Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
As work on the museum progresses, its architects and designers must find ways to work a raucous history into a very staid building.
The Universal Hip Hop Museum, which we’ve been following closely since plans for it were announced, now has an architect and a few art collections nailed down. But it’s still waiting for a proper edifice.
The way the museum plans are unfolding, its founders hope to give it a home in the Bronx—the birthplace of hip hop. But it will also live in other formats, including ones that can travel. The UHHM team is looking to secure the Old Bronx County Courthouse for the museum’s physical home. However, the “Hip Hop Architect” Mike Ford is also exploring mobile manifestations of the museum—including converting an 18-wheeler truck so that it can unfold into a traveling exhibit, like a hip hop Optimus Prime.
In October, Ford and fellow designer Bryan Lee will present their vision for the museum’s design at SXSW Eco. The hope is that their presentation, on the “cultural and colloquial implications of architecture in the built environment through the lens of Hip Hop and Design Justice,” will draw more resources to make it all happen. So far, the team has drawn support from a panoply of high-profile hip hop artists, including the legendary rapper Rakim, who recently signed on to help promote the UHHM.
"This is the same as what we were doing with music in the park back in the day,” Rakim tells CityLab, “taking the history that surrounded us in everyday life, breaking it down and creating something new to express ourselves. We used music—the classics like James Brown, Carla Thomas, George Clinton. [Ford] uses bricks, mortar, lighting, and open space—but it's all about communicating how our culture is developing while remembering and paying homage to the past."
However, Ford and crew can’t actually tamper with any of the brick and mortar on the Bronx County Courthouse because of its historic landmark status. This means that the museum’s designers can’t modify any part of the courthouse’s exterior shell. They still hope to use the building as the UHHM’s home base, and have been holding events there to show how digital lighting technology can transform the facade without disturbing the physical structure. A special screening of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Netflix series on the birth of hip hop, “The Get Down,” was held there on July 25, with clips of the show projected onto the courthouse walls.
Ford tells CityLab that there are similar plans in place for digitally converting the courthouse into “the largest canvas in the Bronx for everyday youth, community members, and artists to broadcast their work.”
Below are a few of the first-draft renderings of the museum to show what that canvas might look like, along with visions of exhibits inside of the courthouse. They were created with the help of the UHHM’s tech partner, Autodesk, based on ideas shared by a group of urban planners, architects, hip hop artists, and Bronx residents during a “design cypher” held in April.