Taylor Crawford

March 25, 2019 update: The music video featuring the winning rap from the Hip Hop Architecture Camp Washington, D.C. iteration has been added to the story.

In college, Michael Ford, Assoc. AIA, was introduced to a quote by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Architecture is frozen music.” Years later, the self-proclaimed Hip Hop Architect would put his own spin to those words when he launched the Hip Hop Architecture Camp (HHAC), an intensive weeklong program that aims to introduce middle schoolers to the profession and ultimately shows participants how to do just that—freeze music through architecture.

Aimed in part at increasing diversity among architects, the HHAC travels around the country to teach students about the built environment through popular hip-hop and rap songs. The five-day program, often timed with the local schools' break or summer vacation, is currently sponsored by Autodesk and free for the students.

Last week was Washington, D.C.'s turn to experience the movement when Ford hosted 10 middle-school students from the local region at the District Architecture Center. During the Feb. 18-22 event, sponsored by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), students learned how to analyze popular rap and hip hop lyrics that discuss the impact of the built environment, construct city models inspired by certain verses, and eventually write their own raps to highlight disparities in the profession.

On Monday, the first day of camp, each student selected or was assigned a verse by artists such as Nas, Lupe Fiasco, or Cardi B. Using bars of staples, the students translated words from the verses into individual "structures" of varying heights based on the complexity of the lyrics. (Ford notes the double meaning of bars, which can also refer to bars of a rap.) Long words resulted in tall buildings, while shorter words led to low- and mid-rise structures.

Ford also asked students to base the orientation of each “building” on rhyme schemes—if two consecutive words rhyme, their corresponding buildings should be oriented the same direction, if not, they should be perpendicular to each other. With each word diagrammed as a building, students then assembled a cityscape based on their assigned verse. Finally, though Ford reports that he is not a fan of “bling culture,” the students spray-paint the models in gold and silver, giving them a “museum or gallery quality.” The result was a city model derived directly from a verse, allowing the students to “to hold music in their hands,” Ford says.

Michael Ford holds a gilded city model created by one of the students. This student "remixed" the city by scrambling the order of the words of the verse to create a more dynamic skyline.
Taylor Crawford Michael Ford holds a gilded city model created by one of the students. This student "remixed" the city by scrambling the order of the words of the verse to create a more dynamic skyline.

Next, the students were invited to pick an individual building or site in their model to design in detail. Some created courthouses dedicated to social justice reform; others focused on parks, cafes, or outdoor spaces for community engagement. After working in Tinkercad, Autodesk’s free 3D modeling tool geared toward children, to explore 3D versions of their cities, the students then staged their models in a photo shoot, complete with a white backdrop illuminated with small LEDs.

For Ford, this exercise demonstrates that the canon of culture that informs the built environment could, and should, be as diverse as the people who create it. “If architecture is frozen music, what the hell have we been freezing?” he asks.

As one of the chief organizations reporting statistics on diversity and architecture in the profession, NCARB is acutely aware of the disparity that Ford discusses. As such, NCARB sees programs like the camp as a positive step in encouraging diverse communities to seek careers in architecture. “Improving diversity within the profession can help … [ensure] architects better represent and understand the needs of the communities they serve,” NCARB CEO Michael Armstrong tells ARCHITECT.

Michael Ford holds a model depicting a cafe with outdoor seating completed by one of the students.
Taylor Crawford Michael Ford holds a model depicting a cafe with outdoor seating completed by one of the students.

After two days of studying the verses and lyrics of famous artists—and an unfortunately timed midweek snow day—the students began writing their own verses to perform in a "rap battle." For this particular HHAC iteration in Washington, Ford invited volunteers, including Atlanta-based recording artist Destiny Da Chef, local Moody Nolan architect Churchill Banks III, Assoc. AIA, and architecture students from local universities to work with each camp participant. “We’re helping them write their verses, but we want to make sure we tie in [the concept of] diversity in architecture," Banks says. "Their rhymes ... reflect that."

After each student performed their lyrics, a panel of volunteers selected four winning verses that would be combined with the unique chorus lyrics written by Ford into a song for the whole group to perform. For this particular camp, the chorus was "The 2 percent, that ain't what up, we gotta, build it up,” and referenced the need for more diversity in the profession. (Listen to the complete song here.)

As the week wound down, the students took turns recording the verses at a nearby studio. On the final day, the group recorded a music video outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.

Ford and his work have been garnering attention from the design community and mainstream media in the past few years. In 2017, Ford was invited to speak at the AIA Conference on Architecture and was featured on a Today Show segment. Last year, he was profiled in Rolling Stone and featured in a "Super Soul Sunday" short film on Oprah Winfrey's OWN.

To learn how you can support the Hip Hop Architecture camp, visit its website here.

This story has been updated since its original publication.