Over the years, Michael Ford—a designer based in Wisconsin—has written, lectured, and theorized about Modernism as a catalyst for hip-hop. Now, Ford is at work designing the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx, what he calls the "first representation of hip-hop architecture around the world."
To Ford, the idea of infusing architecture with hip-hop is not only a way to make better buildings, it's a tool to improve the profession's embarrassing track record on diversity. "Hip-hop architecture is a vessel that allows minority students and professionals to make architecture something relevant to them," he says.
According to a 2015 report from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (the 2016 report will be released some time this month), only 4% of registered architects identified as black or African-American. The overall percentage of minority architects has risen in the past few years, but there's still plenty of headway to be made.
Ford believes there are three things that need to happen to improve the numbers: getting people of color interested in learning about architecture at a young age, making the subject compelling enough to maintain interest, and finding ways to get community members involved in the design process so they feel a sense of ownership over architectural projects.
"I think this idea of infusing architecture with hip-hop will definitely bolster the numbers and bolster the opportunity for schools to recruit students," Ford says. "Once students are there, it offers an opportunity for increasing their retention because if there's something relevant, they’ll want to stick around. It also provides an opportunity for immediate contributions from young architects and designers because this is a new style and approach to architecture."
Born and raised in Highland Park, a city within metro Detroit, Ford became interested in design at a young age. He had a knack for drawing and wanted to become an automotive designer. Ford's father once studied to become an interior designer and showed him his architectural drawings, which Ford often scribbled on in secret to contribute his own mark on his father's work. ("My remixes weren't so good," he says.) When he was a student at Cass Tech—a high school with a reputation for educating some of the world's best creatives like Harry Bertoia, Niels Diffrient, Charles Pollock, Alice Coltrane, Diana Ross, and Jack White—he took a few architecture classes and was attracted to its permanence. "There’s always a new car coming out, but architecture lasts longer," he says.
When Ford entered architecture school, he struggled with the relevance challenge. "Everything I learned was about people who did not look like me and who were not from the same areas and communities I was in," he says. "I needed something to make architecture relevant to me."
Ford's graduating thesis from the University of Detroit Mercy was titled "Cultural Innovation: A Hip-Hop Inspired Architecture." In it, he ties Le Corbusier—the Swiss architect who's the most influential modern architect—to the start of hip-hop culture. In 1925, Le Corbusier proposed the Plan Voisin, which called for the demolition of downtown Paris and the construction of vertical cities—high-rise buildings set among greenery. While the French denounced his plan, Robert Moses—New York's midcentury master builder—eventually adopted the "Tower in the Park" model for public housing and as a place to relocate the people he displaced after razing entire neighborhoods to build the controversial Cross-Bronx Expressway.
"Le Corbusier created the unfortunate spaces that created hip-hop culture," Ford says. "His critics in Paris said he was crazy. They said that if people were to inhabit those spaces, those monotonous towers, it will create a culture that rages against the machine[/url] and a culture that will be the exact opposite of monotony . . . I call these buildings the precursors to hip-hop."
Ford noticed that while 1520 Sedgwick Avenue—the residential high-rise where DJ Kool Herc, aka "The Father of Hip-Hop," threw parties in the 1970s—was a historic address, it wasn't adequately researched from an architectural perspective. Ford also points to "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and "The Breaks" by Curtis Blow as two songs that speak to the connection between environments and music.
"Grandmaster Flash is talking about a housing project, about living in squalor," Ford says. "Architects thought they were producing the 'best' architecture that could liberate people, but they actually produced architecture that was stifling the growth of communities. I call those songs 'hip-hop's post-occupancy report of Modernism.' They’re from people who lived in the community—it’s unfiltered, it’s direct, and it’s telling you about the failures of architecture and planning that did not think to consult the end users of their architecture."
Approaching it from another angle, Ford also researched Le Corbusier's obsession with jazz and black culture. He had an affair with the famous black singer and dancer Josephine Baker and once used jazz as a metaphor for his field, saying, "If architecture were at the point reached by jazz, it would be an incredible spectacle."
Ford argued that if Le Corbusier could be so moved and influenced by the popular music of his era, jazz, why shouldn't architects riff on hip-hop, the dominant music of today?
"Hip-hop architecture is something that's relevant [to architectural scholarship] because one of our most celebrated architects talked about the possibilities where black culture would merge with architecture," Ford says. "He wondered about it, so it’s about time we start to solve some of the 'ponders' he put out there."
Ford has dedicated the bulk of his work to exploring the impact of Modernism on hip-hop, but he's beginning to flip the equation by seeing how hip-hop can influence modern design. For example, he's working with local fashion designer Al Wissam to reupholster famous chair designs, like Arne Jacobsen's Swan chair. "I try to hit Modernism over the head as much as possible with hip-hop," Ford says. And in doing so, he hopes to make the field relevant to people who might not otherwise care about the likes of Jacobsen and Le Corb.
The Universal Hip Hop Museum is the ultimate embodiment of architecture's relevance to a diverse audience. Located in the Bronx Borough Courthouse—a Beaux Arts structure built in 1905 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, just five years after it was shuttered—the museum will feature interactive exhibitions about hip-hop's history, from its roots in a housing project just a couple miles away to its global reach. Founders Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Melle Mel, and Kurtis Blow—DJs and musicians who are all fathers of hip-hop—want to give the genre the museum it deserves.
"It’s the museum’s mission to activate a space, take something old, and turn it into something new," Ford says. "This is the essence of hip-hop."
While the museum is in its nascent stages, Ford and the museum's directors want to make it a space that's community-centered, from how it's conceived to how it will be experienced. They invited a group of people including musicians, high school and college students, and kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs, to participate in a multi-day collaborative design exercise to come up with ideas for the space. Using Tinkercad, a free online 3D design program by Autodesk, the group turned their ideas into prototypes in a few days.
"It was training people from being consumers to producers," Ford says. "It’s important because they’ve been excluded from the design process for a long time. Architecture is a very exclusive field to be in. It costs a lot of money to be an architect. Getting the education, buying the software—it’s a pricey profession. New technology is allowing more people to have the ability to create. This is important in a community like the South Bronx, which was totally reshaped by someone outside the community with very limited input from the community during the design process."
The installations within the museum also riff on the idea of technology helping people become designers themselves. The museum considered having a full-scale subway car that anyone could spray paint but then decided to turn it into a digital canvas that people at the museum—and from anywhere in the world—could play with. The UHHM is also developing an app that lets users manipulate the facade (which could not be physically changed due to landmarks restriction) by projecting their own artwork onto the edifice. The museum is billing it as a large canvas that's giving undiscovered artists a platform to exhibit their work. Other interactive spaces include DJ stations that visitors can try. Traditional museum fare, such as photographs and ephemera, will also be displayed.
While Ford hopes the museum will become a magnet for people who are interested in hip-hop, he's especially excited about the public plaza outside of the structure that will be revamped as part of the project. The design is based on the effect of drops hitting water, and it's a metaphor about the ripple effect of hip-hop. "I call it 'The Corner.' It’s about giving the space back to the public, and it's for people who may not have the means to come into the museum," Ford says. "The museum celebrates elements that were small at one time but created these ripples around the world."
The challenge of bringing more diverse voices into architecture certainly isn't solved by linking it to pop culture. There are myriad systemic hurdles—education, hiring practices, and the way the profession itself is structured. But if Ford has his way, the museum will inspire people who might not otherwise pursue architecture as a profession.