As a small crowd gathered around her miniature city — with buildings constructed out of Legos and blocks, roads of construction paper and green puffs indicated wooded areas — Dakota Evans pointed out that the central district of the model was built on an LP vinyl record.
“Our record is by the Pointer Sisters, and there were three of them,” said Evans, a 16 year old Sun Prairie High School student. “So that’s where the three most important buildings in the city are.”
They included a government capitol building, a community center and a business park. Instead of a police station, her model city has a “safety center,” an attempt to make residents feel less at odds with law enforcement. Perhaps the most innovative structure on the model was an indoor aquaponic farm.
“The plants grow in water, which feed fish that live in the same water. And the fish help fertilize the plants,” said Alex Rollins, 10, one of Evans’ partners. “The food can then be sold at the farmers’ market and for school lunches.”
Four other model cities were scattered around a lobby at UW-Madison’s Union South Friday night as part of the Hip-Hop Architecture Camp’s premiere night festivities. The use of vinyl records was a nod to the project’s concept, a question framed by organizer Michael Ford: “What happens at the intersection of hip-hop culture and architecture?”
Fifteen of the approximately 60 kids who participated in one or more of the February sessions attended Friday night to watch two videos chronicling the camp, including one set to a hip-hop song called “Build It Up,” with lyrics inspired by the first session’s planning exercise, that had kids writing down their perceptions about the city and ideas for making it better on Post-It notes and sticking them on walls in the Madison Central Library.
Performers from the Kids These Days hip-hop collective then used those ideas to write a song. The group of Madison area high school and college students uses library facilities to record music under the supervision of Madison rapper Rob "Dz" Franklin.
“We put a whole bunch of photos of the Post-It notes on a group chat and sorted them into categories and used that to come up with lyrics,” said Otto Smith, a Madison East student.
That process doesn't describe the usual method for writing hip-hop lyrics, said rapper Corey Dean.
“Normally when you write hip-hop, you have to think of what you want to write about. This really narrowed that down," said Dean, an MATC student. "The writing process, normally I take forever to do it. This took a week with all this great energy coming in from the kids who were eager to learn, eager to be there. That makes it a lot easier.”
But the process may have also taught the rappers how to find new material going forward.
“Some of the best songs I’ve heard have come from artists who say, ‘I’ve been in the community, I’ve seen this happen and I wrote a song about it,'" said James Horton, Jr.
Ford, an architect who is working on a design for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum planned for the Bronx, hosted the event. He returned from a trip to Austin, Texas, for the SXSW festival where he showed off the videos and talked with a varied group of people interested in the project, from the mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to hip-hop legend Warren G.
“If you look at hip-hop -- the lyrics, the aesthetics -- it tells us what happened in our communities and gives an unfiltered history of bad urban planning and bad architecture,” said Ford in a video about the project that screened Friday. “So hip-hop architecture is a way of not only getting kids involved, but making architecture aware of the injustices placed on communities of color.”
Ford’s plan is to publish a booklet of ideas from the camp, which urban planners for the city of Madison and Dane County will use in their planning processes. City planner Brian Grady said his department plans to include ideas from the camp in the Imagine Madison initiative, an update to the Madison comprehensive plan.
“Comprehensive plan is not a very exciting term,” Grady said Friday. “There are lots of city meetings that sound kind of stuffy and boring. We’re trying to do something different, reach folks we haven’t reached before.”
Grady hopes families that were involved in the Hip-Hop Architecture Camp will also attend the Imagine Madison community sessions coming in April. Likewise, Capitol Area Regional Planning Commission community planner Malissa Dietsch-Givhan said the camp is lined up with outreach her office is working on.
“We’re in the process of coming up with a simulation game so people can learn about decisions we make as planners and how those are implemented,” she said. “So you can see how you change something and see how it affects something else, come up with the best balance. We plan on taking the game to Juneteenth celebrations, Cinco de Mayo, lots of community gatherings.”
Ford also wants to take the Hip-Hop Architecture Camp to other cities this summer, along with holding another camp in Madison dedicated to park and open space design.
“The kids are able to listen to lyrics and create their own environment, their own community spaces they want to see, based on the music,” Ford said. “Instead of me showing kids hip-hop architecture, I’m allowing kids create their own version of architecture.”
Evans said her own model city, with its Pointer Sister towers and aquaponic farm, is definitely her own version of a city, but it’s based in reality as well.
“I think it could be an upgrade for a city like Milwaukee,” Evans said. “Like when your phone needs an upgrade, I think Milwaukee needs an upgrade. Not a lot of people are paying attention to it right now.”