From its early roots in the Bronx to its current status as a worldwide cultural movement, hip-hop has never lost its street-level sensibility. When writing songs, rappers and lyricists trade in the currency of credibility, constantly dropping the names of street corners, city neighborhoods, even specific buildings and housing projects to connect listeners with the urban environment.
Hip-hop is often about place. And, according to architect Michael Ford, it is place—often poorly designed, underfunded, and cut off from the rest of the city through bad urban planning and structural racism—that birthed the genre. Ford, who has been tapped to design the forthcoming Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the Bronx, has helped coin the term “hip-hop architecture,” popularizing the concept as a lens for looking at the intersections of culture and the built environment.
But it’s not just about looking back at the ways urban planning and housing policy created the environment for new forms of music; it’s how the ethics and ethos of hip-hop can help inspire new solutions for designing our cities.
“I’m looking at the intersection of architecture and hip-hop,” Ford says. “I use hip-hop to look at the impact architecture has had on the community, and the impact my profession has made. Architecture has shaped communities, but we can go back and reclaim them, and reconnect those that have been lost to things such as freeways.”
Ford, who wrote a thesis about the subject, Cultural Innovation, Hip-Hop Inspired Architecture and Design, while studying at the University of Detroit Mercy in 2005, believes this is a perfect example of the power of narrative. Historical discourse often pushes the idea that the “black ghetto” exists because of the cultural behaviors of its occupants. Exploring and exposing the conscious and subconscious efforts of past members of his profession to shape these spaces, and the effects those decisions have, can inform and inspire more community-oriented design in the future.
The Beginning: Moses, Le Corbusier, and Structural Racism
Ford can talk all day about hip-hop, how it started in the Bronx and at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue. But ask him who the godfather of hip-hop is, and he won’t say Grandmaster Flash or Kool Herc. He says it’s Le Corbusier. Of course, he doesn’t mean that literally. But the famed French modernist did create the architectural blueprints for the buildings that would become the cradle of the art form.
“This is not a means of taking credit away from the brothers and sisters who actually created hip-hop, but a method to make a sustaining narrative which links the built environment and hip-hop culture based on historical facts,” he said during a presentation in Austin. “And, to be honest, it’s a subtle jab at modernism and those celebrated as the standard bearers of our profession.”
Corbusier’s famous towers-in-the-park concept—a series of soaring high-rises interspersed with parks—aimed to bring “democracy and equality through the built environment.” He thought “good” or “enlightened” buildings would create good and enlightened citizens. Officials in Paris “thought his idea were crazy,” and never implemented Corbusier’s plans.
New York, and its infamous master-builder Robert Moses, had no such reservations, replicating parts of Corbusier’s plan as part of the massive slum-clearance and housing project programs he oversaw in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But, in what Ford calls “a terrible early example of sampling,” Moses borrowed part of Corbusier’s plan—the tall, narrow towers, and dense living conditions—but didn’t include all the amenities and park spaces Corbusier envisioned. The housing projects he created, an architectural sample, then became the standard for public housing across the country.
The construction of these dense towers, and the concurrent freeway construction that cut neighborhoods off from one another, created the spaces that birthed the different elements of hip-hop; DJing, MCing, B-boying, and graffiti. Areas choked of private spaces and arts funding, where creative youth congregated in public parks, towers and basketball courts, and created a cross-pollination of culture.
“People criticized Corbusier’s plans, saying they would ‘create a culture that begs for creativity,’” says Ford. “I call it a prediction of hip-hop culture, almost 50 years before it was born.
These towers had perverse impacts on their residents, says Ford. The physical environments had psychological effects. And it wasn’t just the landscape; social priorities and lack of funding for education or the arts also had a huge impact.
The Project: The Hip-Hop Museum
While Ford and others have published essays and research looking at the historical connections between hip-hop and architecture, he’s also trying to practice a new type of architecture influenced by the cultural movement.
The most high-profile example is his Universal Hip-Hop Museum, a forthcoming cultural institution in the Bronx that not only seeks to share the artform, be inspired by it as well. Instead of a traditional design brief and community feedback loop, the museum’s look was designed in part by a “cypher,” a term that references a freestyle rap battle, and has the support of rap legends such as Kurtis Blow and the Sugar Hill Gang.
Set to open in 2019 or 2020, the museum will also embody hip-hop’s focus on community. Thanks to funding from Microsoft, the initiative will also build a portable museum that, starting later this year, will travel between major cities in the years leading up to the permanent museum’s opening. A truck-like portable space, which Ford has nicknamed “Optimus Prime,” will travel to Detroit, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, not only allowing fans to visit the museum in their hometown, but also to contribute. In a hip-hop spin on StoryCorps, visitors will be able to add their stories, including text and images, and tag them to a specific place, creating a map of hip-hop’s influence across different parts of the country.
“We wanted to figure out a way to make the museum accessible to people around the country,” says Ford. “It’s like mapping a phenomenon. It allows the pioneers of hip hop to tell their own story, it allows architects, designers and urban planners to fuse their culture with their practice and it allows the community to effectively engage in the design process of developments in their neighborhood. ”
The Vision: Architecture that reflects the community
Ford has described hip-hop as the “post-occupancy report of Modernism.” Referencing the term architects, designers and engineers typically use for their account of mistakes and success after a project is finished, Ford feels the lyrics and language of hip-hop, and the visceral descriptions of the urban environment, can teach his profession important lessons.
Creating spaces for and by the community matters. Using hip-hop as a connector, narrative, and frame of reference can get more people, especially people of color, engaged in shaping and designing their environments, a form of self-empowerment that seems perfectly aligned with the genre’s message. Only three percent of architects in the United States are African-American, says Ford. He wants to see more kids follow President Obama’s suggestion and become literal architects of change.
“Will hip-hop architecture allow minority students and young practitioners to make immediate contributions to the field of architecture, instantly raising the visibility of minority practitioners as a whole? “ says Ford. “I hope that the hip-hop generation will champion this new vernacular, and rely on our love for hip-hop coupled with our architectural knowledge, to build our communities and increase the number of minority practitioners.”
The Music: A hip-hop playlist about the environment and architecture
Consider this the playlist to Ford’s work. Curbed asked the architect to name some of the songs he feels showcase the relationship between hip-hop and architecture; we included a few below, which he recently played during a lecture.
KRS One – R.E.A.L.I.T.Y. – “Rhymes Equal Actual Life in The Youth”
“I used this song to describe hip-hop lyrics’ are reflections of real life in urban communities. If you want to hear a critique of the environment from which the music is made, listen to the music.”
Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, “The Message”
“This song describes the urban reality of urban renewal.”
Snoop Dog, “Life in The Projects”
“Describes the dismal environments resulting from the modernist vision, Towers in a Park. The monotonous superblocks failed to provide the lush green environments once envisioned by Le Corbusier.”
Ain’t no trees, the grass ain’t green, And when I say it’s all bad, you know what I mean
Wu-Tang Clan, “S.O.S.”
“Wu-Tang member Street Life’s contribution to ‘S.O.S” reveals a deep frustration and level of tension between public housing authorities, architects and the tenants about the cyclical fostering and implementation of injustices upon African-American communities.
Street chronicle, wise words by the abdominal
High honorable, rap quotable phenomenal
Seniority kid, I speak for the minority
Ghetto poverty f*** the housing authority
The West Coast All-Stars, “We’re All in the Same Gang”
“In the song “We’re All in The Same Gang”, produced by Dr. Dre in 1990, featuring the top hip hop artists and rappers from the West Coast. Shock G eludes to John B Calhoun’s research during his verse below. Sociologist John B. Calhoun studied the behavior of lab mice under conditions of overcrowding and controlled resources. People eventually made parallels between the activities of his study subjects to humans, some predicting that overcrowding was in the future for the human race, and based on his research, violence, amongst other things, was an inevitable part of that future if we don’t change the way we design our cities.
I’m in a rage. Oh Yea? Why is that G?
Because other races, they say we act like rats in a cage.
I tried to argue, but check it, every night in the news, We prove them suckers right and I got the blues
Nas, “I Can”
“Nas told your hip hoppers they can be whomever they want to be, including an architect.”
Be, B-Boys and girls, listen up
You can be anything in the world, in God we trust
An architect, doctor, maybe an actress
But nothing comes easy it takes much practice