The old, shuttered Bronx Borough Courthouse was once something like the Goree Island of New York City: A point of no return for many black and Latino youth who, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, were detained in its chambers before being sent off to feed the beast of mass incarceration. The young and restless Bronx denizens who were able to evade the courthouse’s rapture would go on to birth the streets-based culture of hip hop—a lifestyle of art, dance, and music that continues to hold tremendous social and artistic influence today.
Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that some of the culture’s leading conservationists are taking over that Bronx courthouse to create a museum dedicated to hip hop—at least, that’s the hope. The building’s owner, Henry Weinstein, is currently working with the Universal Hip Hop Museum’s board of trustees to see if it’s feasible to eventually convert the century-old courthouse into a cultural arts center. One of the UHHM’s founding directors, rapper Kurtis Blow, recruited Mike Ford, a professor who teaches about the intersections of hip hop and architecture at Wisconsin’s Madison College, to lead the museum’s design.
Last month, Ford helped host a “design cypher”—a public comments forum of sorts that brought Bronx community members, students, entrepreneurs, and hip hop artists together to envision how the Bronx courthouse could be converted into the UHHM. The ideas that came out of that three-day session were plentiful, ranging from a walk of fame consisting of gold records (instead of stars) to hologram reenactments of the old DJ-sparked park jams in the front plaza of the building. One major complication: Since the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the museum’s designers won’t be able to modify the courthouse’s exterior. So for Ford, this concept will take quite a bit of creative tinkering.
Ford spoke to CityLab about where the project is headed, and about the importance of reclaiming a building once notorious for locking up youth of color.
How does one go about translating hip hop culture into the language of architecture?
One of the things I’ve done is looking at B-boy and breakdancing, taking something like “the freeze”—where you hold your pose while dancing—and examining how to incorporate that into design. Understand that the freeze is a critical position in [dance] battling—if I can hold that pose, I’m killing you. I call it the structural stability of [breakdancing]. If we can understand that, and then re-create it and scale it up, maybe we could create something architecturally that represents breaking.
Many emcees have rapped about living with bad architecture and living in bad environments. Hip hop is basically the post-occupancy report of modernism [More on this from Ford’s blog]. The biggest thing I take from the emcees is that no one is listening to the communities. That has always been a failure when they’re not actively engaged in the architectural process, and the post-occupancy report proves it. I’m working with community members and hip hop artists to see what style of architecture can best represent every element of hip hop. And also, what’s the best way of listening to hip hop in a museum? Is it a space with high ceilings or low ceilings? Is it concrete, where your voice reverberates? What is the architectural experience that allows the story of the emcee to be told?
If we can understand or really hear the messages from these emcees, you’d realize they have the best post-occupancy report—meaning, their perspectives are coming from the people who’ve had to live with the architectural and urban design decisions made last century. And some of the people behind those decisions are celebrated as the best architects, but they created some of the worst living conditions.
Can you give a few examples of the architects and designs you mean?
People like [Robert] Moses and Le Corbusier—the creation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and all of those public housing towers. Corbusier wanted to build these towers in Paris, but the French media came out against him, saying the people would live to rebel against the system he was proposing. He responded saying architecture didn’t have that kind of power. But lo and behold, Moses takes Corbusier’s plan and uses it in New York City, and then hip hop culture is born in the Bronx on Sedgewick Avenue, in one of those very high-rise towers. You can argue that hip hop is a culture responding to the monotony of those building designs.
Do you feel the need to acknowledge the giants of urbanism like Moses and Jane Jacobs in thinking about the Universal Hip Hop Museum?
Yes and no. I think you do have to mention those individuals, but not for the reasons they are traditionally talked about—not as being the pioneers, or the know-it-alls or the standard-bearers of urbanism. Jane Jacobs is someone I see as an ally, for her constant fighting with Moses. But when you think about people like Moses or Le Corbusier and other big-name urban-design visionaries, it’s best to bring up the mistakes that they made and show how those mistakes have resulted in some huge issues.
When I bring up hip hop and architecture, most people say they are two totally unrelated things and shouldn’t be talked about in the same space. But people really need to understand that architects create more than just bricks and mortar; we create incubators of culture. So, if we don't take the time to understand the people we’re building for, we’ll create something that, 40 years from now, will make people hate that culture and will try to wash their hands of it.
Why is place important, in terms of the location of this museum?
It’s being built in the Melrose community of South Bronx, the most impoverished community in the state of New York. So this museum can be some type of anchor for development in the community. There are some concerns that community members have—and we have the same—about gentrification. We’re pondering the question of how to create a museum that’s open to the lifestyle of the Bronx community.
One of the big things the museum is looking to do is provide not just construction jobs, but non-construction jobs to allow people to make money from the project and combat this idea of gentrification. Gentrification happens when the people living in the community don’t have access to higher sources of revenue. So with the museum coming, we definitely want to give people jobs, [even] working with curators to create the museum or its exhibits. These are the people who have the most in-depth knowledge. A lot of them, unfortunately, have not had the opportunity to go to college. But they have lived and breathed hip hop.
During the design cypher, we had people learning how they can take a sketch and turn it into a 3D model. We had the software company Autodesk come out to do free 3D printing of their models. So people made Universal Hip Hop Museum keychains—just a simple idea, but this could be something that can be scaled up so that the community can produce items that can be sold in the museum’s gift shop. This is all directly related to hip hop, where people have been altering technology to produce something so that they’re not just consumers.
What is the significance of using the Bronx courthouse building?
One of interesting things about the building itself, this is where the Bronx officially became a borough—the court case heard that made the Bronx a borough happened in this building. But more interestingly, there was a guy from Soulsonic Force who talked at the design cypher about being arrested as a kid and brought to the courthouse. The jail was in a basement and he talked about being beaten at the courthouse in the basement and then released. He felt that it was empowering that hip hop was reclaiming this space that was once a roadblock, turning it into something that can benefit the community. That was really powerful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.