Architecture Cities City Culture Hip Hop

Hip Hop As Architectural Criticism

The Hip Hop Architecture Camp

The Hip Hop Architecture Camp is hoping to change the future of American cities by using the popular music as a means to teach underprivileged kids about architecture and urban planning.

As the field of architecture aspires to be more inclusive, there are those within the profession actively pursuing diversity with actions rather than platitudes. One such individual is architectural designer Michael Ford and his The Hip Hop Architecture Camp™. Ford’s goal is to raise awareness about architecture among underprivileged American youth between the ages of 10 to 17 by using hip hop culture. 

Since early 2017, Ford, who is also an instructor at Madison College in Wisconsin, has been holding these camps in cities across America, encouraging their interest in design. The camps are organised by the Urban Arts Collective, an organisation that Ford co-founded with two other African-American design professionals, Tiffany Brown and Eryk Christian. As a joint-venture with Autodesk, each camp explores the relationships between hip hop culture and the built environment.

Why hip hop? As a musical genre that began in the public housing projects of late 20th century New York, hip hop has transcended cultures, becoming a global force in music, fashion, and design. Ford realised how far hip hop had come, on a trip to Poland in the early 2000s, when he was a grad student at University of Detroit Mercy. Although Warsaw and the Bronx could not be more culturally different from each other, hip hop was resonating with the local youth of the Polish capital. Along with his European trip, he also was bother by the lack of diversity in the architects that he was learning about in school, most of which did not reflect people who look like him. As a result, he based his masters thesis on his personal experiences, and called it “Cultural Innovation: A Hip-Hop Inspired Architecture.” 

After graduation, Ford took his research and has been traveling the world explaining how architecture indirectly created hip hop, and how the music can be used as a way to make better architecture for people who live in underprivileged communities. Others, such as Sekou Cooke and Craig L. Wilkins, have also made similar connections between architecture and hip hop.

“Hip hop architecture, is a critique of modernism,” said Ford during a TEDx talk in March of 2017. “It’s a critique of the style of architecture that birthed the culture.” Culture comes as a result of human relationships, which are themselves influenced by architecture. The birth of hip hop culture was no different.

The Hip Hop Architecture Camp

According to Ford, the utopian ideals expressed by Le Corbusier’s in his book, City of Tomorrow, and the negative social implications that might have resulted in their implementation, are indirectly tied to the creation of hip hop culture. For when the infamous mid-20th century chief builder of New York, Robert Moses, applied those ideals to America’s largest city, he did so haphazardly. Using hip hop vernacular, Ford called Moses’ application of Le Corbusier’s concept of towers-in-a-park, “the worst remix or sample in history.” Moses’ banal brick towers, interspersed within placeless courtyards and patches of grass, became the aesthetic of the American inner city.

“Hip hop architecture brings design accountability,” declares Ford in his talk. “Le Corbusier was a great architect, but his architecture disproportionally affected people of colour. Hip hop brings accountability to Le Corbusier. I often call him the forefather of hip hop culture.”

Ford sees the lack of public consultation with underprivileged communities, and the subsequent planning, designing, and policies that went into developing the first public housing projects, as a recipe fraught with failure. The inhabitants of those developments, felt isolated and trapped by circumstances imposed on them. These poorly designed spaces caused the inhabitants to respond in various ways, including through music. Hip hop became a form of architectural criticism, and the voice of the voiceless, rhyming loud and clear that modern architecture had failed.

“Hip hop is modernism’s post-occupancy report,” Ford says. “Song after song is filled with counterpoints and commentary about modern architecture.”

Another example, Snoop Dogg in his song, “Life In The Projects” said:

“ain’t no trees,

the grass ain’t green,

and when I say it’s all bad,

you know what I mean.”

Jay-Z, who grew up in the Marcy Projects of Brooklyn, described that development in a song as “shards of glass replaced those blades of grass.”

Ford uses the critiques of modernism found within hip hop music, particularly early versions of the genre, as a starting point for getting the kids interested in architecture during the week-long camps. Kids use the syllables and rhyme patterns from their favourite hip hop songs, then represent the lyrics with bar graphs. Next, the graphs are used to create Lego models. The work is presented to the camp, architecture school style, for the kids to explain the main ideas behind their project, and take questions from leaders or peers. Using Autodesk Tinkercad, the kids create digital versions of their Lego models, which are then 3D-printed.

African-American architects are brought in to speak to the kids, but also hip-hop producers, graffiti artists, DJs, and break dancers. It is an unusual mix, but one that captures the interests of the kids. For example, studying the poses performed by break dancers can inspire architectural forms and furniture design. The style of drawing from graffiti artists can be used to inform a new type of architectural representation and physical form.

Along with model building, each student learns hand sketching, working with scales, and how to visualise in three dimensions. At the end of each camp, attendees create their own hip hop songs as a group, which form the basis for understanding architecture and urban planning concepts. This video created at the Los Angeles Hip Hop Architecture camp in June of 2017 is an example of how the kids are asked to express what they have learned.

With the enthusiasm that the kids from city to city are showing at the Hip hop architecture camps, the hope is that a majority will be encouraged to pursue a career in a design profession, as architects, urban planners, engineers, professors, and critics. This is how people of diverse backgrounds will have a say in how their communities are designed and built.

Ford’s Urban Arts Collective colleague, Tiffany Brown, is a powerful testimony for kids at the camps. She grew up in a poorly designed housing project in Detroit. After obtaining a masters in architecture, and an MBA, she had the opportunity to be involved in the demolition of the same housing projects that she grew up in. Now she’s leading an initiative called 400 Forward, encouraging young African-American girls to become architects.

Rather than just waiting for the next generation of architects from diverse backgrounds to emerge, Ford brought together architects, urban planners, scholars, students, community members, politicians, and hip hop pioneers to create ideas for the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx. “When you combine hip hop culture and architecture, you get design cypher,” explains Ford in his talk. “This is the new process that brings many people to together so that ideas can flow.” The $45 million US project, which is scheduled to be opened in 2022, will be funded by a developer, a collection of private investors, Microsoft, and Ford’s partners in the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, Autodesk.

Hip hop architecture is more than Kanye West standing on a studio desk at the Harvard School of Design, declaring his appreciation for architecture. It is more than handing out scholarships. It is a call to action to get people of diverse backgrounds to join the profession and design better spaces for society. 

Words: Phil Roberts

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