Michael Sorkin’s Saratoga

Saratoga Avenue Community Center, in Brooklyn, by George Ranalli.

Saratoga Avenue Community Center, in Brooklyn, by George Ranalli.

Michael Sorkin, an architectural theoretician and critic who is on the faculty of CCNY’s Spitzer School of Architecture, where George Ranalli is dean, penned an introduction to the monograph of Ranalli’s Saratoga Avenue Community Center (subject of my most recent column in the Providence Journal). I’d love to link readers to the entire essay but it is not online, so the best I can do is transcribe my favorite passages.

The first has to do with how the community center responds to the public housing block to which it is attached in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. After referring to “the semi-punitive message” embedded in “public projects for the poor,” Sorkin writes:

Ranalli’s building is a stunning rebuke to all that, but done in a way that does not simply condemn its context, but seeks to reclaim it for a better, more civic idea of community building. Where the slab has generic metal sash, Saratoga has exquisite mahogany windows. Where the slab has homely buff brick, crudely laid up in unvarying courses, Saratoga has bricks of luminous orange and Roman proportion, beautifully articulated and trimmed with GFRC elements of musical richness. Where the slab and its interior are utterly resistant to detail and irregularity, Saratoga fascinates with amazing shifts in proportion and rhythm, with a panoply of beautiful elements – from cast stone scuppers, to steel kick moldings – that give the whole an almost palatial feel.

Nicely put. Sorkin is an excellent writer and, for all I know, a genuinely insightful analyst of architecture. To my skeptical eye his introduction reads, however, very much like a parody of architectural criticism in Mad magazine, circa 1977. Take this passage:

Rather than diminish its [public housing] neighbors by creating a sense of anomalous quality, Saratoga enhances them by sharing the authority of its articulation generously. This is the result both of the way Saratoga works within a familiar universe of materiality and proportion and the way in which it is the fulcrum for the reorganization of the irregular block on which it sits with its neighbors. Ranalli re-articulates the conditions of entry to the slab and gives its displacement from the street an urban logic it did not previously possess.

If you say so, Mike. On rereading his introduction, however, I find that much of Sorkin’s style is perfectly accessible to those versed in the peculiarities of architectural prose composition. Still, much of it reminds me of those humorous tutorials on how to talk about wine by stringing together random combinations of phrases selected from three lists.

The following passage falls into an expanding category of criticism whose authors do not seem to realize they are condemning what they like and praising what they detest:

It may be that the qualities that sustain and inspire [Ranalli’s] work are simply out of sync with the immaterial feeling of so much of our contemporary architecture, with its uniformity of detail, fetish for orthagonal form, love of transparency, willful defiance of gravity and servility to the most retrograde programs. George Ranalli stands outside this stream of fashion, just as he stands outside the backward-looking branch of the profession that claims, thumping its virtuous chest, to be building within some sense of “tradition,” in general one that has long been pronounced dead.

Hey, I resemble that remark! Or at least the part that’s been pronounced dead. Again:

Ranalli, on the other hand, works in a tradition that retains a principle of development, a living tradition, not one recaptured from the moribund reaches of the architectural past.

Thus George Ranalli’s suspension between modernism and classicism.  A book of his work, 496 pages of projects built and unbuilt, called In Situ, has gone on sale at Amazon.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Michael Sorkin’s Saratoga

  1. Eric Inman Daum says:

    Sorkin implies, “If it is old, it must surly be dead” with his statement, “George Ranalli stands outside this stream of fashion, just as he stands outside the backward-looking branch of the profession that claims, thumping its virtuous chest, to be building within some sense of “tradition,” in general one that has long been pronounced dead.” Pronounced dead by whom? I know plenty of architects and designers who still consider Classicism a “Living tradition”. And yet Ranalli’s Saratoga Community has resurrected an “old” tradition and is praised for being “outside Fashion. The clear formal precedents to the Saratoga Center, Wright’s Prairie houses, the work of Peter Behrens, Mieis’ Fagus Werke, established an early modern tradition that is now 100 years old. How is this any less moribund than than academic Classicism? I confess to loving the work of the Early Moderns, but for Sorkin to state that Ranalli is hewing some middle ground when he too is in in fact citing historical forms so blatantly, is hypocrisy. Why am I not surprised?

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