“So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.” – Walter Benjamin
Come moving time, books are an extraordinary burden. On their shelves, they offer a handy reference and intellectual portrait; displaced, their weight challenges the strength of packing boxes and movers and their organization never feels satisfactory. But on the other side, the library is again pure possibility. Walter Benjamin reflected on the process in a 1931 talk, and on the mood of anticipation when “the books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order.”
Michael Sorkin moved his library many times, each relocation of his office prompting reflection on its organization. Indeed, contemplating leaving his overpriced studio on Varick Street, Sorkin had been rethinking the categorization of the 2359 volumes shelved there. He never finished the task. In March 2020, the formidable architect, critic, and educator became one of the early victims of the coronavirus in New York. In the darkest days of the pandemic, his colleagues and collaborators took up the somber task of closing down the office and preserving the books in a new and permanent resting place uptown. A small group of faculty from the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York approached Sorkin’s wife, theorist Joan Copjec, about bringing his library to the school where he was distinguished professor and led the urban design program since 2000. Over a few frantic weeks in April and May, they documented the office shelf by shelf, then dismantled those shelves, packed the books in some 120 boxes, and drove them in a rented van to the shut-down university building.
Architect Elisabetta Terragni had been spending time in Sorkin’s office as they worked together on a joint competition submission. She is also an expert in the complicated architecture of private libraries and archives — notably, the restoration of writer Ismail Kadare’s Tirana apartment into a house museum — and the difficulties of preserving and presenting them in new contexts. When personal libraries are absorbed into larger ones, their logic disappears and their integrity is threatened; institutions don’t want to waste space on duplicate volumes or materials that defy classification. For her friend, she conceived and designed a project that preserved the library’s integrity while preparing it for a new destiny. With the original powder-coated aluminum shelves from the office (a design by Keller Easterling), and through a series of strategic work orders for CCNY’s Office of Facilities Management to knock down walls and open doors, Terragni transformed what had been a slide library, and librarian’s office, and classroom, and storage space into the Michael Sorkin Book Collection, a new stand-alone reading room in Spitzer’s library, inaugurated in December 2022.
The books were reshelved just as they had been packed up. Their organization was a problem Sorkin had not quite solved. According to Terragni, he “was not yet there.” Post-its marked incipient categories on shelves: Solnit, Suburbia, Utopia. Two draft subject lists turned up in the office files. 80-odd terms from an idiosyncratic and in progress list of places, people, and topics list are lettered on the reading room’s ceiling, as are the names of the speakers in the Mumford Lecture series Sorkin originated and curated (the graphic design is by Daniele Ledda’s Milan-based practice XyComm). Sorkin’s 1998 monograph, Wiggle, provided the orange shade of the carpet as well as the quote on the window which will look out on a fish-shaped windsock wiggling over St. Nicholas Park: “Fish are symmetrical but only until they wiggle. Our effort is to measure the space between the fish and the wiggle. This is the study of a lifetime.”
Here is another quote, from Sorkin in a 2009 interview with for an exhibition about architects’ libraries: “Books are arguments — even propaganda — for the forms, qualities, possibilities, and rights that constitute ‘space.’ Books, of course, are not the only way of ‘writing’ spaces — living in it is even more primary — but, given the contested character of space today, writing is a crucial mode of both invention and resistance.” Sorkin’s was not a collection of precious and rare volumes but a working library. Julio Salcedo, who shared space in Varick Street office and succeeded Sorkin as director of Spitzer’s urban design program, recalls how essential books were to Sorkin’s architectural practice: “He would sketch with people, but also just drop a book” on someone’s desk. Tools for research and design, they preserve his annotations and sticky tabs.
Already, the students who arrived at Spitzer post-Covid will never have known the figure who loomed so large at the school, in the city, and in design. The reading room helps extend the school’s connection to Sorkin across time and provides a workspace for a new generation of designers and critics. The books will maintain their status as an active reference and a backdrop for lively discussions. The reading room is a living space, set up in anticipation of the unexpected. A set of archival boxes sit empty, waiting to be filled with new research by students. The archives of colleague and comrade Marshall Berman will make their home here, too. Sorkin’s books still have to be formally catalogued, but the “piles of volumes,” like those in Benjamin’s boxed-up library, “are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness.”
The collection is a reflection of Sorkin’s ongoing and extensive interests and the scope of his design and critical work, extending back to 1966: urban economics, social justice and the city, sites of conflict (Gaza, New Orleans), China, Hitler and fascism, food systems and sustainability. There is literature, and of course there are monographs, although the majority of these were gifts. In 2009, Sorkin selected a “top ten” from his library — all books on his required reading list for urban design students.Salcedo and Terragni selected a few volumes across a wider range of subjects, all ready to be put to work again.
All photographs © Albert Vecerka/Esto
Jo Steffens, ed. Unpacking My Library: Architects and their Books. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
These were: Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity; Christine Boyer, Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning; Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society; William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West; Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles; David Harvey, Social justice and the City; Michael Hough, Cities and Natural Process: A Basis for Sustainability; Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution; Raymond Williams, The Country and the City.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.