MASS Design Group Boston, Massachusetts Architects, US Architectural Studio, United States
MASS Design Group : Massachusetts Architect Office
MDG: Contemporary American Architect Practice – Boston Studio, MA, USA
27 Mar 2020
Michael Sorkin of MASS Design Group Dies
Architect Michael Sorkin has died from COVID-19
COVID-19 takes the sage: Michael Sorkin rest in peace
Remember our elders:
In many traditions, the elders are not simply “the old people” – they are the culture bearers, the harbingers of language, the repository of rituals. They are our legacies – what binds our past to our future – in human form. When we lose our elders, our legacy too is threatened. The ligaments which bind their knowledge to the generations ahead of us is now no longer their responsibility. It is ours. And unless we record their legacy, culture, language, and wisdom, they are lost.
I fear about how much was lost yesterday with the passing of Michael Sorkin. He was many things to many people over his long career: a dedicated teacher, the last of the great practitioner critics, and a tireless advocate for a more environmentally and socially just architectural reckoning. To me, he was an elder, a beacon for what I hoped to one day practice and understand.
I first met Michael in 2011. It was my thesis presentation, and he was on the jury. My topic was about a progressive publication of architects from the 1970s led by Giancarlo De Carlo, who advocated for social and political responsibility in our profession. I had discovered it on my own, but Michael, the architectural critic of The Nation and then The Village Voice, was not surprisingly a frequent contributor to Space and Society.
I was nervous about his response. But instead of the familiar gutting and rejection common to architectural juries, Michael smiled wide, raised his right arm, fist clenched and said, “Right on comrade.” He was a hero of mine now, and he grabbed me by being himself: funny, righteous, and kind. He was building the army.
I saw the battlefield in full force a few years later in 2016, when I was invited to participate in a series called “Cocktails and Conversations” in New York City. This series invites a speaker to choose an interviewer for a public conversation. I was nervous to face a New York crowd of architects, so I invited Michael to prod me on stage and talk broadly about activism in architecture, hoping to focus more on his work and less on mine. But by the time of the event, November 18th, the world had turned upside-down. Only a week before, Donald Trump had been elected.
Never to be constrained by rules, Michael rejected the format of the polite conversation and invited other activists to join us on stage. He drafted a ten-point manifesto. And he turned a polite conversation into a chaotic, unbridled, therapeutic town hall to bring up the issues he cared about most: the carceral state, the destruction of the environment, the privatization of the public sphere against the public good, and the complicity of our profession in structures that reinforce inequity.
Michael’s life long message – often hidden behind the starchitecture and celebrity of our profession – was suddenly felt viscerally by the profession around us. “What will you do now?” He seemed to be asking. “Will you carry the torch? Will you link the wisdom of our years of work to the world you build tomorrow?”
Michael was a sage in our profession, a visionary, a teacher, but also a mensch. He often said that he’d love to make architecture “less evil, more kind.” He was able to hold both anger and compassion together like only a true elder can do.
We sat down recently in December, over tea. He was surviving another bout of cancer treatment, so martinis (our usual toast) were not on the menu. We talked about his legacy and what he would leave. He asked me who would fill the gaps in public discourse, in new practice models, in writing and criticism. He was asking: who would step up?
The coronavirus, like all epidemics, reveals the cracks in our systems. In this case, not just the medical system but the architectural system as well. Much as Michael signalled throughout his career: if architecture is tethered to a private marketplace, the building industry, left fragile, will collapse in the face of market corrections, and with it, the public rights it delivers.
Well collapse is upon us. On the horizon is global construction stoppage, supply chain interruption, and a massive abandonment of building and design labor. All the communities we serve will be abandoned too, as housing, hospitals, schools, public spaces, and green infrastructure plans get shelved once again, leaving behind a public asking: why, in the moment of our greatest need for public service, are industries so unprepared to serve the public?
Michael predicted this, too. And his hybrid non/for-profit practice offered a way of working, that could help us now. A practice that did not abandon the public in times of stress, as its hybridity remained somewhat insulated from mercurial market shifts we see around us.
All that is to say, Michael was one of the elders that would have guided our industry through its forthcoming restructuring. It is only too clear that we have lost an oracle and a soothsayer. Someone who exposed the cracks in the system, and sought to use the tools of our profession –- his experimental practice, his acerbic critical voice, his gregarious teaching –- to carry forward a movement.
What cruelty. What more sobering news can there be than the reality that Michael was one of the vulnerable he always fought for? Now a victim to the vicissitudes he sought to protect others from. We are not just compiling numbers of the dead, we are losing our stewards of cultural memory, languages, practices, life, and the kind of avuncular wisdom that can hold anger and love together so that we keep moving.
Michael Sorkin was that elder, for all of us in architecture. I don’t know what lies ahead, but we can be assured that Michael would want us to pick up the torch, with more vigor and determination, if not only for his legacy than for ours.
May you rest in peace, Michael Sorkin, and know that the generation that follows you will carry on what you’ve left behind. Right on, comrade.
Founding Principal and Executive Director
For more information on how MASS is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the website:
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Address: 334 Boylston St. Suite 400, Boston, MA 02116, USA
We at e-architect send our condolences to Michael’s family and to his colleagues at the MASS Design Group.
Sadly he is not the first architect to die in this global pandemic:
Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti dies of COVID 19 coronavirus
Dec 30, 2017
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Memorial to Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama, USA
image courtesy EJI / MASS Design Group
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Video, Nov 13, 2012:
MASS Design Group – Key Project
Key Projects by MASS Design Group, alphabetical:
Butaro Hospital, Burera District, Rwanda
Date built: 2011
photo : Iwan Baan
The architects studio was brought in by PIH in 2008 to help plan and design a first-rate facility that would help reverse these conditions.
In the design of the hospital, MDG and PIH sought to create a more holistic model of architecture that included the design of an appropriate, state of the art hospital while also fully choreographing the process of construction to employ, educate and empower the local community.
More architecture projects by MASS Design Group online soon
Location: 46 Waltham Street, Boston, MA 02118, United States of America
MASS Design Group Boston Practice Information
Architect office based in Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America
MASS DESIGN GROUP
MASS creates well-built environments using appropriate design, local investment, and innovation to break the cycle of poverty. We collaborate with governments, NGOs, private sector firms, and health care experts to advocate for the most underserved and provide scalable models of community-based development and training.
MASS has shown that innovation, driven by interdisciplinary research and immersion in the field, can deliver well-built environments that are efficient, effective, and empowering. By addressing immediate infrastructural needs and simultaneously building systems to address the social determinants of failure, our work constructs agency, serves as an engine for economic growth, and assures long-term sustainability. We build capacity at all levels—from training unskilled laborers to assisting government ministries in writing policies that establish more holistic and appropriate project outcomes.
Michael Murphy, Co-Founder and Executive Director
Michael co-founded MASS in 2008 to provide design services for underserved populations in the most resource-constrained environments. In addition to leading the design and construction of the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, completed in January of 2011, Michael has been the recipient of the 2010 Design Futures Council Emerging Leader Scholarship, and has taught courses on design for infection control and design thinking for business entrepreneurs at Clark University and Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
Alan Ricks, Co-Founder and Creative Director
Alan received his Bachelor of Arts from Colorado College and his Masters in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Alan manages the Boston office working on projects including the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital in Haiti, research on infection control and health facility design for the WHO, and policy development for the Liberian Ministry of Health. Alan is an adjunct faculty member at Clark University and has been a guest critic at Colorado College, Harvard, Northeastern, and the University of Texas.
Buildings / photos for the MASS Design Group Architecture page welcome