As The Brewster Housing Projects Fall, A New Architecture Rises From Its Dust

Tiffany Brown at "The Brewster Projects" - Detroit, Michigan Photo By: GB Cortez McGhee

It’s been nearly eighty years since former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Detroit in 1935 to break ground for The Brewster Homes (Fredrick Douglass Apartments), the first federally funded public housing development in the nation for African Americans. Now that the demolition is nearing completion, it is  time to review the  implications of the Brewsters and like structures on its inhabitants around the country.

In 2012, while former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing prepared to officially announce the Detroit Housing Commission has received federal funding to demolish the Brewsters, Michael Ford was delivering a lecture at The Book Cadillac Hotel in Downtown Detroit which focused on the social responsibilities of architects and planners. Mr. Ford, a graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture was returning to The City to deliver his lecture titled “Hip Hop Inspired Architecture” during the 40th Annual National Organization of Minority Architects Conference being hosted by the local NOMA-Detroit chapter. Mike Ford defines hip hop as the result of the economic, social, and political deprivations instituted by the design and implementation of high rise public housing projects in inner cities across America.

Since the completion of his graduate architecture thesis at UDM, Michael Ford has continued the development of his proposition that the fore fathers of hip hop are not the usual line up of Bronx residents such as Afrika Bambaatta, DJ Kool Herc or GrandMaster Flash, instead, Ford argues that renowned modernist architect LeCorbusier is The Father of Hip Hop along with the individuals who implemented his “Towers in The Park” scheme in inner cities around the nation. Those individuals include Eleanor Roosevelt as her shifting of the dirt 80 years ago in Detroit, would set the precedent for a flurry of federally funded public housing for African Americans and Robert Moses, who, following the plan set forth in Detroit, singled handedly changed the landscape of the South Bronx during his proposal and implementation of the Cross Bronx Expressway. These monotonous towers which rested in barren, green spaces which passed for parks would eventually become the birthing place of hip hop during the early 1970s.

As former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt broke ground for The Brewster Projects, LeCorbusier's "Towers in The Park" scheme was receiving its fair share of criticisms in the September 1935 publication of the French architectural magazine, L’Architecte.

“Is the next generation really destined to pass its existence in these immense geometrical barracks, living in standardized mass production houses with mass production furniture…Their games, and by that I mean their recreations, are all based on the same model…Poor Creatures! What will they become in the midst of all this dreadful speed, this organization, this terrible uniformity? So much logic taken to its extreme limits, so much “science”, so much of the “mechanical” everywhere present and challenging one on every page and claiming its insolent triumph on every possible occasion – here is enough to disgust one forever with “standardization” and to make one long for disorder.”

This criticism accurately predicted that hip hop culture, would be the social response of inhabiting these monotonous towers. Unfortunately Eleanor Roosevelt was already in Detroit, on site with shovel in hand, ready for the ceremonial ground breaking while this criticism was being published. In his book,“The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning”, LeCorbusier rather arrogantly responds to the criticism presented in L'Architecte magazine, “So these principles do “Triumph”! Thank you very much, for this is just what I was aiming at. He also claims that architecture is not a means which is capable of prompting “disorder”. I wish he was still around today, to see what became of St. Louis’ Pruitt Igoe, the Cabrini Green in Chicago and the Brewsters in Detroit. He concluded his book with a wish for someone he described as an expert to figure out the details and implement his plan. Robert Moses took that challenge personally, as he sat in motion the steps which eventually made “Towers in The Park” the cost efficient solution to public housing in American inner cities.

Mr. Ford, a hip hop advocate, states that this is not an attempt to give an outsider credit for the creation of hip-hop, but a means of establishing a tangible and direct relationship between the fields of architecture and hip-hop—not by mere hypothesis, but through the use of historical facts. In my lectures and publications my intent is to demonstrate the importance of linking hip hop culture to the profession’s most beloved practitioners.  I do all of this in hopes of raising current architects' consciousness and awareness of their social, cultural and political influences. This association allows me to demonstrate how architecture is directly related to a seemingly distant cultural movement, by which a new generation of it's practitioners use to define themselves. Ford quotes author Tricia Rose who states that, “we have arrived at a landmark moment in modern culture when a solid segment (if not a majority) of an entire generation of African-American youth understand itself as defined primarily by a musical, cultural form. Despite the depth of young black people’s love of the blues, jazz and R&B throughout various periods in the twentieth century, no generation has ever dubbed itself the “R&B generation” or the “jazz generation”…it is now extremely common for hip hop fans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to consider themselves more than fans. They’re people you “”live and breathe hip hop everyday”.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Tiffany Brown.

Today, Tiffany Brown, a former resident of Detroit's public housing who received her master’s degree in architecture from Lawrence Technological University is the new leading lady at the Brewsters as she represents Hamilton Anderson Associates as the construction administrator during demolition. How ironic is it that one who transcended the limitations of being born and raised in the public housing systems of Detroit is now the architectural representative coordinating the demolition process, removing the barracks which once seemed inescapable, saving the next generation from its grasp? As the public housing towers fall around the country, a new architecture and set of practitioners are arising, hip hop architects. Brown is one of the many architectural professionals that Ford has called upon as he galvanizes the fragmented professionals around the world who identify themselves as part of the hip hop generation.

Will Wittig, Dean of the University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture will host Michael Ford and his exhibit during the 2014 Detroit Design Festival. Michael Ford will return to Detroit to give his lecture titled “Hip Hop Inspired Architecture” UDM’s School of Architecture on Wednesday, September 26, 2014. This event is free and open to the public. Stay tuned for additional details as the date nears.

The goal of the exhibit and associated lectures is to raise the social consciousness of the architectural profession, raise the visibility of minority architects and designers who comprise approximately 3% of the profession, as well as raise the visibility of the profession to underrepresented communities, and most importantly provide a vernacular which will raise the retention rate of underrepresented communities in architectural schools around the country.