The author or editor of over twenty books, Michael Sorkin was a renowned architect, urbanist, and writer. Principal and founder of Michael Sorkin Studios and president of the non-profit research group Terreform, a nonprofit urban research and advocacy center, Sorkin was especially famous for his writings for the Village Voice and the Nation. The Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Design at the City College of New York who passed away earlier this year due to complications resulting from COVID-19 wrote the forward for Miró Rivera’s Monograph Miró Rivera Architects: Building a New Arcadia.
Entitled Monks and Cowboys, the forward by Michael Sorkin joins the book’s collection of essays by notable thinkers and cutting-edge practitioners in the fields of architecture and urban design. Featuring the firm’s most remarkable projects, Building a New Arcadia situates the work of Miró Rivera Architects in a global context related to concepts of nature, sustainability, history, and urban design. Read on for the forward written by Michael Sorkin.
Monks and Cowboys
Related ArticleMiró Rivera Architects: Building a New Arcadia
Foreword from Miró Rivera Architects: Building a New Arcadia
Written by Michael Sorkin
The work of Miró Rivera Architects is thoughtful. It has depth. It’s not angry. It’s not arbitrary. It plays no games. It’s rarely gestural and, when it is, the gesture is both concise and memorable. The tower at Austin’s Formula One track, the branch-festooned footbridge, and the rotated diamond barn are all examples of the architects’ capacity for rationally exuberant invention.
Whatever the intensity or complexity of the project, resources are never wasted; they are used precisely and economically (sumptuousness also has an economy). Their forms evolve, yet always within a natural range that itself incrementally expands with new insights and experience. What might otherwise be called “style” seems so indigenous and assumes so many guises that it evades any analysis that tries to isolate or refract its particular vocabularies and moves: not in the sense that the skyscraper is an emblem of New York, but in that its responsiveness to the variety of “Austin-nesses” that it so suavely and elegantly encounters is so immersive. Austin’s vibe—barbecue and Shiner beer, bats, and Austin City Limits—is relaxed, compound, and exceptional. Miró Rivera Architects’ work is of Austin and responds to its distinctive urbanism, to a “landscape city” that successfully hybridizes traditional urban densities with the insistent and seductive landscapes of place: the tree cover and the lakes and life lived outdoors.
The distinctiveness of their work certainly is not a question of a rigid grammar, like the Prairie style or the distinctive L.A. architecture of the two generations of modernists that begins with Neutra and Schindler and culminates with Ain, Soriano, and Lautner. Nor is it like the uniform exteriors of recuperated “traditional” architecture: the inevitability of cedar shakes in Nantucket or Easthampton, or adobe in Santa Fe or Taos. The Austin collusion is more clearly inflected by other critical values, including “lifestyle”; a broad idea of the indigenous that ranges from familiar forms to regional materials; the local particularities of landscape and climate; a heightened sense of environmental responsibility; the braggadocio of Texan exceptionalism, with its hyperbole and extravagance; the memory of the “Old West,” of ranching and cowboy culture; the seclusions of spaciousness; the forge of metalwork; the embrace of distance (which has a different valence for an SUV or a horse); the dry sense of irony (that grandiose Richard Serra pissoir); an idea about honesty; and a penchant for the vulgarities of kitsch (Texan for sure but generally resistible for Miró Rivera). And it is clearly under the influence of a social economy grounded in high-tech, academics, and government, as well as the general aura of “grooviness” that gives Austin such superior scenes.
There are polarities in their projects, but not opposites—rather, a reach for harmonious consensus. Questions of spare vs. luxurious, transparent vs. opaque, private vs. public are engaged not as dispositive absolutes but as a graded wash, rich sources for the architects’ exacting, artistic pursuit of nuance, finesse, and comfort. Twenty years of work by two expanding imaginations cannot but stratify, grow. It is striking that although there are ample—sometimes vivid—differences from project to project, one is hard-pressed to establish a chronology when looking at their beautiful portfolio. The work has matured, to be sure: Details are increasingly refined. Plans relax into musicality. Masses stretch. Discipline is a constant, but its expression varies via acts of both intensification and slimming. This open-minded sense of elegance and integrity has been at the core of their work from the start, and this book reveals its variegated maturity.
A recurrent motif of special gracefulness is the use of skinny members, either at the far end of their structural capacity or multiplied to describe planes, shapes, and filters. They are arrayed vertically and horizontally for both privacy and solar control in projects like Citica, Guadalquivir 21, the Vertical House, and Circuit of The Americas. The striations are both graphic and functional, and the architects often emphasize their structural quality by thinning out arrays at the ends of their cantilevers. Unlike more demonstrative forms of expression (although they can surely make a splash—witness the stacked stone dome at the Lakeshore Residence in Houston reminiscent of Guarino Guarini’s Baroque chapel in Turin, or their wonderful avian Bus Stop), their moves, big and small, are very subtle, very natural, never monolithic. These buildings demand the active collaboration of creator and viewer to put them expressively together.
Anyone claiming the provenance of art must articulate—via their work—a theory of strangeness. The strange is another way of describing the new, and an idea of perfection seems more and more limited as a value, too familiar. Architecture’s over-identification with an under-control simplicity is something that Miró Rivera Architects understands very well, and their projects are invariably undergirded by a geometrical and organizational clarity. The perfection they pursue is more complex, eager to set its own benchmarks, and lies at the nexus of many contexts and imaginaries. It feels like the work of a thousand sketches, in which each iteration both deepens and refines. Residence 1446, with its exquisitely detailed and rhythmic juxtaposition of glass, stone, metal, wood, and landscape in its façades and entries, is a supple masterpiece, reminiscent of both Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Aalto but speaking a language all its own.
If one tried to imagine a truly radical contrast in character, a Hindu priest and a Texas cowboy would surely qualify. Miró Rivera’s school and temple for Chinmaya Mission, a cornerstone of Austin’s Hindu community, somehow manages to seem at once Eastern and Texan. The hipped metal roofs are friendly to a material and a formal history of farms and ranches that draws in the direction of identification with the ordinary, but also offers a clear hint of the Dravidian. Likewise, the simple rhythm of its walls and fenestration shows a respectful spiritual reserve. But there is a modulation in form and materials that points to the exceptionality of the place, which delicately balances the familiar and the alien. This double reading can be sparked by something as simple as one of the mission’s saffron-robed monks standing chromatically on the clipped green lawn in front of the stone-slab cloister. It is present in the asymmetry and directionality of the temple roof, and the centralizing penthouse that turns the roof-slope to the sky and marks the site of maximum holiness, all according to Vastu Shastra rules. The project is at once elegant and controlled but, like the rest of Miró Rivera’s oeuvre, it is also exactingly contoured to its use and users. The regular pattern of a monk’s day informs the parti with special directness and demands an expressive sparseness. Its details—the lotus pattern above the sanctuary, the deft skylights, the wooden racks to hold worshippers’ shoes, the light-washed ochre wall that curves up behind the shrine—collude to extend the mood and meaning of the place.
The remarkable variety of Miró Rivera’s work always arises from the particulars of program and population, and the architecture that embraces and satisfies them is never formulaic, always bespoke. The shrine, the dock, the wet bar, the expansive glass wall of the great room facing the fabulous view, ready to delight a hundred for cocktails—all are impeccable readings of individual situations and artful, particular, responses. Architecture that knows where it is. And whose lives it enlarges.