Michael Sorkin’s “All Over The Map: writing on buildings and cities”

Photograph Michael Sorkin's "All Over the Map", sourdough baguette, le vache de chalais cheese by parentheticalpilgrim on 500px

Do we like certain books because they give us fresh ideas or because their ideas cohere with and confirm our existing ones?

  1. The Center Cannot Hold – “Here in Tribeca, we are at the end of a familiar cycle in which a neighbourhood moves from a mix of warehouses, manufacturing, offices, and housing, to an “artistic” neighbourhood, and now to the climax form of gentrification, an extreme high-end residential quartier. The corollary is that the jobs and people formerly employed here have either been eliminated or moved elsewhere…We have scrupulously preserved the architectural character of Tribeca, but at the expense of its human one.” (p23)
  2. Security – “…the culture is suffused with incitements to anxiety as the media fixates on the imminence of terror…We measure the environment against our perception of its perils…Our problem nowadays is that we are creating an urbanism predicated primarily on risk avoidance – one likely, in its more extreme versions, to have a terrible effect on fundamental ideas of a good city. To the degree that we acquiesce, we become complicit in a cycle of exacerbated paranoia, creating a bunker mentality…Given the genuine risks we do face…the question becomes whether there is any meeting ground between the need for precautions and the ongoing project of urban amelioration – the construction of cities that are humane, democratic, and sustainable.” (p42)
  3. The Avant-Garde in Time of War – “All architecture is political. By marshalling and distributing resources, organising social space, and orchestrating encounters, architecture is the medium through which human relations are given dimension. Since 9/11, images of assaults on buildings and cities have become ubiquitous symbols of political action, surrogates – in a war without corpses – for our own corporeality.”(p82)
  4. Caveat Competitor – “Why have architectural competitions? For practitioners, they offer the chance of a job without the grief of negotiation or self-promotion, and they can sometimes jump a small practice to the next level. For clients, competitions provide the opportunity to choose from many alternatives, show sympathy with architecture, and – in most cases – to do it on the cheap. For the public, competitions carry the seal of meritocracy, seemingly outside familiar cronyism. But the process is easily corrupted. For starters, there is something exploitative about the huge amounts of uncompensated work required to keep the system going. And there are plenty of opportunities for log-rolling, deal-making, back-scratching, insider-trading and the rest. Juries can be dramatically affected by plane schedules, blood-sugar fluctuations, personality conflicts and low-common-denominator compromises: differences in taste cannot be adjudicated except by someone giving in.” (p100)
  5. Entering the Building. [you’ve just got to read the entire piece in full glory] (p110)
  6. Urban Warfare: a Tour of the Battlefield – “It is possible that the only answer to persistent “terror” is a police state. The two form a perfect symbiosis, and it is easy to understand the utility of regular attacks to the authors of the US government’s “Patriot” Act, the breeders of sniffer dogs, and the private security firms that have become such a growth industry. To produce both legibility and intimidation, the whole panoptic repertoire of spatial and social control is deployed with little objection.” (p117)
  7. Crippled in the City – “We cripples see the city a little differently…I now find the city reorganised as an obstacle course…unevenness of surfaces is a major issue for urban mobility. This can be encountered riding in the street; walking down the sidewalk and negotiating curbs; or within buildings where loose stair treads, missing tiles, unsecured carpet, and a thousand other perils present themselves. The range of barriers is great. Heavy doors are tough. Revolving doors are too fast and too small. Narrow spaces are challenging.” (p135)
  8. Advice to Critics – “1. Always Visit the Building 2. Style is Seldom the Issue 3. Credit Effects, Not Intentions 4. Think Globally, Think Locally 5. Safety First 6. Who Profits? 7. Consult the User 8. History is Not Bunk 9. It’s the City, Stupid 10. Defend the Public Realm 11. Keep Your Teeth Sharpened 12. Play Your Favourites” (p147-150)
  9. Seven Chairs – “Modernism revolted against the sentimental distortions of representation. Every representation pares and distorts, proposing a way of seeing as well as a vision of its object. Modernism bridled against this, understanding representation as constraint, and produced the idea of abstraction, conscientiously diversifying this methodology by steady degrees…But even abstraction always represents something, if only the idea of representing nothing.” “Duschamp’s “discovery” of the ready-made insisted that the act of seeing differently was a sufficient definition of artistic practice, with the power to “turn” objections from one thing to another. Whether this meant a urinal brazenly hung on a gallery wall or a deft bike-part bull, this mode of art-making used the mass-produced consumer object as its medium. However, its critical relation to this means depended on devaluing its useful status to convert it to mere contemplation, bringing it in line with traditional styles of artistic valorisation. Art’s crisis was one of both meaning and use.” (p170)
  10. Sincerely, Jane Jacobs – “Although preservation has emerged as the planning equivalent of motherhood…, its spawn – gentrification – has become the soft form of urban renewal, still removing the poor but lovingly restoring their former homes.” (p231)
  11. How I Invented Asia – “While the memory of tradition may inhere in particular forms, its life does not necessarily. Tradition is a set of practices that are weighted…by constraint, and it is clear that traditional societies live in symbiosis with both the fact and idea of their boundaries. This is an extremely fluid concept. Following Edward Said, Janet Abu-Lughod has pointed to a kind of postcolonial diffusion effect in which the idea of tradition is re-circulated as an instrument of domination by the colonizer, setting the boundaries from without rather than within…These arguments are obviously crucial as a critique of the dumb bivalence of received wisdom: tradition is at once potentially the product of a kind of enduring empiricism – tested by time – and radically uncritical. As a signifier, though, tradition is particularly buoyant, especially now. The folding of tradition into the various insistent discourses of identity that characterise contemporary politics means that every “tradition” on earth, once marked, is inescapably contaminated by somebody’s gaze, if only by that of those operating “within” the tradition who consciously seek to protect it fro the baleful influence of those without. We live in a world in which everybody is constructed as somebody’s other, and the force of tradition, increasingly is taken up in an idea of the political, is more and more directed outwards. (p248-249)
  12. Go Down Moses – “At the level of planning, I am disquieted by the growth of so-called “public-private partnerships” which often represent not simply the abdication of the duty of the public sphere to assure that the common good will contain a full measure of equity in results, but also an end-run around democracy itself, bypassing the hard work of guaranteeing that the voices of all citizens will be heard and acted on with equal weight.” (p276)
  13. The Jungle Urban: Welcome to Petropolis – “In 1993 a modified plan was put into place in which the Huaorani were nominally incorporated into the administration of the combine entity. For them, this meant jobs as security guards (in their own formerly peaceable homeland), oil workers, and new – and desperately inappropriate – houses for some, generally clustered in what can only be described as concentration camps. This for a people that has, for millennia, lived nomadically. It also meant the ravages of imported diseases and a rapid education in modernity.” (p279)
  14. Asian Alterity: What’s the Difference? – “The spirited defense of difference that has formed so much of the core of our politics during the past quarter-century is the product of a mingling of liberation and anxiety. Perhaps the most nuanced propositions have flowed from feminism and its efforts to negotiate not simply the crucial idea of sexual difference but its historic and contemporary reduction to essentialist positions: singular and immutable readings that pinion the idea of woman, refusing both cultural and individual fluidities and the complex dialectics of relationship, as well as the liberties of choice that must underlie any democratic account of how we become who we are.In the cultural territory, similar essentialisms dominate both in the vulgar reaches of the left, with its too expansive, quasi-biologistic formulations, and on the right, with its fundamentalisms of civilizational clash and flat-earth maps of the distribution of virtue. Such distortions notwithstanding, difference is indispensable, both the animator of our subjectivity and a bulwark against the fascist honogeneity and tight control of the neoliberal corporatist politics that have succeeded modernist universalism, extracting useful sameness from any memory of the project of justice.

    But the celebration of “authentic” difference runs its own risks, and we are obliged to question the sources and meanings of the differences that confront us. We must fear not simply the tyranny of essentialism – unnuanced ideas of “woman” or “Asian” or “Western” – but also the false distinctions of a culture that thrives on the production of illusory segmentations based on the need to create a blizzard of meaningless choices that will dupe us into the hysteria of consumption that makes the system go: the Terriyaki Burger in Tokyo, the Kimchee Burger in Seoul, the Curry Burger (strictly veg) in Bangalore.

    Even more threatening than this is the risk that an under-examined insistence on the abstract value of difference will threaten the vital idea of equality. Ideas of alterity can be used as instruments for manipulating the kinds of inequalities on which political and economic power thrive. And they can be used to dilute notions of justice by exaggerating the claim that human values and rights simply and “naturally” differ from society to society in such fundamental ways that we can evade the real distinctions between democracy and authoritarianism, whether in the guise of cultural choice or some form of political inevitabilism. We stone you for disagreeing with us because that’s how we are: how dare you take our patronising orientalist attitude to this!” (p285-286)

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