Architecture Could Use Some Help From Kanye West

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 19 2013 3:05 PM

Architecture Could Use Some Help From Kanye West

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“I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected,’ ” West told Harvard students on Sunday.

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

When Kanye West showed up at the Harvard Graduate School of Design this past Sunday, he thrilled a bunch of overworked architecture students with free tickets to his concert that evening at Boston’s TD Garden. There on the invitation of GSD’s African American Student Union, he spent a few hours touring the school’s studios, then paused to share with a larger audience his thoughts on the field of design—a subject for which his enthusiasm borders on professional envy. “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected,’ ” he told GSD students.

Architecture schools everywhere should be doing their damnedest to book Yeezy, and not as a perk for students. Design firms, too. West himself should do some of that architecting—he’s more qualified than you may realize. Consider what architecture itself has to gain.

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West is unquestionably on point when he discusses the underrepresentation of minorities within the design disciplines, whether in that wrongly maligned interview with BBC Radio or in intimate conversation with a handful of architecture students of color at Harvard. BLS data show that whites make up 93 percent of architects. Fewer than 2 percent of licensed architects are African Americans. While the profession was forced to face up to its structural sexism after architect Denise Scott Brown asked for the Pritzker Prize recognition bestowed upon her co-designer and husband (her request was denied), no such public conversation was taking place around design and race—until West started one. “I am tripping over myself with fear and excitement at the prospect of having such a powerful mouthpiece for a generation of black architects and designers who share his frustration and connect with his message,” wrote Jamaican-born architect and GSD student Sekou Cooke last month.

What stands between Kanye West and a second act as an architect is an advanced degree—the College Dropout would need to get his bachelor’s first—plus 5,600 hours of interning, not to mention a series of architecture licensure exams. A high hurdle. While I wouldn’t put it past an artist who received a Grammy nomination for a song he recorded while his jaws were wired shut, it’s a grueling path for even the most determined student of the Mother Art.

Yet the high barriers of entry to a career in architecture haven’t totally shut West out. At last year’s Cannes Film Festival, West debuted his “Cruel Summer” video on a seven-screen pavilion designed by his creative house, DONDA, in partnership with OMA—the architecture firm founded by Rem Koolhaas.* West is on record about his love for Le Corbusier, and he’s also teaming up with stellar emerging architects, such as David Benjamin of the Living Architecture Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture.

Collaborations between architects and top producers from other fields make perfect sense when you consider, for example, one of any number of cooperative exercises between Koolhaas and Miuccia Prada—the 2013 catwalk in Milan being the most recent, the 2001 Prada Epicenter in New York being the most prominent. Zaha Hadid, maybe the world’s most formidable architect, designed a sleek perfume bottle for Donna Karan last year and high-couture boots for United Nude this year. For a commission from the Hamburg shipbuilders Blohm+Voss, Hadid even designed a yacht—make that a superyacht.

A superyacht sounds like something on brand with West. But the subtler tools of the trade are in his wheelhouse, too. As a producer, as a curator, as a musician, he’s attuned to rhythm and reference—two of the more important considerations an architect measures in designing a building to go with other buildings. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is proof that West can realize an epic project by assembling a team of contributors, while Yeezus is a determined minimalist exercise. Ye can’t sing, so he leaned on auto-tune for the underappreciated 808s and Heartbreaks. So what if he never learns AutoCAD?

More importantly, though, Kanye West fits the mold of a high-minded, aspirational, uncompromising architect. Sure, he’s got the starchitect-sized ego part down. But he reminds me of one architect above all—not Zaha or Rem or his beloved Le Corb, but the eminent Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. The Chicago Tribune once described Tigerman as a “Chicago design maven who can spit venom like a snake"—so they’ve got that in common. Ten years ago, Tigerman told the Chicago Reader, “To cause something to be built, you have to have something within you .... That really comes from a belief system that’s very deep in you, and that belief system is rooted in ethics and morality.” That sounds a lot like West today when he says, “I believe that utopia is actually possible—but we’re led by the least noble, the least dignified, the least tasteful, the dumbest, and the most political.”

If Kanye West only ever talks about the forces keeping minorities from helping to design the cities in which they live, he’ll still be doing the industry a service. But the way he talks about architecture—and the way he works, as an inveterate collaborator—is reason for architecture firms to solicit more specific input from West himself.

In that Chicago Reader profile, Tigerman surveys the state of Chicago public housing with Yeezus-level indignation. “Is it just value engineering? Is it not racism? Is it not sexism? Who withholds good design?” he asks rhetorically. I can’t think of a reason why Architect Yeezy, a self-described utopian frustrated by the status quo, shouldn’t weigh in on the next generation of housing projects being built right now in Chicago’s South and East Sides. Maybe he’d rather focus on the hush-hush 3D theater concept he’s said to be working on. But I like to think of West echoing Tigerman’s question—”Who withholds good design?”—with a question of his own: “Who gon’ stop me, huh?

* Correction, Nov. 19: This post originally misspelled the name of Kanye West’s company. It is DONDA, not Donde.

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