Focus on Leadership: The hip hop architect Michael Ford unites design and hip hop to inspire a new generation of architects – June 2023

Interview by Kemp Harr

Michael Ford grew up in a musical family in Detroit and set his sights on a career in architecture at an early age, ultimately attending the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture and building a career in the field.

Using his success as a catalyst, Ford then set out to build a different type of structure-a program through which underrepresented youth are introduced to architecture, urban planning and design. Ford’s Hip Hop Architecture Camp has now welcomed 3,200 students across three countries.

The keynote speaker at this year’s NeoCon, Ford will speak to hip hop’s power to influence both the next generation of architects and, through them, the landscape of our world.

Q: When did you decide to become an architect, and what drove that decision?
I knew I wanted to become an architect at the age of 11. Growing up in Detroit, like many others, I was initially exploring opportunities to work in the auto industry, with my original goal being to become a car designer. It was during this time that I had the chance to attend a summer camp focused on designing cars, which was an exciting experience for me. However, as I delved deeper into the world of automotive design, I discovered that a new car model is released each year, rendering previous designs obsolete. This realization was disheartening because I wanted my creations to have a lasting impact, something that people could experience and appreciate for a long time.

During this period of self-reflection, I had a conversation with one of my camp instructors, who suggested that I explore architecture as an alternative path. She explained that, unlike cars, buildings have a permanence to them and can be designed to stand the test of time. Furthermore, architecture offers the opportunity to design spaces that people don’t have to pay to experience, unlike cars that come with a price tag.

Intrigued by this idea, I delved into the world of architecture and began researching and learning more about the field. The more I learned, the more I became captivated by the power of architecture to shape our environment, impact communities and improve lives. The idea of creating spaces that could inspire and serve people for generations resonated deeply with me.

Q: What challenges did you face in pursuing that career dream?
One of the biggest challenges for African Americans pursuing a career in architecture is the lack of representation. Less than 2% of architects in the United States are African American. It’s important to have role models who look like you. As the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Q: Who are your mentors, and what did they teach you?
While I have many professional and academic mentors who have helped me create and develop my practice, the most influential mentors I have are my parents. They exemplify resilience, dedication and making this world a better place. The most important thing my parents taught me is the power of I am. At a young age, they taught me that words are powerful and whatever I put behind I am is my reality.

My dad introduced me to playing music, his love for drawing and his profession, construction. My career reflects a combination of his talents.

Q: Do you have a favorite design project?
My favorite design project is not a building, it’s the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, a project I have been designing for over two decades. It stands out because it is a unique approach to not only increasing diversity in architecture and design but also as a source for young people to find and establish their unique approach to design, which sets them apart from their peers.

My favorite architectural project is undoubtedly the Hip Hop Museum in The Bronx, which opens in April 2025. This project is unique because it allowed me to collaborate with hip hop artists around the globe to tell the story of a living, breathing, ever-evolving cultural phenomenon.

Q: How important is the flooring choice on a given design project? Do you have a favorite type of flooring?
Flooring plays a crucial role in establishing the foundation and grounding the design of a space. Just like the beats and rhythms in hip hop music lay the foundation for creative expression, the choice of flooring sets the stage for the overall ambiance and functionality of a space. While I don’t have a specific favorite type of flooring, I believe in selecting flooring that enhances the overall design concept and meets the functional requirements of the space.

Q: Tell us briefly about the aha moment that led you to focus on the Hip Hop camp?
The realization that led me to focus on developing the Hip Hop Architecture Camp came through a combination of experiences. It started as my graduate thesis at the University of Detroit Mercy and grew through lectures and workshops. However, the turning point was the unexpected death of my son, MJ3, just moments before my wife gave birth. I had already planned to teach him about hip hop and architecture, and this tragedy transformed that plan into a vision for children around the world.

Q: What is the camp’s mission?
The Hip Hop Architecture Camp uses hip hop culture as a catalyst to introduce underrepresented youth to architecture, urban planning and design. Hip hop has historically given a voice to the voiceless, and design has the power to shape and uplift communities. Together, we empower youth to create innovative designs for their communities.

Q: It seems that the core of your camp is about converting lyrics into structures; tell us more about how that works.
During the camp, we analyze popular music and music that we create ourselves during the program. We, then, extract the rhythms, patterns, textures, and structures unique to hip hop and convert them into architectural elements such as rhythms, patterns, textures and spatial structures.

Q: You’ve partnered with Autodesk. Can you explain that partnership?
Autodesk has been a fantastic partner to us. They were the first partners to help us launch the camp in eight cities. They have sponsored a series of camps, provided access to Tinkercad, and provided us with access to their facilities for curriculum development and professional workshops.

Q: I know you’ve partnered with Gensler to help offset the participation cost. What other brands are you working with?
We’ve worked with a number of partners in A&D, technology and academia, including MillerKnoll and, now, Shaw Contract.

Q: The core of this program is blending music with structural design. What role has music played in your life, and did you have any formal music training?
Music has always been a significant part of my life. I grew up playing the trumpet in elementary and middle school. My family had our own jazz band with my dad playing guitar, my uncle on bass and neighbors on drums and keyboard. Music surrounded me from an early age. I am featured in a documentary titled, “Mixtape Trilogy, Stories of the Power of Music.”

Q: Can you share a few success stories about the impact the camp has made on its participants?
Over 3,200 kids have participated in Hip Hop Architecture Camps around the world. We have provided youth with internships with architecture firms to further explore their newfound passion. We provide an annual $10,000 scholarship to a graduating senior headed to college to pursue a degree in architecture, planning or interior design. In addition to introducing K-12 youth to architecture, we offer travel stipends to graduate students and young professionals, allowing them to travel globally to explore architecture and instruct camps.

Q: The college scholarship idea sounds great. How many of those have been awarded?
This year we are awarding our third college scholarship to a deserving student!

Q: Please share some stats on the number of students this program has impacted.
By the end of 2022, we had received over 5,800 student applications for 2,800 camp slots over the past six years. We have worked with more than 356 volunteers, had 25 celebrity guests and conducted camps in 30 cities across three countries. The most important number is zero, as our program is 100% free for participants.

Q: What do you do to unwind?
With a three-year-old at home, unwinding is a luxury. However, for fun, we enjoy game nights, watching movies and traveling.

Q: What is your core message to the audience at NeoCon this year?
During our keynote at NeoCon, Lupe Fiasco and I will challenge the traditional perceptions of design and unveil a new source of inspiration for a rising generation of design professionals.

My core message to the audience at NeoCon is simple; hip hop culture has transcended boundaries, defied norms and revolutionized the world of art, music and fashion. Let’s celebrate 50 years of hip hop and welcome a new wave of design professionals who are deeply influenced by this vibrant culture.

It’s time to hop.

Copyright 2023 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc.