Kanye West wants to be an architect. Pharrell Williams wants to be an architect. Even Ice Cube has a degree in architectural drafting.
The distance between architecture and hip-hop isn’t as far as some might think. In fact, Madison architectural designer and Madison College professor Mike Ford says that a negative example of architecture inadvertently created hip-hop. When New York City built high-rise public housing projects, the buildings became incubators for a defiant new art form.
But now Ford is involved in a much more positive connection between architecture and hip-hop. He’s the architect for the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx, scheduled to open in 2018. Instead of a top-down design, Ford has brought together minority architects, hip-hop artists, community members and even Madison students together to envision what the museum should be.
Ford talked about how he got interested in being an architect, how the museum is being designed, and how Madison can use architecture and urban planning to create a more positive environment for all its citizens.
How did you get involved with the museum?
That’s an interesting story. It’s a small world. I travel around doing lectures, and these lectures are all about merging culture and architecture. Which is not a new thing. Culture always drives architecture. When I was in school, I said I would merge hip-hop culture with architecture.
I moved from Detroit to Wisconsin, and learned that the UW-Madison has the only fully funded scholarship program for people to come and study hip-hop arts, First Wave. I met (director) Willie Ney. And Willie Ney becomes a board member for the Universal Hip Hop Museum. And he learns they don’t have an architect yet, so it’s been all about collecting memorabilia to that point. So boom, he calls Bob Corbett at Madison College where I was teaching, and Bob said I was the perfect guy with this.
So I went out there and created some concepts for them in a not traditional way.
I had to stick to my guns, because I’d been going around to all these colleges talking about how architects need to work differently with communities. They need more input from communities, instead of just saying “Here, come to this. We made it.”
So we did this three-day event called a design cypher. In hip-hop they get together and have these cyphers, these circles, with rap battles and dance battles. We said we’d have a design cypher. The museum invited some hip-hop artists around the country, we invited some First Wave students, some Madison College students, and I invited a lot of minority architects. And for three days, it was just coming up with "What should this museum be?" And after three days, we took those concepts and created the first imagery for the museum.
Tell me about your students.
Before we went to New York, we had a mini design cypher at Madison College. So we invited architecture students and students from the Black Student Union — two groups who never see each other. We showed them an image of the building and said “What do we need to do to this space to make it hip-hop?” They went off for four hours.
We wanted to take some of those students to New York. We took students Allison Eicher, she’s an architecture student, and Caleb Bell, representing the Black Student Union. They went and they helped facilitate.
Compare their experience to what it was like for you as a college student.
The retention rate for minority students in architecture school is very low. When I was in school, when we started there was 12 of us, and when we got to grad school there was three of us left.
(So I thought) we’ve got to do something that makes us want to stay. For my thesis, on my first day of school, I was fully into (the idea of) hip-hop and architecture. Had no idea what it was going to be, but I thought if I was going to study something for a whole year, it has to be something that makes me want to come here every day. It gives me a little bit of a — not an edge over my professor — but it gives me something relevant to bring to the table. I’m not just the pupil.
The lack of diversity forced me into hip-hop. And for the students now, I’m trying to expose them to diversity as much as possible, so they don’t have to feel that way.
What can Madison do in terms of architecture or urban planning to improve diversity and nurture hip-hop in the community?
Looking at some of the issues that plague Madison right now — homelessness is one of the big things. It’s almost like “space justice,” with some of the new ticketing that I’m hearing about for people sitting on public planters, as a strategy to combat homelessness. As an urban planner, you’re creating spaces that invite impromptu action. You build a bench at a certain height, you may not create it as a seat, but it is a seat. When you have laws that go against the principles of urban planning, I don’t know where that takes urban planning. Do you not design benches? Do you put spikes on everything, like they’ve done in San Francisco?
For Madison, what needs to happen is not top-down decisions. It’s actively engaging with the community, it’s actively engaging with the homeless, and trying to create strategies that will mitigate issues. If store owners are having issues, let’s bring store owners to the table, bring the homeless to the table and figure how we can help the less fortunate people through conscious design.
Conscious design decisions can really impact the world. It created hip-hop.
Why did you want to be an architect?
Growing up in Detroit, I always wanted to be a car designer. But after learning about how hard it was to fully design a car, and then the car is hot for a year and the next version comes out? Architecture lasted longer. And my dad wanted to be an interior designer, so seeing his drawings motivated me to switch to something that’s more permanent than a car.
When I went to high school, I went to a college prep high school. Coming into ninth grade, we started architecture classes. This teacher, her name was Carol Baker, she would say cheesy things like “You can build the world.” Now I find myself saying that to people too, but I find it believable now, especially when I talk to minority students.
I tell them, "Your community is untapped by your hands, or by people with your thought patterns. Your community hasn’t been built by someone who looks like you. Your community is waiting for you. It needs you.”
Her cheesy stories of “You can build the world,” I actually feel it now, working on this museum. This museum can represent more than just African-Americans. It’s Asians, it’s Latinos. There’s nowhere you can go in the world that doesn’t have hip-hop culture. So I feel like I’m creating something not just for me, not just for these hip-hop artists, but creating something that can allow everybody around the world to find out the history of it, and also have a platform to keep moving it positively into the future.