If challenged to list more than six African-American architects or designers, could you do it? Of those you can name, how many of them changed the practice of architecture or shaped a community with a revolutionary approach? If Michael Ford isn’t on your list of black designers changing our industry, keep reading.
Ford, co-founder of the Urban Arts Collective and self-proclaimed hip-hop architect, was born and raised in Detroit. Motown boasts architectural marvels by Daniel Burnham, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and Isamu Noguchi; it has also groomed award-winning hip-hop artists including Eminem, Big Sean, and J Dilla. But if you ask Ford, Detroit’s premier hip-hop artists—or those from any American city—didn’t hone their craft by spending time around groundbreaking architecture. Their contributions to hip-hop culture, and the development of the cultural movement, were the results of deplorable physical conditions that moved its inhabitants to create a new art form in diametric response to their environment.
For Ford, and many other cultural scholars, hip-hop isn’t an isolated musical genre, a fashion style, or a variety of dance. “Hip-hop is a culture curated mostly by African-American and Latino youth as a response to challenging economic, political, and physical environments,” Ford explains. His thesis pairs these physical environments with Robert Moses’ inverted application of Le Corbusier’s principles for the City of Tomorrow. Instead of glass prisms surrounded by green space for Paris, the Bronx got brick towers in-filled with concrete, divided by the Cross Bronx Expressway that siphoned residents from the island of Manhattan. Those who could afford relocation—upper- and middle-class residents—fled the borough leaving the economically disenfranchised residents in isolation. Moses’ implementation of displacement is what Ford calls “the worst remix in history.” And so it is no coincidence that the Bronx is the widely agreed-upon birthplace of hip-hop.
“I’m trying to show architects, planners, and designers that our profession is more than brick and mortar. We create incubators of culture,” Ford explains. “Using hip-hop I can demonstrate that to our profession—and even if someone is not a fan of hip-hop, or simply doesn’t like the culture—I challenge him or her to understand why it exists, and how our profession necessitated its birth through bad planning and housing practices.”
In the words of three-time Grammy Award-winning rapper T.I. in an interview with The Daily Show's Trevor Noah:
“Hip-hop traditionally has always been a reflection of the environment that the artist had to endure before he made it to where he was. So, if you want to change the content of the music, change the environment of the artist and he won't have such negative things to say."
Since 2013, Ford has been sharing his hip-hop architecture platform across the country at colleges and universities, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the University of Pennsylvania to Carnegie Mellon University. All his lectures are delivered with a live DJ, and in Pittsburgh, the inventor of the scratch, Grandwizzard Theodore, was his featured guest. In addition to speaking at the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) conference, he delivered a keynote at the 2017 AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando, Fla., and keynoted the SXSW Eco (South by Southwest) conference in 2016.
“I always include live music when I lecture, and we highlight lyrics that show the audience how architecture has such a huge impact on the lives of people who use our spaces,” Ford explains. “If you don’t hear me, then attendees can, at least, hear the music. And even though some of these songs are nearly 30 years old, the message hasn’t changed.”
Where I'm From
Approximately a-year-and-a-half ago, Ford was one of the founders of the Urban Arts Collective, the organization through which he organizes the Hip Hop Architecture Camps across the United States.
“I’ve been interested in providing solutions to some of the challenges faced by African-Americans in architecture school my entire career, and I feel this is a start. It’s the same story when you talk to other African-Americans who went through architecture school: It’s rare that we have professors who are African-American,” Ford says. “Through four-to-six years in school, we often have no black role models. Even around campus, it’s a challenge to discover other architects, designers, and planners who look like where you came from.”
Citing curriculums dominated by the Western European world, he further elaborates on the challenges students of color often face when they ask to explore architecture before the Greeks and the Romans. Professionals share stories of being discouraged, or asked to justify the value of their request. For Ford, this is not a malicious claim against the academic community. As outlined in The Aesthetics of Equity by Craig Wilkins (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), instructors who studied the same curriculum they teach may not be open to new ideas because they’ve never been presented before. And being challenged by a student eliminates their level of expertise in that space, so the student-as-cultural-expert can be poorly received.
“We struggle to find African-American talent, and Mike has taken that problem to task to create a pipeline,” says Rainy Hamilton Jr., FAIA, founder of Hamilton Anderson Associates in Detroit and Ford’s first boss after architecture school. “I always thought music and architecture were greatly related, and to see Mike find this expression that appeals to children and youngsters, and to use that as a lure to get them to the table for conversation, is brilliant. That’s the magic in it.”
The Hip Hop Architecture Camp is designed to address those systemic issues. “If I prepare students early, and show them how fun and accessible architecture can be, hopefully they become high school teachers or professors to increase the rates of African-Americans in architecture,” Ford says.
In the camps, Ford uses lyrics to connect students. Connecting through shared knowledge based on emotion—i.e., a mutual love of hip-hop—a connection to architecture is tangible. In "I Can" by Nas, the rapper speaks directly to issues missing in architectural curricula, from the Greeks and Romans learning to build, to the pyramids. The song lyrics and call-and-response chorus also reinforce a primary tenet of the camp; positive manifestations of the future.
B-boys and girls, listen up
You can be anything in the world, in God we trust
An architect, a doctor, maybe an actress
But nothing comes easy, it takes much practice
I know I can
Be what I wanna be
If I work hard at it
I’ll be where I wanna be
The one-week camp curriculum is designed around lectures and workshops Ford has delivered across the country. During the “golden era” of hip-hop, the rapper, or emcee, was often considered the voice of the voiceless. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Biz Markie, N.W.A., and early Snoop Dogg told the stories of their communities, while groups like the Sugarhill Gang were imagining a better future for themselves.
“In 'Rapper’s Delight' we hear, ‘I got a color TV, so I can see,’ but at that time no one [in the group] actually owned one,” Ford says. “They were imagining this life that they wanted.” For campers, the idea of manifestation gives them permission to imagine, and introduces the tools that bring those ideas to fruition. This is why part of the camp includes the production of their own musical track and music video. After they leave camp, they can still hear what they want to see on a regular basis.
Perhaps the most direct manifestation of positive reinforcement is the very first camp activity: To create a new name for yourself for the week, based on something you see yourself becoming.
“So, I’m not Mike, I’m The Hip Hop Architect.”
One design solution Ford promotes is a new process for programming spaces, which he coined the “design cypher.” The process changes the language from charrette for equitable access among communities that are typically the unconsulted and nonpaying end users of spaces. He applied this inclusive model in early meetings for the forthcoming Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx, which also connected him with Autodesk, the sponsor of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp.
“If you inspire kids through the things they care about—be it hip-hop or Minecraft—it’s a great way to inspire kids and the next generation of architects, makers, and designers. And that’s what Mike is doing,” says Sarah O’Rourke, youth audience strategist for Autodesk. “That design cypher was the first realization of everyone coming together for the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, really driven by Mike’s long-term vision, and we wanted to help him achieve that.”
Campers in the Hip Hop Architecture program experience a curriculum that Ford has shared through countless other workshops. After students affirm their new identities, they begin a weeklong project driven by one of their favorite rap songs. With a lyrical analysis powered via rapgenius.com, students diagram the syllables of each line in their song on graph paper and create a “skyline” based in structure. Once grids are completed, students add a third dimension by constructing their skylines from Legos. Then, they discuss their work. Ford has embedded teachable moments through each exercise to expose students to an architectural vocabulary including form, cluster, volume, grid, rhythm, repetition, and linear. Once the camp tackles physical models, students move to Autodesk’s Tinkercad to build digital models of their cityscape, then program and 3D-print their final city/song project.
Ford breaks up the classwork with a variety of guests including graffiti artists, emcees, break dancers, and hip-hop producers. He also leverages his NOMA and AIA networks to bring black architects into the camp and spend time with the students. For example, the Los Angeles architecture guest was Karen Hudson, the granddaughter of 2017 AIA Gold Medal–winning African-American architect Paul Revere Williams. As one of the few black architects in Jim Crow–era Los Angeles, Williams was not allowed to sit next to his clients to review drawings; he had to sit across from them at all times. Williams was unimpeded by this, and taught himself to draw upside down and communicate seamlessly with his clients. At the Los Angeles camp, Hudson gives campers an upside-down drawing lesson passed down from her grandfather.
In addition to Los Angeles, Hip Hop Architecture Camps will be hosted in Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, New York, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas, for students ages 10 to 17. Because the camp is free to students, thanks to support from Autodesk, an application process is required while remaining accessible to kids in underserved communities.
Through a partnership with After-School All-Stars, which is also involved in this summer’s camp series, this fall will see the pilot of two 13-week hip-hop architecture programs at San Francisco middle schools. There is potential to expand to 350 schools across the country in 2018.
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