin is an architect based in New York. He was, for ten years, the architectural critic of the Village Voice. He is the author of three previous books and is the editor of a collection of writing on the modern American city, Variations on a Theme (1991).

I checked the publisher and publishing date : Verso, London and New York, 1991; paperback edition Verso, 1994. It was an old publication but the hype of the Hughes review had tempted me to indulge. One is strangely interested in seeing another being parodied. It’s a voyeuristic indulgence that hums with John Bradford’s proverbial refrain: ‘there but for the grace of God . .’ So I decided to buy the book. It might revive memories of events now over twenty years old and reshape them. How would I view these now? Would I laugh? Cry? If the writing was so good, it might be worth reading just to experience this skill - perhaps to learn from it.

I carried Michael Sorkin’s Exquisite Corpse  Writing on Buildings in my hand as I strolled down Darling Street back to Balmain away from the dim shambles of the volumes that shrouded the proprietor who was obviously addicted to books and cared little for order. The title of my purchase was itself as alluring as the Hughes blurb - corpses? Is necrophilia involved? I don’t recall the 80’s buildings being that bad. Still, I was looking forward to reading this book that was a collection of articles that Sorkin had written over the years for Village Voice, The Nation, Architectural Record, Architectural Review and more. It would be an easy to pick up and read as a random sequence to suit my mood and the time available - a bit like a book of short stories. But were these tall stories?

It wasn’t long after I had started reading that I formed the opinion that Robert Hughes had not even opened the book. I saw nothing ‘seriously funny’ even though I searched through the pages. I neither laughed nor wept as I read Sorkin’s words that were, however, informative and principled on various matters and buildings, some of which, to my great disappointment, he actually liked. I was looking forward to some provocative ‘Tom Wolfe’-styled sarcasm. But no, I was reading how Wright was one of the greatest architects of the century; how Wright’s and Aalto’s plans were the most beautiful of the modern era; and I even found out why Paul Rudolph, after such an amazing early success with the Yale School of Architecture, disappeared from the architectural world. I read how the bitchy world of this profession established itself and its opinions, and forced real skill out due to greed and envy. What’s changed?

I started reading an article on SITE, hoping for a good laugh at the expense of this somewhat startling and provocative body of work. Surely these unusually quirky buildings would be an easy subject to deride and mock? But no; even here the approach was principled with appropriate, and deserved prods at Venturi, Eisenmann, et. al., but not SITE. Indeed, the client was praised for such a bold appointment and the work was given glowing appraisals. What on earth has Hughes seen? Sorkin wrote beautifully about Aalto’s sensitive flower plan for the Neue Vahr Apartments at Bremen, cleverly recognising how Aalto is able to make every apparently casual and randomly kinked, curved and skewed line appear essential for the organisation of form and its function – necessity itself, yet appearing so ad hoc and arbitrary. The writing was fair, caring and careful, with praise where it was due and criticism likewise - never ‘fierce’ or funny.

Hughes must have scribbled off his piece without ever looking at this collection. Was he remembering other pieces by Sorkin or someone with a similar name? While I enjoyed the articles, I felt duped. The Guardian reviewer seems to have read the book - or some of it - prior to preparing this review. Hughes must have been busy, or just too arrogant or his usual haughty self to carefully consider any thorough analysis. No, just whip off some ‘blurb-type’ words as a quip. He is a master of the acerbic phrase.

On reflection, Hughes’ words seem like a conglomerate mix of contradictory gobbledegook that he could have collaged from other blurbs. Being ‘brave, principled, highly informed, and fiercely funny’ seems an incongruous mix of characteristics. One with highly ‘informed’ principles might choose not to be so rude as to be ‘fiercely funny’ at someone else’s expense when writing about another’s work, even if ‘brave.’ As for this approach apparently highlighting the parlous state of American architecture in the ‘80’s - ‘to see why the ‘80’s were so bad for American building’ – it seems that this is Hughes’ own personal opinion about the work of this period. Sorkin is much more sensitive towards and thoughtful about this work, even while being critical of some of it. Maybe Hughes is describing what and how he might have written on these subjects chosen by Sorkin, such is the apparent discrepancy in his judgment? Dare one even think that the publisher selected the words and the name ‘Hughes’ just to sell more books? Perhaps the words tell us more about Hughes than Sorkin? Hughes has a much more fiercely biting style that can bravely deliver savage sarcasm.

Still, if this is the only disappointment with the book, nothing is lost other than, perhaps, Hughes’ reputation. The book does revive past times that are interesting to assess with hindsight. Old experiences surface; ideas and emotions from other times well up; old feelings and enthusiasms flitter into being once more. These were good times. Some things still vibrate, while others struggle to be. The era held energy and vigour and a genuine searching interest in things architectural. Here we see criticisms confirmed and doubts erased as familiar images are recalled and reviewed. We are in a different era today - of course - but is it any better? Where is the rigour - the interest? Where is the lust for architecture today? Where are the dreams for the future that appear proudly as the present, and prod, test and challenge? Where are the texts that excite, redirect and drive? We seem to be drifting along on a digital ooze of discovered ‘interesting’ forms arising from games engaging the possibilities of distortion - proving that ‘morph is less’ and that ‘form follows . . . ,’ well, whatever you want it to: deformity? Style lives. To be different and attention-grabbing is the amusement that is dragged into certainty by digital electronics. ‘Shake, rattle and roll’ may have been the cry from other times interested in space and place, but today we have other more four-dimensional movements, with ‘deform, buckle and warp’ being the theme rattled off to the harsh, thumping rhythms of introspective and indulgent architectural rap. As for plans and their beauty – who cares? Beauty? It’s the interesting shape as plan, section or elevation - or all three, perhaps all differently - that seems to hold sway today. Things, it appears, must wave, lean, skew and extend thinly, as wiz-bang knife edges: illusions. Has theatre taken over?

Bitchy? No, we do have some beautiful new buildings but we need more writing - more critiques that can be truly ‘brave, principled, highly informed, and fiercely funny;’ to be read with a laugh and a cry. Such reviews should be written and read to sense why our era might be so bad for building - for architecture. We need ‘a thorn in the flesh of architecture’s more complacent practitioners – especially the post-neo-postmodernists,’ to highlight issues by writing ‘with wit, passion and insight about architecture.’ Here less is certainly not more: just a bore - and just an easy way to carry on mindlessly in our self-centred, indulgent ways. If we can learn anything from Sorkin, it is the need for rigour and review. This is so missed today with even architectural publications seeking more style than content - more white paper, selected coloured images and smart graphic layouts rather than the dense content that Hughes’ words allude to. If only . . . – if only architecture . .  .

Why is it that there is no longer any debate in architecture? Why is it that everyone is right and has rights in this non-critical world of false and pretentious tolerance that lacks any ideals and all humility. Sponge comes to mind. It absorbs anything and everything, just as it can exude it, and remains the same in spite of all impacts, proud and certain of itself - unchanged. Being malleable is one thing; being careless and thoughtless is another. Is turning a blind eye the style? No, this suggests that there is substance somewhere when there appears to be nothing but the self-appointed glory of self-centredness all enriched by smart electronics. It was said of the electrical guitar that it would take many years for it to find its role in the production of quality music. Is it the same for architecture? Are we just too engrossed with and entranced by gadgets that make us feel like gods, to usefully engage with them? The touch; turn; flick; press; shake . . . change us. Gestures and performances create their own feelings in the body with their grandiose ease and false sense of smart power. One is made to feel like a king nonchalantly waving a limp hand and declaring ‘off with his head’ as he reaches for a glass of wine or smugly replaces the pod or tablet back into a pocket with a considered and self-satisfied intimation of careless pride.

Where is architecture today? No, where is there feeling, care and respect for others? Where is the desire to discuss issues, to learn from debate rather than to preach? Is ours a ‘hacking’ era where others are seen as subjects to break into, or just break; and where things are better if broken too? It certainly looks like an era interested in building ruins. We see the blasted windows and the pockmarked walls of Sarajevo presented as a new creation, and the images of the recent disasters looking just like the latest vision of genius to be promoted as news for the world. These apparent wonders make Sorkin’s book of articles, all previously published prior to 1991, look astonishingly interesting, leaving one mourning the lack of any similar output in our times.

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