Watch: "Michael Ford and Hip-hop Architecture" | 3:13

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Built in verse: diversifying architecture through hip-hop
Matthew Pozel
Senior Multimedia Writer & Producer, Public Affairs Kauffman Foundation
Matthew Long
Senior Video Producer, Public Affairs Kauffman Foundation

Built in verse

Diversifying architecture through hip-hop

A proud son of Detroit, Michael Ford grew up wanting to build something. It wasn't the cars we drive that captured his imagination. It was the places we live.

Studying architecture gave Ford the opportunity to create new environments and leave a lasting legacy. But to build something new, he needed a fresh source of inspiration. He found it in hip-hop. Entering graduate school at the University of Detroit Mercy, and on a dare from his best friend, he proposed a graduate thesis titled "Hip-Hop Inspired Architecture and Design." Ever since, he's been part of a movement to explain how the two art forms intersect to design communities along the contours and rhythms of hip-hop culture. 

Now known as the Hip-Hop Architect, Ford works to recast communities where expressways have divided neighborhoods, and reclaim landscapes scarred by failed public housing projects and neglect.

Our environment has a profound impact on the way that we live. Architecture has challenged the ability of people of color to live in certain communities."
—Michael Ford

"Our environment has a profound impact on the way that we live. Architecture has challenged the ability of people of color to live in certain communities." Ford said. "Music has been, for African-Americans, the voice of the voiceless. The message embedded within our music is telling us about the history of our cities and how they were replaced with horrific architecture. I think the biggest thing that I want to do with hip-hop architecture is solve some of the issues that are talked about within the music."

Ford runs BrandNu Design to focus on community engagement, pre-development strategies, and capital campaigns for new developments. He also teaches architecture at Madison College in Wisconsin, and is the co-founder of The Urban Arts Collective, where he created and conducts week-long Hip-Hop Architecture Camps, using hip-hop culture as a catalyst to introduce underserved youth to architecture, urban planning, and design. During the week-long Hip-Hop Architecture Camps students reimagine lyrics and language as guides to renewing places, and transform rhyme schemes into cityscapes.

"My mission is to teach youth how to extract those messages and become better designers, because embedded within those songs are clues to what can make our environments better," Ford said.

In May, Ford came to Kansas City to join students, educators, business leaders, advocates, innovators, and critics to rethink education and shape a collective vision for the future. Designed to prompt fresh ideas, Rethink Ed  showcased existing bright spots, highlighting innovations rooted in history and those inspired by fresh perspectives.

When Ford talks with students, he mixes the stories of pioneering black architects with those of contemporary rap artists including Ice Cube and Chuck D, who studied architecture and design, and Pharrell Williams, who has written about it. He reminds them that Nas told his hip hop fans in the song I Can, that they can be whomever they want to be, including an architect. The stories connect young women and men to their culture and they just might inspire them to pursue careers in architecture and urban planning. As he seeks to reshape cities, over time, Ford hopes to play a part in mending the profound imbalance in his profession. According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, African-Americans account for about two percent of all working architects, and black women make up only a fraction of a percent of the field, perhaps as low as 0.2 percent.

Ford and a small group of professional colleagues are establishing the field by sharing essays, journal articles and research that examine the historical connections between hip-hop and architecture, and they are beginning to practice a new type of architecture influenced by the cultural movement. For Ford, hip-hop architecture and the people who are defining it can make an immediate contribution into unexplored territory. "It's giving them ownership," he said. "This can be their stamp on a profession."

As plans are drawn for new environments, the approach is drawing attention. Ford calls it the gravitational pull of hip-hop. He has delivered the keynote at both the American Institute of Architects National Conference on Architecture and the SXSW Eco Conference in Austin, Texas. His work has been showcased on National Public Radio, The Today Show, and ESPN, and featured in the pages of Rolling Stone, Vibe, and Architect magazine.

"The message for architecture is that these are real people's lives that we are impacting. We don't just draw pretty buildings," Ford said. "What drew me to architecture was the ability to create something that will be seen by people even when you're gone."

 

Video transcript

Michael Ford:
 
What drew me to architecture was the ability to create something that will be seen by people even when you're gone.
 
My name is Michael Ford, also known as The Hip-Hop Architect.
 
The first reaction is, "What is hip-hop architecture?" It's two things that are seemingly unrelated, right?
 
Most people are excited to learn that the music they've been listening to for decades now is actually a critique of the everyday environment that we spend time in.
 
We always knew that culture drove architectural styles. If you think about Catholicism and cathedrals. It's modernism, classical architecture, art deco. Architecture is always inspired by the culture. So we said let's just make up a hip-hop inspired architecture.
 
The foundational elements of hip-hop, are break-dancing, it's the MC, the DJ, graffiti, and knowledge. Turning hip-hop into architecture is based on those five elements. So,  if we can understand those elements, such as the structural stability of break-dancing. If this b-Boy can get into a freeze and can hold this position, there must be some structural stability about that position that now we can understand and now scale that up and start to create furniture or buildings.
 
Look at items like graffiti. Graffiti artists have always drawn on this flat surface, they always imply that they're dimension by having drop shadows or bevels and always wanted to come off that 2D surface, but now can we arm graffiti artists with the ability to do things like 3D modeling and have them create some of those same illusions, architecturally?
 
My hope here is let people know the similarities between architecture and hip-hop, but also let them see exactly how I've been getting kids across the country engaged with the topic. I teach kids about math through hip-hop. They learn about Shakespeare and the creation of new words by reading hip-hop lyrics.
Today, not only am I working with youth, I'm now working with hip-hop artists, as well.
 
There's a structure to architecture. There's a structure to music.
 
If we can freeze your rhyme schemes, we can now take that same structure and the treatment that you have for your craft and writing, and we can make architecture that has never been seen before. It also lets individuals who are just purely into rap see how that art form can be translated into new areas of study.
 
Our environment has a profound impact on the way that we live. I think the biggest thing that I want to do with hip-hop architecture is solve some of the issues that are talked about within the music.
 
My mission is to teach youth how to extract those messages and become better designers because embedded within those songs are clues to what can make our environments better.

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