COVID-19 is an equal opportunity grim reaper, claiming many lives — famous and not so famous. As of this writing, there are more than 1,170,000 infected and nearly 64,000 dead worldwide. Last week, architect Michael Sorkin fell victim to the Coronavirus in New York City.
The thoughtful obituaries here, here and here won’t be repeated but please honor Michael Sorkin and read them. (Dammit, obits have become a new normal for me, like wedding announcements many decades ago.)
If we need labels to understand who this man was, then Sorkin was an architect, urbanist, writer, teacher, humanitarian, rabble-rouser, non-conformist, community organizer, anti-fascist, fearless and he probably disdained any such labels.
Sorkin’s columns and books will remain relevant and readable because he started from a position anathema to mainstream architectural culture: that, as he put it in All Over the Map, “All architecture is political.” Sorkin relentlessly highlighted the politics of urban space and the social functions of architecture. “All architecture distributes: mass, space, materials, privilege, access, meaning, shelter, rights,” he wrote in a column collected in the 2018’s What Goes Up. “In the main, architecture only abets the transparency of capital’s inequities.”
It was precisely this architectural complicity in capitalist inequality and social violence that Sorkin spent his career attempting to change.
Sorkin participated in the preparation of the first comprehensive plan for Jerusalem which included the entire city, both the West and East sides. He must have been very knowledgeable about the simultaneous policies that Israel has promoted: Judaization (building and supporting the expansion of Jewish only settlements and neighborhoods) and de-Arabization (squeezing natural growth into tighter and denser blocs and forcing Palestinians out of the city to maintain the magical 70-30 demographic split in the city). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything that Sorkin wrote about that master plan.
I did find a short piece that Sorkin wrote nearly 20 years ago about planning in Israel. I’m going to keep looking, and hope to find his more current thoughts on the topic.
Urbanism is Politics – by Michael Sorkin (2002)
During their recent “incursion” into the West Bank, Israeli forces were sent on a search-and-destroy mission to the Jenin refugee camp. Confronted with a labyrinth of streets far too narrow to permit tanks and armored vehicles, the Israelis elected to adopt a house-to-house approach. When a number of Israeli troops were ambushed and killed, bulldozers were introduced to topple houses and clear the site for safer access. The destruction of the refugee settlement was, among other things, an act of urbanism, Haussmannization raised to a flash-point. Although the consequences of the great boulevardization of Paris in the nineteenth century were not immediately lethal to those whose houses were destroyed to make way for Napoleon III’s great axialities, the impetus to demolish was motivated in part by military needs. The broad boulevards were meant to expedite troop movements around town and provide clear fields of fire in case of insurrection.
Nowhere today is the political use of urbanism more glaring than in Jerusalem and the West Bank. This is true of the Palestinian suicide attacks on the benign settings of urban conviviality–the murder of Israelis as they sit in the cafes or shop in markets–and of the more bureaucratic styles of apartheid and occupation engineered by the Israelis. Both sides clearly understand the relationship of the patterns of the city and urban life to the politics of struggle for rights and privilege. And both clearly understand how to make cities into places of fear.
In this supercharged atmosphere, no urbanism can be spoken of outside its political dimension. Here in the U.S., our most pressing urban issue is sprawl, which we largely understand as an environmental question. In Jerusalem, sprawl has a different flavor. Israeli policy to “Judaize” has resulted in the construction of a ring of settlements–housing close to 200,000 people–that a more growth-sensitive approach would never countenance. By building beyond the boundaries of the existing conurbation, however, a ring of population has been imposed–like a wall–both to control the city and to thwart any potential division. Sitting in their arrogance on the tops of hills, the settlements represent an almost medieval style of planning, prompted by aggression and machismo.
The suburban sprawl of the West Bank settlements has been produced by the same means that generated our own suburbs. Like the cheap loans for returning veterans, the construction of the interstates, the accelerated depreciation of suburban commercial development, and the disproportionate subsidies for infrastructure, the Israeli settlements are the direct outgrowth of government policies meant to create a particular environment for particular people. In the settlements, the tools of planning produce their usual product: benign-looking clusters of Mediterranean-style, white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs, backyards, and pools. Here, too, is the idyllic atmosphere of suburbia, a rankling obliviousness that surely drives Palestinian villagers below to distraction.
But the picturesque view can only be sustained until the frame is slightly enlarged. This picture shows the barbed wire, soldiers on patrol, and a striking contrast with more indigenous styles of building and of life. In this view, nearby Palestinian villages and towns come to constitute–in their morphological and economic difference–a kind of dispersed “inner city.” The familiar contrast between the city and its suburbs is played out in a tiny territory as the Israelis pursue simultaneous policies of urban renewal and ghettoization–urban renewal in the sense of the demolition and devaluation of the original inhabitants, and ghettoization not only for the Palestinians, but also for the Israelis, electively ensconced in their pleasant but beleaguered settlements.
The political sprawl of the settlements–and the murderous rage of the Palestinians–reflect the impossible physics of a situation in which two hostile populations attempt to occupy the same space at the same time. Even nominally shared space–streets and highways– becomes a battleground. The horrendous bus bombings are both murder clear and simple and an assault of the most fundamental freedom of the city, just as the construction by the Israelis of their private road networks on the West Bank are designed both to allow settlers to commute to Israel proper without passing through Palestinian towns and to divide the West Bank into a series of cantonments. Thus the traffic planner’s language of convenience and speed takes on an oppressive dimension that cannot be escaped.
On a visit a few years ago to the school of architecture at Bir Zeit University outside Ramallah, I was wandering the corridor of the civil engineering department when I came across a plan for a “bypass road” around a village. My immediate thought was that this was a part of the Israeli road network in the West Bank. Closer inspection revealed, however, that it was simply a traffic management scheme designed to avoid slow going in town for Palestinian motorists. The alternative road, in itself, is a somewhat questionable enterprise: witness the number of American towns that, bypassed by through traffic, have seen their economies whither. While the bypass may be a foolish piece of modernization, it lacks the sinister dimension of the Israeli network, which has strong parallels with the historic effect of American inner-city highways in isolating and destroying poor communities of color.
The extreme politics of planning in Israel and Palestine results in a situation that is separate and unequal at many levels. Systems of water supply, sanitation, energy, transportation, greenspace, and other elements of infrastructure are–despite many decades of pieties on the part of the municipal administration in Jerusalem about equalizing services–totally skewed to Israeli benefit. While Israeli Jerusalem has a reasonably integrated system of transportation, including highways, bus lines, airports, a train to the coast, and a good collective taxi system, the Palestinians are highly constrained in their ability to move, a product of both draconian and humiliating security arrangements that can extend a twenty-minute commute to hours and of a fundamental lack of transport services.
To get around, Palestinians must rely either on the Israeli systems–when available to them–or on their own network of cars, buses, and a collective taxi system of great potential efficiency, thwarted only by oppressive security delays. What is frustrating about all of this from the point of view of planning is that an efficient system for both Israeli and Palestinian Jerusalem is easy to imagine in purely technical terms. Jerusalem is a node on a linear urban system that runs from Nablus in the north through Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, to Hebron in the south–a classic linear city, considered in purely physical terms.
For transportation planners, the logic of a north-south system would seem clear-cut. Given the density of settlement and the relatively small distances, such a system might be highly efficient and profitable, and an instrument of accommodation, convenience, and peace. Unfortunately, politics stands in the way.
Still, there are precedents for cooperation. There is one part of the urban infrastructure where all of Jerusalem works together: the municipal sewerage system is joined. Perhaps this is an earthly harbinger of greater possibilities should justice and reason ever prevail.
2002 – excerpted from ALL OVER THE MAP: Writing on Buildings and Cities, by Michael Sorkin (2011)