Accessible and Authentic Architecture is Equitable Architecure

I’ve been delayed in publishing new articles as this past week has kept ALL CAPS HQ in Minneapolis pretty sleepless and occupied trying to keep calm and help neighbors. While our neighborhoods are heavily damaged, even completely gone along some blocks, I’ve been uplifted by how much everyone’s thoughts refuse to turn away from the unjust death of George Floyd that preceded all the destruction.

When I restarted the ALL CAPS blog a few months back, one of the things I wanted to write about was my experience working the “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture” exhibit organized by AIA Minnesota last year at Springboard for the Arts near downtown St. Paul. This time last year, the exhibit was in full swing, and I’ve been struggling to figure out just how I wanted to write about my experiences.

In the midst of trying to get through some pretty rough nights this week, I saw a tweet from Hip-Hop Architecture practitioner Michael Ford that instantly brought into focus what I needed to write about from my experience with the exhibit…

Michael’s tweet emphasizes an important disconnect and reluctance within the architecture community that even publicly-traded corporations and their CEOs now embrace. My impression is that while architects who focus on social responsibility get some attention here and there, they’re mostly on the periphery of our profession. I don’t need to go into where our focus lies in this article, you can open any architecture magazine and see that.

Our profession’s focus is reflected in how everyone outside of the profession views us. The characterizations people most commonly make about architects tell us everything about how we’re perceived, and we all know these common associations: aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable, hard to understand. If you step out of your architect’s shoes (I wanted to make a joke about the kind of shoes here — easy target — but I stopped myself 😆) and honestly assess how our profession comes off to everyone else, especially those in minority and socially-marginalized communities, we’re more often than not distant and disconnected, both in the makeup of our workforce and in a lot of the work we churn out. All of that can be interpreted as being inauthentic, which brings me back around to Hip-Hop Architecture…

“I lost touch with reality,
Now my personality
Is an unwanted commodity”

De La Soul

The hosts of the exhibit, Springboard for the Arts, had acquired their new headquarters, a former Ford dealership, a short time before the “Close to the Edge…” started. They moved in without really adapting the building (in fact, selective demolition for renovations was starting as soon as the exhibit ended). The exhibit took place in old garage at the back of the building, and it was the perfect backdrop.

Key to framing how I think we architects can get back to reality with people outside of our profession were my experiences with people at “Close to the Edge…” which were split into conversations with fellow architecture professionals and conversations with people visiting the exhibit.

I love talking shop with other architects, and I know that our surroundings in this exhibit were a direct inspiration for getting into important conversations about the inequalities of our profession. Over the exhibit’s run, these conversations covered a lot of important topics. But the single conversation that stood out most to me was about how the biased preferences for a certain kind of project manager that a big, repeat client of a firm had negatively influenced the kinds of people that firm hired or promoted when looked at through the lens of diversity. In its pursuit of stable cash flow and growth, an architecture firm is capable of embracing the discriminitory biases of their biggest clients. Architecture firms where this happens are actively contributing to inequality in our society. That’s incredibly fucked up.

The conversations with the non-architect visitors to the exhibit were the highlight of my time working the show. Many of the visitors were younger hip-hop fanatics who heard about what was happening at the old dealership, or even people from the neighborhood who happened upon the exhibit. There’s something disarming about being inside of the service bay of a former Ford dealership and surrounded by hip-hop art, music, and examples of its architecture — it’s not at all aloof, flaky, out of touch, artsy and impractical, unaffordable (the exhibit was free), or hard to understand. For those visitors where I had a chance to ask about their interactions with architects and architecture as a topic, they all said it was a first time experience for them. Despite that lack of experience, these visitors were able to quickly grasp the ideology behind Hip-Hop Architecture and apply it to what they were seeing in the exhibit pieces. This approachability and accessibility to a design movement is a stark contrast to the morass of Euro-centric architectural history that architects are taught in architecture school — not to divide us by differing design movements either — if anything, the historians remind me of battle rappers one-upping each other with more and more obscure knowledge as they argue over Boullée or some shit like that on Twitter, of course history is important. But the approachability through authenticity of Hip-Hop Architecture is incredibly powerful at a time when architecture desperately needs to attract diverse talent to a profession that’s almost all white and is frankly out of touch socially.

It’s Time to Stop Being Studio Gangsters

In hip-hop, studio gangsters are rappers whose lyrics cover topics that they haven’t actually had to live through and deal with in their own lives, they’re inauthentic wannabes who are mocked by the culture. I like how this terminology can apply in a similar way to architects and architecture firms. I wrote those two sentences just a few hours before a prime example of what I’m talking about showed up on Twitter:

That tweet is an obvious example (and AECOM’s marketing person, who probably makes more than most architects ever will, is a hypocritical dumbass for even attempting to go there with this tweet). Architects and architecture firms are studio gangsters in subtler ways too. The example of the firm that embraces a client’s discrimination in pursuit of profit is another way. And when our industry brings up the need for diversity every damn year at every damn conference, but nothing changes, that’s all of us being studio gangsters.

“The architect, selecting the blueprints
To rid the game of nuisance” ~ Guru

While hip-hop culture was created by Blacks and Latinos in the Bronx in the 1970’s, it’s truly a global culture today. The designs and art in “Close to the Edge” represented the work architecture professionals and designers from all over the world, the work of all different races and ethnicities, the work of men and women. This makes the Hip-Hop Architecture movement an ideal starting point for architects to make real change to who we are, to what we create, and to the kinds of clients we choose to work for.

I’ve always advocated for architects to provide services and insights in non-traditional architecture-adjacent ways to show our value. I’ve also advocated for brining a business mindset to our practice as another way to demonstrate our value. I’m still on board with all of that, but the convergence of this past week’s events with my lingering memories of the exhibit brought home that being socially responsible, accessible, and authentic in practice is what needs to go at the top of the list of how we show our value to others.

If we really want to change the diversity of our profession, if we really want to be understood and appreciated by all people outside of our profession, then we need to be accessible and authentic. There’s an accessible and authentic movement out there just waiting for us to learn about, adopt, and practice through actions, not just words. We’ve got work to do.

Michael Ford wrote an outstanding piece for Azure that’s a must-read for all architecture professionals. Michael’s Hip-Hop Architecture Camp is a perfect example of accessibility and authenticity in action. Please support his important efforts with a donation.

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