Michael Ford
Bradlee Bertram Michael Ford

After four years of growing his much-publicized Hip Hop Architecture Camp, Michael Ford, Assoc. AIA, is returning to traditional practice, setting down roots at SmithGroup's office in Madison, Wis., where he has been based. Ford quietly joined the firm in June, in part to see through the next stages of a passion project, the 60,000-square-foot Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM) in the Bronx, N.Y., which is slated to break ground in December.

"I was very cautious and strategic about where this project should go," Ford tells ARCHITECT. He appreciated SmithGroup's clear "commitment to diversity and inclusion"; the firm's portfolio of work includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site project in Richmond, Va. Conversations with SmithGroup principal and director of equity, diversity, and inclusion Rosa Sheng, FAIA, then cemented his decision.

The firm's 2017 hiring of Sheng "showed me that SmithGroup is interested in exploring new ways for architecture to move forward as a profession," Ford explains.

"When I heard that Mike was interested, I was extremely excited and immediately reached out to my leadership colleagues in Madison and corporate," Sheng tells ARCHITECT. "Mike is an amazing entrepreneur and influencer, not only to inspire kids to join the profession, but also as a creative collaborator and connector to the public for problem-solving some of architecture's greatest challenges through his advocacy and design cyphers."

An initial rendering of the Universal Hip Hop Museum
Courtesy L&M Development An initial rendering of the Universal Hip Hop Museum

As an architectural associate at SmithGroup, Ford will continue his work advocating for black and brown communities. He has helped coordinate a design charrette—or cypher—for the Progress Center for Black Women in Fitchburg, Wis., and he will be the design lead for the UHHM, for which SmithGroup will serve as architect-of-record and designer of the architectural interiors. Slated to open in 2023, the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the museum is in the planning phase, with a final design proposal scheduled for release at the end of this year following a final design cypher in New York this fall. (Details for interested participants are forthcoming.)

"Michael has been involved very deeply in terms of helping us figure out what the best type of visitor experience would be for the museum," says Rocky Bucano, founding board member of the UHHM.

For Ford, this project is the culmination of a decade of research and lectures, and what he believes will be "the most definitive example of hip-hop architecture that there is." To date, hip-hop icons, including Ice-T, Nas, LL Cool J, and the Sugar Hill Gang, are involved as ambassadors for the project. But Bucano and Ford are eager for more voices from the hip-hop community to collaborate on the museum.

Michael Ford poses with the Sugar Hill Gang
Michael Ford poses with the Sugar Hill Gang

"With SmithGroup, our goal is to not design a museum ourselves but to have the hip-hop community be actively involved," Ford says. "We want to let every artist know that they’re an email or tweet from being in contact with [us], so they can express their ideas, whether it’s via a phone call or involvement in a soon-to-be announced design cypher."

As for Ford's celebrated architecture camps for the younger generation, they will still occur around the U.S., but they will be hosted by facilitators whom Ford has trained and contracted to continue his work. "I still appear at some of the camps," Ford explains. "But now the camp has matured to a level where young people who are in the profession can be compensated for their nontraditional knowledge in hip-hop."