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In the Bronx, a hip-hop architecture camp teaches students about creative placemaking

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Architect Mike Ford fosters interest in urban planning and design through the lens of hip-hop

M.O.D. Media Photography

Perhaps moreso than any other genre of music, hip-hop is shaped by its environment. The genre’s origins date back to one sweaty summer night in the Bronx in 1973, when DJ Kool Herc debuted a new style of spinning records at his sister’s back-to-school party. And as the style became more popular and took off, one thing linked the artists who shaped it: they were often influenced by what they saw in their own neighborhoods.

For example, in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hit “The Message,” the group raps about its South Bronx home: “Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care / I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.”

Though the connection isn’t made explicit, those lyrics, about a part of New York City that came to epitomize urban blight, also underscore the planning decisions that severed the South Bronx from the rest of the city. Even though the song is more than 30 years old, one thing hasn’t changed: Thanks to the lack of diversity within the field of architecture, decisions that impact neighborhoods like the South Bronx are often left in the hands of people who don’t come from them.

But one architect wants to change that: Mike Ford has spent the past decade working to connect the seemingly disparate fields of architecture and hip-hop by highlighting how both seek to address urban and social issues. Ford, who has been tapped to design the forthcoming Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the Bronx, is now using the lens of hip-hop to stimulate an interest in architecture among children in underrepresented neighborhoods.

“Diversity numbers in architecture are horrible,” says Ford. “People are spending a ton of money and have been conducting diversity efforts for years, but we still have less than three percent of architects of color from all that money and all those years.”

Ford decided to take a different approach, launching the Hip-Hop Architecture Camp in 2017. The week-long, intensive program provides its students with exposure to creative placemaking framed by the perspective of hip-hop culture. A sponsorship with software company Autodesk allows the program to be offered to students free of charge. And this spring, Ford brought his camp to the Bronx’s Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, with more than a dozen students partaking.

The camp kicked off with an interactive quiz that brought to light the lesser-known connections between the worlds of hip-hop and design; did you know, for instance, that Ice Cube studied architectural drafting? Or that Pharrell Williams and the late Zaha Hadid collaborated on plans for a prefab house?

A PowerPoint presentation followed, showcasing buildings helmed by architects of color, like David Adjaye’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Then, the students were given a task: They were asked to design model cities, using lyrics from songs like Nas’s “I Know I Can” and Childish Gambino’s “This is America” as inspiration for their designs. Once the foundations were laid out using Lego Architecture kits, they moved on to working with Autodesk Tinkercad software, where they practiced working with 3D design.

Photo by Ameena Walker

Through each phase of the program, Ford encouraged the students to look for ways in which their designs can address community issues. “I think to myself, how do I get the students to not just plop things down,” Ford explains, “but think about the problems we face in our community [that are] embedded in hip-hop lyrics, and then make architecture that eradicates or at least solves some of these issues.”

That line about broken glass from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” led one young girl to design a city that would one would imagine when they hear the lyric—green and yellow Legos scattered about that represent broken bottles and urine. But Ford challenged her further; he asked, “How can we make it so that no one ever has to rap about this again?,” and encouraged her to imagine utilizing “broken glass” for an artistic building facade.

Another student, inspired by a line from Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” crafted a model city with a focus on prison reform. “I saw the Kalief Browder story and I don’t think justice has stood for people like him,” the student explained. “It’s not right that he had to stay in Rikers Island and that the jail is so bad that they have to shut it down.” His model city includes a police station that “represents a better city where people aren’t falsely accused of crimes.”

M.O.D. Media Photography

Ford put a competitive edge on the camp, offering several prizes to students who come up with the best designs. And at the end, they were also given the opportunity to write raps explaining their designs; in the final step, they would create a corresponding music video—filmed in the Bronx—that speaks to the importance of urban planning in communities like their own.

Ford brings in artists like the Bronx’s Grand Wizzard Theodore—credited with inventing the turntable scratching technique widely used by DJs today—and rapper Chino XL to help the kids along the way with their rhymes and designs, while also keeping the turntables going.

“Architecture is all around us—even this turntable is architecture,” says Grand Wizzard Theodore. “Many of these kids haven’t been out of the Bronx or out of New York, so for them to be able to learn stuff about architecture, going to the studio, writing, and just being inspired to do other stuff, we steer them in the right direction.”