Michael Sorkin, urbanist, theorist and architecture critic was someone special. When he died of Covid-19 in March of last year, the New York Times described Sorkin as a polymath whose prodigious output of essays, lectures and designs – all promoting social justice – established him as the political conscience in his field. He was 71.
LDA Design director Cannon Ivers was moved by the sense of collective loss for Sorkin. “It was the first moment that the pandemic had impacted someone whose work I followed and admired, a personality that I assumed floated above such eventualities as a global pandemic.”
Cannon first met Sorkin as a student at Colorado State University. “He lectured with an extraordinary command of the English language. I recall commenting to my professor about his vocabulary, and how astonished I was by the number of words that I did not recognise. My teacher, Merlyn Paulson, replied, ‘Remember, he learned each word one at a time.’ This has always stuck with me as a reminder that to really know a subject takes time and dedication.”
Cannon went back to one of Sorkin’s best remembered pieces, ‘250 Things an Architect Should Know’. The list includes the feel of cool marble under bare feet, the distance of a whisper, the number of people with rent subsidies in New York City to how to lay bricks, the rate at which the seas are rising, how to design a corner and sit in a corner, what the planet can afford. Things to know also include depths of desire, the heights of folly, the importance of vitamin D, the remediation capacity of wetlands, half as much as a London cabbie.
“Every word landed with more profundity knowing that Sorkin was gone. I felt compelled to formulate a similar list – albeit through a diverse cohort of voices operating in the landscape architecture discipline. I envisioned an equally inspiring thread of observations, ideas, propositions and declarations expressed from the perspective of 50 landscape architects.”
‘250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know’ published by Birkhauser has delightful tensions and contradictions similar to Sorkin’s original. What knowledge is indispensable to a landscape architect? The answers are as diverse as landscape architecture itself.
The book features 50 contributors from Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia, including practitioners and teachers, young start-ups as well as internationally established firms. There are contributions from James Corner and Kate Orff. Aniket Bhagwat urges the reader to understand the soul of Derek Jarman; Gina Ford to understand the why; Charles A. Birnbaum that landscape architecture is more than “parsley around the roast”.
Anita Berrizbeitia observes: “Landscapes embody at once culture and nature, art and science, the collective and the personal, the natural and artificial, static and dynamic.” Karoline Liedtke says her practice starts with the act of listening, be it to the whoosh of trees, or to children or cars. Marti Franch suggests siting a path as if only the feet could see and knowing when to throw the confetti, creating moments of surprise and delight that help to frame the landscape.
‘250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know’ is a fantastic read for all those seeking inspiration in their work to create great places and for those wanting to understand the world around them better. It is richly illustrated. Each entry comes with an image with original illustrations by Chip Sullivan, Jerry Van Eyck and Richard Weller with Elliot Bullen.
The last word, however, should rest with Sorkin. “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.”
‘250 Things a Landscape Architect Should Know’ was published on 25 October 2021. Order from your local bookshop or online.