Smithsonian honors Detroiter as ‘visionary design mind’

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

On Thursday night at a lofty gala in Manhattan, Detroit resident Craig L. Wilkins will be honored as a “visionary design mind” by the Smithsonian Institution.

The vision Wilkins has advocated for nearly two decades is that hip hop culture can help cure the damage formal architecture, design and gentrification has inflicted on communities of color and marginalized people.

Wilkins, one of the 11 recipients of the 2017 National Design Award, is being honored in the category of “design mind.” The award will be given “in recognition of a visionary ... who has had a profound impact on design theory, practice or public awareness,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper Hewitt. The institution is the only U.S. museum dedicated to historical and contemporary design. Cooper Hewitt is one of the 19 museums, galleries and the National Zoo that comprise the Smithsonian Institution, which is considered the leading curator of American history and culture.

The accomplishments of Wilkins and the other National Design Award winners “have elevated our understanding of what great American design is and what it can do,” Baumann said.

In terms of Wilkins, his supporters say his academic writings, such as “(W)Rapped Space...” published 17 years ago in the Journal of Architectural Education, are as timely as ever.

And to listen to the University of Michigan senior lecturer, his words seem tuned into the citywide, near daily debate of the emergence of two Detroits: one with a new $863 million sports-entertainment complex, a Shinola flagship store and $700,000 townhomes, and one where longtime residents grapple with the nation’s most violent crime rate and dysfunctional schools.

“Detroit can be on the forefront of what a 21st century major American metropolitan city can look like,” Wilkins said. “You can provide all access for kinds of people to live here — not just one side. But you have to want all types of people.”

Wilkins argues that Detroit’s great opportunity lies in its 24 square miles of empty land. That’s enough to fit all of Manhattan, which is 22.8 square miles, in the Motor City, which has a total of 139 square miles.

“You have a moment where you can literally rewrite the entire development of a city. You need a vision of what this city can be 20 to 30 years down the line,” he said. “Then you need to judiciously dole out access to this land so that you can make that happen. This is the opportunity that is never coming again.”

Wilkins, originally from Chicago, gained early recognition with his writings explaining hip hop architecture, which explores the fluid, improvisational nature of the genre and tries to apply it in the design of buildings and spaces in urban neighborhoods and communities.

During a recent tour of the city, he showed examples of the art and its effects on the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Dequindre Cut Greenway offers a perfect example, he said, as he sat near the Wilkins Street entrance of the two-mile pedestrian-bike path built on a former Grand Trunk Railroad line. The greenway is considered by many an urban oasis, he added, with its smooth, clean asphalt path that is below street level and often surrounded by walls of graffiti and art that was created when it was an illegal gathering spot.

“I’m a big fan of the Cut,” Wilkins said. “It’s taken space that was abandoned, that was considered disposable, and turned it into to an amenity for the city. That is sort of the core of hip hop culture.

“When people began re-appropriating the space unofficially — against the rules of the city; graffiti artists, other painters, people just running there — all of a sudden, folks started to see this can possibly be something good.”

But near the Wilkins Street entrance, Wilkins pointed out something that he said represents the flip side of that process. Just above the manicured greenway is a charter school housed in an industrial building. Wilkins watched elementary students using the fenced-in parking lot as a playground.

“You see, the Dequindre Cut is the acknowledgment of using space that was considered disposable and turning it into something powerful, and, it’s right next to a space where that just doesn’t extend,” Wilkins said. “And the people who are using that school are most likely people who live in Detroit. I don’t understand why they don’t get the same advantage?’’

And therein lies the lessons embedded in the school of hip hop architecture. Hip hop, after all, was invented primarily by poor African-Americans and Latinos who started using record-playing turntables — something increasingly considered disposable due to cassettes and CDs — as musical instruments. Hip hop has now become a global cultural force.

Wilkins cited the gentrification battles in the city where lower income people are priced out of their communities — too often considered disposable — and being replaced by upscale neighborhoods full of cultural activities and amenities.

“It’s more than gentrification, it’s kind of a cultural appropriation. It erases the humanity of people who made this a a viable, original place,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins’ “(W)Rapped Space: The Architecture of Hip Hop” is considered to the first treatise on hip hop and architecture published in a scholarly journal.

“I don’t think you can have a conversation about contemporary architecture without Craig Wilkins,” said Sekou Cooke, an assistant professor of architecture at Syracuse University. “When I was doing my undergrad at Cornell in the mid-to-late ’90s, a lot of us were already trying to apply hip hop culture to architecture and there was resistance. You were really taking a huge, huge risk to try to write a thesis about it. Craig really broke ground, because then you had formal, peer-reviewed work that you could source.”

Cooke called Wilkins’ 2007 treatise “Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music,” published by the University of Minnesota, “the bible of hip hop architecture.”

Cooke in 2015 organized what’s believed to be one of the first academic symposium on hip hop architecture. He had Wilkins as one of the dozen panelists and speakers.

Highland Park native Michael Ford, who like Wilkins did his graduate work at University of Detroit-Mercy, is another fan of the Smithsonian award winner. He described Wilkins’ writings as “a wealth of knowledge,” noting “his ability to bring other topics into this discussion is unrivaled.”

Ford, a self-described hip hop architect, teaches “design justice” at Madison College in Wisconsin. He launched “Hip Hop Architecture Camp” this year, which are a series of workshops designed to introduce underrepresented youth to architecture, urban planning and creative place making. Detroit is among eight cities that have hosted the camps.

Ford is also one the architects involved on creating the “Universal Hip-Hop Museum” in the Bronx; an effort involving hip hop artists and architects.

“Of course, Craig (Wilkins) is involved too,” Ford said. “He’s one of the people you want to be in that discussion.”