Deconstructing Kanye

Kanye West loves architecture. Is that good news for a profession little understood by the general public, and long lacking in diversity? Or do his recent provocations about slavery and President Trump complicate his interest in the built environment?

Hip-hop mogul Kanye West has long shown a keen interest in art, architecture and design, with a taste for extreme asceticism exemplified by his home interior designer Axel Vervoordt and son Boris, and found in his Yeezy line of sweatpants and Ts, and the company’s Calabasas headquarters designed by Willo Perron.

“I really do believe that the world can be saved through design,” he told a crowd of students at Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2013.

A couple weeks back he posted an Instagram pic of himself checking out an exhibition of student work at SCI-Arc, and announced the creation of a Yeezy Home department that would hire tens of architects and industrial designers.

Aminatou Fall, left, helps tour Kanye West, second from right, around the SCI-Arc student show.

And in a long interview with hip-hop media personality Charlamagne tha God, Kanye hinted at further ambitions as they walked around his 300-acre plot in Calabasas: “I’m going to be one of the biggest real estate developers of all time, like what Howard Hughes is to aircraft and what Henry Ford was to cars.” He added, “we’re going to develop cities.”

But he has also created a hubbub in recent weeks with statements about slavery – which he called a “choice” – and his new “brother,” Donald Trump, with whom he said he shares “dragon energy.”

The backlash has been intense, especially from his longtime African-American fans. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic that “West’s ignorance is not merely deep, but also dangerous.”

Kanye West chats with architect Jacques Herzog and art curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist at a panel at Art Basel Miami Beach 2013, sponsored by Surface magazine.

Trump, for his part, has credited Kanye with bumping his poll numbers among black men from “11 to 22 in one week.” (It is assumed Trump was comparing percentages, not individual numbers.)

So what is one to make of all this? Should West’s incendiary comments be taken seriously — and do they diminish his authority on other topics?

Or should they be dismissed as ill-conceived or simply provocations from a wickedly creative guy who might be trolling America?  

Meanwhile, is West’s loud enthusiasm for architecture good news for a profession both little understood by the general public, and lacking in African-American representation?

Yeezy designs tend minimalist (his long sleeve T contains a nod to Calabasas the city where Yeezy is located).

DnA talks to Brentin Mock, staff writer for CityLab, who recently wrote that unlike his beats and sneakers (which are, in Mock’s view, “dope”), real estate development by Kanye West would be as ill-advised as his sweatsuits (“hideous,” says Mock).

Mock says that the rapper/producer exhibits zero understanding of the history of racist housing policies that have produced very poor urban development in cities like West’s hometown city of Chicago.

He adds that West has dictatorial tendencies that might infuse his approach to city-making.

West says he wants to build cities. Would they echo the design-driven, top-down ethos of Yeezy offices, asks Brentin Mock? (photo courtesy Nicholas Cope).

“If he’s only concerned with talking with the top designers in the world and then just kind of downloading and imposing his vision on the community, we don’t need any more of that,” Mock tells DnA, adding, “I mean we had decades of that. That’s how a lot of our worst neighborhoods became the way that they are.”

KCRW DJ Aaron Byrd shares his thoughts on why West’s recent comments were offensive — “shameful and ignorant” but also a form of “self-hating” — while cautioning that Kanye is human, with “some issues with communicating,” and in the context of architecture and design and that industry, “it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have value in that space and in that place.”

Aminatou Fall’s ‘The Noamdnock’ responds to “Helmut Jahn’s proposal for the James R. Thompson Center site in Chicago, inspired by a topological study of the city’s beloved Monadnock Building.”

However, Byrd says, “whether or not his message will be heard because of the context with which he’s presenting them is a different story.”

Aminatou Fall is a student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and was one of West’s guides when he dropped by the graduate student show a couple weeks back. 

She describes the experience of meeting him as mixed on many levels.

On the one hand she witnessed a genuine and humble curiosity from the hip-hop star about the work on the walls at SCI-Arc.

In turn, she and fellow students are curious about West’s proposed Yeezy Home design office, because he’s “very open to creative and kind of outlandish concepts that there’s probably going to be some really interesting things that come out of there.”

On the other hand, “it’s really touchy” and she has “given us a lot of thought” to the comments that have roiled his fans.

She believes, however, they might be better-intentioned than the tweeted words suggest, stemming from West’s “desire for creating this utopia where everybody is equal regardless of skin or background.”

That includes the freedom for West to pursue his own taste, which tends towards a severe minimalism, and not “be put in a box” and be expected to “like gold and bling” just because he’s a rapper.

Yeezy clothing (photo: Courtesy Nicholas Cope).

Finally, in the context of our ongoing look at identity as it relates to design we asked Aminatou Fall if West might be helping raise the profile of the architecture profession among African-Americans, who currently make up two percent of licensed architects, according to the National Association of Minority Architects.

“Not at the moment,” says Fall, “because I think right now people are very turned off by him because of how problematic he’s been lately. But eventually this could be something positive.”

Yeezy offices (photo: Courtesy Nicholas Cope).