Skip to content

Community Impact

Sep 08, 2017

Hip Hop Architecture

"Hip-hop is modernism's post-occupancy evaluation," Michael Ford, Hip Hop Architecture

We recently invited the city of Boston to step outside traditional architecture channels and explore the built environment through a different lens--hip hop. As a long-time supporter of the Boston Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (BosNOMA) and the Boston Society of Architects/AIA (BSA), Shepley Bulfinch was more than inspired to sponsor a two-day lecture and workshop from renowned designer Michael Ford earlier this month.

Known as the Hip Hop Architect, Michael intends to disrupt the AEC world with a mission to increase the number of minorities in architecture and urban planning. To do so, he travels the country speaking to the impact of three interconnected areas--education, practice and media--and their potential to galvanize a new era of practitioners.

"Being a minority in architecture, the challenge has often been having to leave your culture at the door to take on another," he said. "But, when we really look at products and industries, we can see how transformative black culture, for example, has been and still is." Michael pointed not only to widely known hip hop songs like "We Are Hip Hop" by Mos Def, but also Picasso's Black Period which forever changed his aesthetic, as indicators of black culture's relationship with design.

For architects, the message was clear: We need to understand the impact [positive and negative] that we're having on people's lives. ìStorytelling is evoked by the places and spaces we build and the experiences we create," Michael explained. ìIf you don't like what you're hearing from today's [hip hop] artists, focus on changing the environments that inspire our lyrics.î

Michael noted that hip hop gives direct competition to what we as architects are promising. "The ghetto is something that was designed, and it was a failure of urban planning," he said. "Hip hop artists have a lyrical dexterity that we do not, so sometimes the message is passed over or lost."

To help architects [and future practitioners] listen and truly hear that message, Michael works with inner-city youth across the country via the Hip Hop Architecture Camp. The interactive program is typically a week-long camp hosting approximately 40 campers. While in Boston, we were fortunate enough to work with the BGCB Mattapan Teen Center to hold a one-day intensive camp for local teens.

As Michael explained, the goal of the day was for campers to find a voice for design and share ideas. The camp was broken into three tracks: lyrical dexterity, remixing architecture and 16 bars. During track one, campers explored and analyzed different hip hop lyrics to identify connections between culture, places and spaces. In track two, students were introduced to urban planning as they translated specific musical selections into visual formats, first graphically and then in three-dimensional buildings using Legos. From there, Michael asked the teens to build a larger urban setting using records as a base.

"Think about the center of the record as the center of an environment," he said. "Now picture what places are most important to you (parks, non-denominational worship centers, etc.), and what places your community needs regardless of your wants (schools, hospitals, grocery stores, etc.). Based on these lists, students created models from their Lego structures, cotton balls and double-sided tape that explored the different relationships between inner-urban settings. Finally, in track three, campers were asked to describe the environment they had just built using a vessel they already understand--hip hop. Teens had 30 minutes to write their own rap about their city, which each performed live for the entire group.

While the workshop differed slightly from the lecture, both opened Bostonís ears to a different voice that we don't normally hear in architecture discourse. And in the end, the combined two-day experience was not as much about realism and the reflective nature of rap's guttural response to societal issues. It was about using music as a vehicle to understand how design impacts people's lives, and how we as practitioners can improve the human experience by building better environments.