From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five rapping in their 1982 classic “New York New York” about “Staring at a skyscraper reaching into heaven / When over in the ghetto I’m livin’ in hell,” to Jay Z rhyming on 2017’s “Marcy Me” that “I’m from Marcy Houses, where the boys die by the thousand,” hip-hop has always had an intimate relationship with the architecture of cities. But what if the low-income youth of color who live in the ghettos and housing projects of Gotham — or Los Angeles or Detroit — had the technical know-how to redesign their hometowns and create buildings that serve their communities?
That’s the goal of Michael Ford, a Detroit-born architectural designer and founder of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, “a one-week intensive experience, designed to introduce under represented youth to architecture, urban planning, creative place making and economic development through the lens of hip-hop culture.”
This summer, the free camp, which is sponsored by software company Autodesk, is giving roughly 250 10- to 17-year-old students in six cities (Atlanta, Austin, the Bronx, Detroit, Houston, and Los Angeles) technically sound and culturally relevant lessons on architecture and urban planning.
“Ultimately, places and spaces determine our culture, determine how we interact, how we live, and even our health conditions,” says Ford. “If we don’t have someone sitting at the table, advocating for black and brown communities, oftentimes they are overlooked.”
Like so many STEM fields, early exposure to specific software, hardware, and equipment can open the door to students continuing to study and thrive in a career. While the study of architecture typically still involves the use of physical models and pencil and paper drawings, mastering computer-aided design, or CAD, software is key. Ford says Autodesk’s Tinkercad software was the perfect fit for teaching kids at the camps because there is a very low learning curve.
Tinkercad’s website boasts a simple three-step instruction guide to introduce the software: “Place, Adjust, Combine.” Because Tinkercad is a web-based platform, students can continue to create long after the week of camp ends. That’s critical for youth who become inspired to study architecture in college because they might need to submit a portfolio of projects.
The projects that participants create at the camp aren’t your typical modeling assignments either. The first “ice-breaker” project students work on captures the mashup and remixing styles at the core of hip-hop culture. Ford says students use lyrical dexterity analysis to find patterns in the syllables and rhythms from songs like Nas’ 2002 classic “I Can.”
Next the students turn those patterns into two-dimensional graphs. From there, they map three-dimensional skylines that align with their original two-dimensional plotting. Individually, each step teaches skills of transformation and structure, says Ford, but combined, the project makes poetry concrete. If Nas’ inspiring words can create a city skyline, what potential might be scaffolded through the students’ voices?
“This is a safe space where everyone can bring their personal life experiences to the table,” Ford says. “Everyone is trying to solve a different solution. [They’re] just using hip hop to do it.”
Once students are more familiar with architectural basics, they begin working on one of their biggest projects: building their dream block. Inspired by Scarface’s 2002 song “My Block,” the students create blocks for the city they live in. They’re able to design buildings that solve problems and meet the needs of their communities.
From August 7-11 at the upcoming camp in Detroit, the students’ block project will focus on Highland Park, a tiny 11,000-resident, majority-black town that’s surrounded by the rest of the Motor City. Nearly half of residents live below the poverty line according to the U.S. Census. Highland Park Community High School closed its doors in 2015, and students in the city have to attend high school in Detroit. Ford says each attendee at the Hip Hop Architecture camp will use Tinkercad to create an ultimate education campus as part of the camp’s master neighborhood plan. Perhaps some of the students’ dreams could influence the planning boards. In all the camps across different cities, the dream blocks come together to create cities built on a hip-hop community, where each of the student’s strengths and insights bind together to make the neighborhood strong.
Some participants arrive at camp with curiosity about architecture while others are drawn in by the hip-hop premise, but by the end, they all leave with new technical skills in 3D modeling, increased personal confidence, and an understanding of their potential to be architects of change.
Ford says he hopes his camps will inspire students to pursue architecture and urban planning, but he knows “not everyone will follow that path.” Still, he believes three-dimensional modeling and printing will become a valuable technical skill in the future, and the more a student knows about 3D modeling now, the more prepared they will be. To that end, he’s taking the camp concept and expanding it into two separate 13-week after-school programs — one in Oakland and one in Richmond, California — that will engage nearly 100 more students.
“I think this idea of becoming a maker is right there next to becoming an architect,” says Ford. “Becoming the ultimate entrepreneur right now is being able to produce your own products [so] I believe I’m also giving them the skills to become producers or makers instead of just consumers, which to me is the ultimate nod to hip hop.”
In an interview in July, Jay Z said of his new track “The Story of O.J.” that it is “really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward.” The Hip Hop Architecture Camp certainly seems like a promising way to empower kids to do what Jigga is talking about. After all, if hip-hop artists represent makers who creatively utilize the few resources available to make things happen, giving students the tools, both literally and metaphorically, enables them to see — and create — their world in a whole new dimension.