Michael Ford is a black American Architect who has named himself "Hip Hop Architect". Ford uses the art of hip hop music and architecture as a way to connect with ethnic minority and underrepresented communities in America to help reach their architectural potential. Michael ford created the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, where he facilitates a workshop in which young people engage with various activities which fuse hip hop and architecture. This week I got to speak with Michael Ford, we delved into how his aspirations for Hip Hop Architecture became a reality, the importance of helping uplift those who are underrepresented in architecture, as well as some wise words for you to take with you.
| How did you become introduced to architecture and when you were studying what was it like in your institutions? You are from Detroit?
I got introduced to architecture as a young man. I worked in Detroit and I worked to design cars, in the car capital of the world. I went to a summer programme for designing cars and when I was there I learnt that every year a new car is going to come out, the car will constantly change, I wasn’t a big fan of that. The lady who was teaching the course told me about architecture, she said when you design something it’s going to be around for a long time, potentially longer than me and you. So that was the first introduction to architecture if you will.
| Your graduate thesis was titled “Hip Hop Inspired Architecture and Design”. This tells me you had an early set on dream of your idea. You then formed Hip Hop Architecture Camp, how did this come about?
So my graduate thesis started off as a joke. The way that it works here is you finish 4 years of school and move into your masters year, and during that summer before we started school for our masters, we spent the entire summer studying something for our thesis. And I was studying sky scrapers, I was calling it Liveable Skyscrapers – sky scrapers that people could live in and never need to go outside. And I got bored by the end of the summer.
My friend said well you should do something with music and architecture. We always used rap songs in our presentations, we would play rap in the background rather than cheesy lift music while watching an animation. Picking songs that had certain lyrics. But yeah he was like you should do that for your entire thesis. And the first day of school when you stand up and read what you've been working on for the entire summer, I totally disregarded that. I said my thesis is going to be about hip hop and architecture, so my professor kind of looks at me like that’s not what we have been working on!
| So then after this came the Camp?
Yeah so the Hip Hop Architecture Camp came about as I was teaching at a college here in Madison Wisconsin, during the summer I try and get involved with young people. And I guess to make a long story short – working at a college you get invited to a lot of meetings that are going on in the city. I got invited to one of the city planning meetings, they were talking about how the city is going to be built, or what they are going to focus on for the next 20 years. They did these meetings in multiple places around the city, and each one I went to I noticed there were very few black people and young folks.
So if they are talking about what they are going to do for the city in 20 years from now, and the average age of people that were there was like early 50s... you add 20 years they are 70 years old by then. But I said you bring someone here who’s thirteen or fourteen and they get to see the progression from these decisions that are being made. They're now 33 35 years old when this plan is complete and they are now in the prime of their life, so that was the starting point. I started running programmes in the summer, it started as something small and then blew up!
| The camp entails an intensive week programme, could you tell us a little about what happens?
It’s three major components to the camp -
The first one is to analyse music, so we have young people print off the lyrics from their favourite songs and we try to find where that artist might give a critique about their city, their neighbourhood or country. Then we have the young people make cities, or designs based on those critiques.
The second thing is a music writing session, we bring in hip hop artist and professional athletes and we have them work with our young people to write their own verse on how they want their city to be or what they want their project to be.
The third and last part is a rap battle, the kids rap against each other to see who has the best verse right.. But their verse is all about architecture and critiquing their city. We pick the top maybe five or six and take them to a recording studio to record the song, and then the next day we shoot a music video.
We drive around the city and turn them into hip hop architecture stars.
| Do you have a sort of end goal of what you want the young participants to come away from the camp with? What is the goal of the camp?
The goal is to expose more young people to architecture. The second goal is for them to know they can impact the communities they live in, whether they become an architect or not they should see design as something that really impacts their day to day life. They should be as engaged as possible, these city planning meetings are making decisions about your neighbourhood and you don’t have to be an architect to go to them.
The last thing that I want people to take away from the camp is - use your voice. Young black and brown kids across the globe have a very creative way in getting people to listen to them, like hip hop music. It is something that started in the U.S and has expanded across the entire globe and it is a young culture that demands attention. So how can you use that voice to advocate for better places and spaces in our communities. That’s why we do the mix tapes, to let them say what they want.
| So in relation to the mixtapes. How do you bridge the fun aspect and learning aspect to ensure they truly recognise their potential in possibly becoming an architect?
So there used to be a term that was used a lot it’s called edutainment, so it’s not entertainment and its not education its edutainment. If you think about things like sesame street, its entertaining but its education! That’s what the hip hop architecture camp is. Even as a public speaker, what I tell people a lot is when you speak people are going to remember 10 percent of what you say, 90 percent of how you make them feel. So sometimes, not just in architecture but any introductory programme can have information overload, the finite details are not what’s needed at an introduction, you want people to be excited. You give them just enough information that they want to dig in more.
So for us its about the way we straddle the line in making sure they learn something by putting architects, designers, urban planners in front of them, who look like them...
| I think what you’re achieving is great. However, some people may argue that the idea of the project is very niche what would you say to that?
I haven’t heard anyone say that, but I have heard people say that hip hop is a fad, it will eventually go away. It's temporary. It's almost 50 years old now. So when bringing it to architecture I think one of the biggest critiques is - does it belong in architecture? Is it really a culture that can translate into architecture, that is some of the early critiques I had. But I was able to fight off those critiques by showing how black culture has influenced every major art movement in the world, just about. So from Picasso and cubism. Picasso created cubism based on African art, so he didn’t become the Picasso we know today until he brought black art into his process.
Architects like Le Corbusier, he wanted to bring black music into architecture, we don’t learn about this in architecture school.
Corbusier spent a great deal of his life trying to understand black music, so when people say it’s a fad, or does it really belong in architecture? I tell them – the architect you talk about all the time he wanted to do this over 100 years ago but he just didn’t understand black music. Now we have young people coming into architecture who grew up on hip hop and they are the best people to combine the two together.
| What inspires you to keep wanting to influence the younger generation?
What keeps me going especially with the hip hop architecture camp is that it’s new music every day. It’s a new voice and they’re expressing something new about their communities. It’s always a new challenged to respond to. And as I go to different countries, hip hop totally changes, to see how a Palestinian might use hip hop as a way to speak out against a war, its not just what’s going on in their block or community, they are talking about a global war that’s happening. Just being able to connect with different people and seeing the music being used as a way to speak out about their injustices keeps me going. Because if you are speaking out and highlighting a problem that means there’s a solution out there that somebody hasn’t found, hopefully we can help our young people start to find those solutions.
| In the UK we have nothing that I am aware of like this and we do have a strong rap culture. Do you think your company would ever branch out to London?
Yeah we are in conversations about that now. So stay tuned…
| Can you give the POC in Architecture community some words of wisdom or advice in following through with the aspiration of becoming an architect?... Given it is such a long and expensive educational journey.
I would say that the biggest piece of encouragement would be your neighbourhoods, your cities, your country, needs you. We have experienced space primarily through the lens of white males. The spaces that we have inhabited, for the most part has come from their imaginations and their journeys. So, what you’re doing by entering this profession is giving people an opportunity to experience space in ways that most people have not done before.
Just as black people, unapologetically, we are the most creative people on the face of the earth. At one point we made the most creative and complex architecture...if you think about the pyramids. People till this day are trying to figure out how it was built, why it was built, and how is it so mathematically accurate when we did not have the tools then. So, we were master builders with amazing imaginations.
That would be my advice. Our communities need us. If this profession can be better I think that the world can be better.
To find out more about the Hip Hop Architecture Camp head over to their website: http://www.hiphoparchitecture.com/
If you found Michael Ford insightful you may want to check out his TED Talk which you can find here: