Highland Park native Michael Ford brings ‘Hip Hop Inspired Architecture’ exhibit to Detroit

Could Hip-Hop Inspire the Next Great Era of Design?

The grandfather of hip-hop was white, bald, and often wore a bow tie.

According to professional architect and Highland Park native Michael Ford, the earliest traces of hip-hop came long before the 1970s when DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaattaa were dropping beats on Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx.

According to Ford, who now resides in Madison, Wisconsin, the seeds of what we now call hip-hop subconsciously sprouted inside the brain of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. Those familiar with Le Corbusier might not know him as the grandfather of hip-hop, but instead as a master of modern architecture.

"In the late 1920s, Le Corbusier created a plan for Paris," Ford says. "Its most celebrated portion was called 'Towers in the Park.' Basically, these tall, monolithic structures, which would be for the working class."

Think unremarkable, high-rise apartment buildings. Think low-income housing projects.

"Long story short, the people of Paris despised the idea, but there were planners in America that [embraced it]."

One of those planners was Robert Moses, another white guy with a bow tie.

"Robert Moses adopted Le Corbusier's plan for Paris, as he constructed the Cross Bronx Expressway in the South Bronx, which was slated to displace a large amount of residents. Moses looked to keep those residents adjacent to their former homes by building high-density housing towers," Ford says. "And those very towers that Robert Moses constructed became the birthplace of hip-hop. The officially recognized birthplace of hip-hop is 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, which is a low-income, high-density adaptation of Le Corbusier's plan.

"Many of hip-hop's most prominent artists were born, raised, and perfected their crafts in those very same housing projects. Hip-hop was a result of the economical, political, and sociological deprivations instituted by the housing projects across America."

Ford's theory on the birth of hip-hop is the product of years of research and academic discussion. In fact, as a graduate student at the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Architecture, Ford's master's thesis was titled "Cultural Innovation: Hip-Hop Inspired Architecture."

In the years since he completed his thesis, Ford's ideas on the merging of hip-hop and architecture have only gotten bigger. He's spoken in front of large crowds of both professional architects and lovers of hip-hop culture.

Now Ford is coming home. Later this month, he'll return to his alma mater to kick off a lecture series on hip-hop inspired architecture. Then he's taking his act on the road.

Ford says that his ideas about hip-hop and architecture have evolved over the years, and in the beginning, he had quite a few critics, namely other architects.

"When I first started the research," he says, "I never talked about the history of architecture. I never talked about any artists or architects to link this profession to hip-hop. Basically I started off saying, 'I want to make hip-hop architecture.' So I took things like graffiti — and I totally lost people. There were people in the hip-hop generation that totally grasped on to what I was doing, but there were the architectural professionals who were lost."

So Ford hit the books. He did the research. He galvanized his theories and ideas with facts and framed them with history. Then he started to get through to his peers.

"That's where the idea of linking Le Corbusier with hip-hop came about," he says. "It was a strategy to call Le Corbusier the 'Grandfather of Hip-Hop,' and it was a strategy to pique the interest of hip-hoppers — they may know the told origins of hip-hop, but they've probably never heard the name Le Corbusier. And it was also to pique the interest of architectural practitioners because they know all about Le Corbusier. When I switched to that story, it really grasped the attention of [professional architects]."

Bryan C. Lee Jr., an architectural designer with Eskew Dumez Ripple in New Orleans, is impressed not only with Ford's work, but with the conversations his work is fostering regarding architecture in minority communities.

"I think it's huge," Lee says. "When we talk about what culture means to a space, we talk about resiliency in communities, sustainability in communities — those are all a factor of culture. If you understand how to design a space that people care about, then they will take care of it. That is all relative in understanding how cultures work with spaces. That research is all entirely, especially with our country's, kind of, avoidance of any racial or cultural conversation at large, it makes it very difficult to have that type of architectural conversation, as well."

Ford is making headway in starting those conversations. Earlier this summer he was invited to Chicago by the National Organization of Minority Architects to present an exhibit on hip-hop architecture.

"That was kind of the ultimate show of respect, in my opinion, for the research that I've been doing in the architecture community," Ford says.

The former UDM student says that while his project started and evolved from his love of hip-hop music and culture, it was also the product of a disturbing observation.

"The idea didn't come about until I noticed the lack of — I noticed that there were a lot of underrepresented professionals in the architecture arena," Ford says. "I noticed there was a big drought when it came to minorities."

According to the American Institute of Architects, just 10 percent of its members are considered ethnic minorities.

"I just tried to find out the reason why," Ford says. "In my third or fourth year of [college], I started thinking, 'Why is there such a low number?' And I discovered there was very little research that goes into minority practitioners. So I started to do my own. I wanted it not only to be interesting, but to be something I could contribute."

Ford says his exhibition will surprise people.

"I think people should expect to see something they definitely do not expect to see," he says. "When you talk about hip-hop, unfortunately, people expect to hear misogynist hip-hop music, they expect to see break dancing. What I'm looking to show is that hip-hop is a credible source, worthy of academic research. Because I grew up as part of the hip-hop generation and received a decent amount of education, I'm able to look at hip-hop from a very academic stance."

Ford also says that the lecture and exhibition will be accessible to all.

"People who think they know what hip-hop is — they can come here and learn how hip-hop became what it is today. People who have no idea what hip-hop is — they're definitely going to learn what it's all about. It's a very cross-disciplinary approach to this topic. It's going to be suitable for [anybody] and everybody, whether you're an architect, a lover of hip-hop, a lover of art — it's for all ages and backgrounds." — mt

Michael Ford's lecture "Hip-Hop Inspired Architecture," takes place at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture. It will be held in the Genevieve Fisk Loranger Exhibition Center, inside the Warren Loranger Building on UDM's McNichols Campus. Ford's exhibit will be on display in the same space from Sept. 22-26 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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