Mike Ford

Michael Ford explains how he’s building a movement to reclaim urban design from the failures of the 1970s.

The opening bars of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s seminal 1982 track “The Message” pretty much summarizes an entire suite of policies set up to address urban African-American criminalization and poverty over the past few decades:

Broken glass everywhere

People pissin’ 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, you know I got no choice

Rats in the front room, roaches in the back

Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat

I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far,

‘Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car

In barely half a verse, rapper Melle Mel covers the broken windows theory, the environmental injustice of discriminatory waste facility siting, choice neighborhoods (or, rather, the lack thereof), the War on Drugs, the collusion of cities and banks to keep the poor indebted, and the lack of a strong public transit.

For Mike Ford, the self-described “hip-hop architect” who teaches “design justice” at Madison College in Wisconsin, the song is also a poignant rebuke of architecture—particularly the buildings used to cage low-income black and Latino families in public housing projects. In his recent TED Talk in Madison, Ford noted that the 1520 Sedgwick Avenue Bronx housing tower, officially known as hip-hop’s birthplace, reflected the vision of the famous urban planner Robert Moses, who was in turn influenced by the plans for massive office and residential tower blocks that architect Le Corbusier had created for Paris—a vision that Paris had rejected.

But Moses got Le Corbusier wrong, though—“the worst remix or sample in history,” said Ford at his talk. Moses left out crucial elements of Le Corbusier’s plan, such as the use of translucent glass for the buildings and ground paths that help deliver people safely and efficiently to nearby jobs. Instead, New York’s projects got dark corridors, barred windows, and slabs of bricks and crumbly concrete.

The hip-hop culture that emerged in the 1970s was a response to that failed urban design—what Ford calls “the post-occupancy report on modernism.” His new doctrine of Hip Hop Architecture hopes to build today on that modernist rebuke.

Ford is currently helping lead a design justice movement around that idea. He’s also working as the lead architect for the forthcoming Universal Hip Hop Museum, which he calls “the first representation of hip-hop architecture in the world.” In February, Ford launched a hip-hop architecture youth camp in Madison, Wisconsin, where city youth worked with city planners on the Imagine Madison city comprehensive plan. He hopes to replicate that in other cities this year.

Said Ford at his TED Talk:

Three percent of all architects in America are African Americans. It is my hope that this narrative will provide the catalyst needed to increase that number. And I will create an army of hip hop architects who will look to remedy the injustices faced by people of color at the hands of modernism.

The early hip-hop generation of the 1970s and early 1980s arguably already designed its own organic architectural vision, with its repurposing of crumbling buildings into turntable laboratories, open-air block party venues, makeshift rodas for capoeira movements, and other similar wild-styled quilombos. What Ford is doing now is creating a new language for how traditional architects should approach urban livelihoods. The message in hip hop hasn’t changed much since the days of Grandmaster Flash—but there’s a need for programs like Ford’s to make sure that message doesn’t get lost.

Watch the 18-minute Michael Ford TEDTalk here:

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