For Architects Only? How Kanye Exposed Architecture’s Bias

© Noam Dvir, Instagram User dvirnm

When Kanye West spoke with students at my alma mater on Sunday evening, he said “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected.’” In the social media frenzy that followed, a recurring response that I saw on architecture-centric sites was to snicker at West’s use of the word “architect” as a verb. For many, this was symbolic of West’s ignorance and hubris as he presumed to talk about something without knowing anything.

Except, of course, that “architect” is well recognized as a verb. Dictionaries say so, architects say so, and academics say so. If you’re architect Doug Patt and call yourself howtoarchitect on YouTube, you get a contract from MIT Press to write a book—called How to Architect. If you are the French philosopher Louis Marin, you can suggest that “the castle and gardens of Versailles ‘architect’ the Prince to make him not only the absolute of political power, but the center of the cosmos in its entirety,” and you will be counted among the most eminent semioticians of the twentieth century. If you are Harvard architecture theorist K. Michael Hays, you might stand up at an academic conference and say, “There are only certain things that can be done at this moment. Not just anything can be architected at this moment, right? There are limits.” When you do, people will nod and applaud.

But if you are and you suggest that “everything needs to actually be ‘architected,’” it disqualifies you to speak about architecture.

Apparently, not only are there only certain things that can be architected at this moment, but there are only certain people who can architect. To put this in context, in 2012 blacks and African Americans made up 11% of the total American workforce but only 1% of its architects, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As Derek Thompson reported in The Atlantic, there are more minority CEOs (90.6% white) than architects (91.3% white).

My aim is not so much to validate West’s language against an ivory standard. Instead, my point is this: when we acknowledge that some people have the right to use certain words and others do not, we are keeping people in their place. We are pre-judging who has the right to use language to shape ideas. It is an indictment of our time that social media will allow millions to hear one of the world’s most famous artists speak, but that our prejudices limit how much we’re willing to listen. West is a polarizing figure and if you don’t like him, you are free to turn down the volume on his music or paparazzi coverage. But disliking is different from attacking or dismissing a person’s qualifications. Although hosted by a student group rather than the institution, West’s appearance at was not out of place when recent visitors include other artists such as Marina Abramović, Philip Glass, Walid Raad, and Robert Wilson.

Diversity in architecture is growing and many groups, including Harvard Graduate School of Design’s African American Student Union, which invited West, are working hard to broaden the profession’s base and reach—but we still need more voices. As designer and Harvard GSD faculty member Teman Evans commented by email: “Since when do we as architects get the right to edit whose voices we want to hear in the larger conversation about design? …For some reason there are those out there who feel the need to jealously guard the architect’s territory while professing to be champions of the built environment at the same time.”

Architectural theorist Timothy Hyde had a different take: “Kanye is not just a black musician, but a rapper—someone who does things with words for a living. So shouldn’t our immediate response to a rapper’s appropriation of a word not be that he got it wrong, but instead to wonder whether we have been using it wrong all along?”

© Kim Kardashian

Lian Chikako Chang received her Master’s in Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design and is currently Director of Research and Information at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, as well as author of the Archinect blog that first reported on the wording of West’s address to students. 

Thanks to K. Michael Hays for providing the examples of “architect” being used as a verb.

Cite: Lian Chikako Chang. "For Architects Only? How Kanye Exposed Architecture’s Bias" 24 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 26 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=451372>
  • Archidan

    Thank you to ArchDaily for writing good articles lately including this coverage of Kanye West. What I would like to add is that Kanye West is doing architecture a great service by talking about architects and architecture in the context that architects think about it. In the world outside of architecture blogs, magazines and schools, the view most people have of architects is a very different one that some have of ourselves. Speaking about the use of the word “architect” most people use this word to describe people and things that have nothing to do buildings ( maybe good thing). For example, in politics, so and so was the ” architect” of this deal, in the Matrix movies, the main program running the Matrix was manifested as an “architect”. Architect in popular culture means a creator in the best sense! Unfortunately when it comes to buildings, people see architects as designers of already designed buildings. What I mean is that there is a client or developer who comes to an architect with a project and the role of the architect is usually to design the elevations. Put a window here, arch there and some Doric columns everywhere.
    The public has no idea what architects can do and having someone such as Kanye praise the idea of architectural thinking is a great help to this profession. Another problem is that most architects have no idea what clients what and how to give it to them. Usually architects are either stuck in an ivory design tower or in pragmatic make money by providing a service that they end up creating bad buildings. Anyway that’s an article for another day. My main comment is that Kanye is doing more for making architects accepted by pop culture and thus expanding their influence than anyone in the architecture community. Architects should do more to reach out to celebrities, pop culture icons as well as politicians, bankers and the rest.

  • holla

    truth

  • rob

    I like the verb!

    architected architected…

  • цarьchitect

    I think the intro to Doug Patt’s book has some insights, after Tim Hyde:

    The word Architect is a noun, but I like to use it as a verb. This misuse has kicked off some lively discussion about architecture and language, and the effect of using different parts of speech and parts of buildings in different ways than they were intended… When you break the rules, it doesn’t always mean that you’ve ruined the place or the expression… Exceptions can produce inflections, and misuse can lead to invention.

    On the other hand, I’m not totally enamored with the use of “architect” as a verb, given the logorrhea of the discipline – which oddly seems to rise from the same elitism and territoriality that’s dismissing Mr. West. But leave it to architects to insult our allies.

    Maybe someone should ask Kanye what he means!

  • Gabs

    See, I can’t help but compare this with Denise Scott Brown and Brad Pitt. On the one hand, Scott Brown has become a central figure for the debate around women underrepresentation in the industry, but as an architect herself she has produced groundbreaking theory and design that has become a legacy to the profession.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Brad Pitt started communicating his interest in design, and even embarking on design projects (published here by Dezeen), and yet the architecture community largely dismissed his interest and efforts as a celebrity who has nothing to contribute to design. Now with Kanye we also have a celebrity, who has risen to fame within an industry different from design, but whose input in design nevertheless is being considered in a similar way as Denise Scott Brown’s is, under a rhetoric of racial discrimination and inequality in our industry. I see this as very hypocritical. Yes, let’s consider Kanye’s potential contributions to discussions in design, in particular regarding inequality, but taking into account who he is and what his standing is with respect to our profession – or else, incorporate every insight that any celebrity might have about design.

  • Gabs Wolf

    See, I can’t help but compare this with Denise Scott Brown and Brad Pitt. On the one hand, Scott Brown has become a central figure for the debate around women underrepresentation in the industry, but as an architect herself she has produced groundbreaking theory and design that has become a legacy to the profession.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Brad Pitt started communicating his interest in design, and even embarking on design projects (published here by Dezeen), and yet the architecture community largely dismissed his interest and efforts as a celebrity who has nothing to contribute to design. Now with Kanye we also have a celebrity, who has risen to fame within an industry different from design, but whose input in design nevertheless is being considered in a similar way as Denise Scott Brown’s is, under a rhetoric of racial discrimination and inequality in our industry. I see this as very hypocritical. Yes, let’s consider Kanye’s potential contributions to discussions in design, in particular regarding inequality, but taking into account who he is and what his standing is with respect to our profession – or else, incorporate every potentially beneficial insight that any celebrity might have about design.

  • C.P.T.L.

    From the website and writer who refuses without provocation or valid reason (I’ve never used foul language or made irrelevant or unreasonable comments) to post my comments comes a critique of “those out there who feel the need to jealously guard the architect’s territory while professing to be champions of the built environment at the same time.”

    “Since when do we as architects get the right to edit whose voices we want to hear in the larger conversation about design?”

    In some circles it depends, apparently, on whether one is Kayne West and welcome in the writer’s itunes playlist, or not.

  • krem03

    This article made a very solid point about our bias as architects and designers. In addition how can we blame others for being under paid and under appreciated when we ourselves cannot respect other people’s understanding of the built environment and don’t give them the freedom to express their thoughts?
    Even if it is complete none sense to us, we need to listen with an open mind in order to address these issues one way or another.

  • Tim

    Since architects have been responsible for so much misery (think grey 1960s tower blocks in Glasgow) as well as progress, it is imperative that they listen to the ordinary mortals who must live in (and with) their creations.

  • ONSHAY

    Architecture and design is in a pretty shitty place if we’re judging people based on their semantics and not the power of their ideas. I really appreciated what Kanye West was articulating in his speech to the GSD students. It’s a message that we should all remember.

  • Pedro Ferreira

    In Portuguese the word architected exists, having the following meanings:

    1. Doing architecture.

    2. [Figurines] Planning, plotting.

    3. Create, founding.

  • Hans

    I think for some people (myself included), the issue, taken in a broader context is that of the celebrity as a figurehead, and whether that is a bad thing or a good thing. Now I don’t have any knowledge of Kanye Wests design chops, but I do find ti hard to believe that a man who has a full time job as a rapper, has a clothing line, directs films and music videos and whatnot, really has the time to do anything beyond being an art director or client. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still think that in order to produce anything worthwhile you have to put in the hours, and I’m not talking simply in terms of an education, I’m talking project to project. Just as I wouldn’t really expect Peter Eisenman to be able to revolutionize rap or hip hop, or anyone within that community to welcome him with open arms, I see no reason why Kanye Wast should be respected simply because he has sold a lot of records. If he has something worthwhile to contribute to the field, fine, but the notion that it’s a good thing that he’s talking about it, simply because he is well known, I think is a stretch. If that were the case then why aren’t people more thrilled that Prince Charles is taking such an active interest in our profession? If Mr West is interested in architecture as anything other than a vanity project, I think the prudent thing would be to point the spotlight at someone he thinks is making a positive difference, maybe do an internship.

    • David S

      Hans, you do understand that Kanye West is not trying to practice architecture himself, right? He is offering commentary. I don’t think he needs to “put in the hours” in architecture education or doing architecture projects to be entitled to say something about the way the built environment is created. As designers we ought to be receptive to ideas and critiques wherever they come from. Or are the opinions and feelings of other designers the only things that matter?

      Of course one can complain about the outsized influence and exposure that celebrities enjoy whether or not they have any particular qualifications or exceptional insights in any given field. But that is a reality of our world.

      I like to think that if an architect had something thoughtful or interesting to say about rap (or any) music, the musicians who might have a chance to hear it would be open to it…and if a musician has something thoughtful or interesting to say about our discipline, great. And given the socioeconomic disconnect between most architects and most rap music lovers (and the larger African-American community, as eloquently described by many of these commenters) if it’s someone with Kanye’s visibility, all the better!

  • Get Architected
  • Wairagu

    Everyday things get cooked, doctored nursed and even robbed in phrases. I’ve never heard professionals in those fields complain of “mis~Use of the nouns. Thanks to Kanye others can be now be “architected”.

  • Micl

    Of course architects are misunderstood by the ignorant muggles out there. Hopefully it is useful propaganda for our profession to have a mediocre pop star who pretends he knows stuff about both hip hop and architecture tell us how great we are. But is anyone outside of our ivory tower actually listening?

  • Carlos Romay

    I support the use of the noun “architecture” as a verb . As a matter of fact, many nouns turn into verbs in English and that’s an interesting feature of that dynamic language. In Spanish, we use the term “arquitecturizar” in a rather informal and colloquial environment, to denote the act of carefully planning.

  • John Klepac

    OR it’s just a common misconception that it’s not a verb. I didn’t know it was a verb. He uses plenty of high-register vocabulary and no one cares.

  • not_the_race_card

    I don’t think people were laughing at Kanye b/c he was black. People did the same thing when Bush used the word “islamism”. Pretty sure the public bias just came from Kanye’s history of saying ridiculous things and being rude. Will I Am is doing great in the design world b/c his public image isn’t disgusting.

  • Oo

    I’m not sure what to think anymore.

  • Aaron Guilford

    Architecture is full of made up words. In critiques I used to write down made up words that instructors and professionals would use to get their point across. That being said, I stand by my opinion that he doesnt just get this “pass” where we should care about his opinion of architectural design. We have invested years of study, blood, sweat, and tears (literally) into this field and just giving him attention because of his celebrity status undermines our effort and dedication. I really believe in the value of the suit and tie architects of mid century modernism and having a person like Kanye be what people could think of some day when they think of architecture makes me sick to my stomach. Not all publicity is good for the profession. Im going to say, I myself am only 30 years old but I feel like there are too many younger people looking to get into the profession that have no real respect for the profession itself. They want to be the starchitects getting attention and not to be rude, but thats primarily what a rapper is… an ego hungy person.

  • jimmy

    what we are all forgetting here is that Kanye West is an over-exposed buffoon, that should not really be allowed out in public unattended. Quite why he, or anyone else believes he deserves a platform such as this is beyond me.

  • Amos

    I believe the tone of things would be much different if Mr. West had actually said that “everything needs to be architected.” Instead, he said that “everything needs to be ‘architected’.” I don’t see this as a racial matter at all; it is strictly concerned with Mr West and his often awkward public appearances (e.g. “I’mma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best music videos of all time,” and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”). The man is a genius with words when it comes to his art, but when he’s not rapping, well, that’s something else entirely.

    I’d love to see his contributions, and I agree with many of the other points made in this article, but I don’t feel as though the laughs had at Mr West are the reason there are so few black architects.

  • P

    Why does it have to come down to race and discrimination whereever Kanye and GSD come up? Knowing that ethnic tension is at the roots of American nation I still maintain that the global subject of architects versus “normal” people doesn’t need to be hijacked as a tool of identity politics and positive discrimination agendas.

  • Pitchaya Cydonia

    Just another douchebag who thinks he know everything about architecture.

  • Pitchaya Cydonia

    Just another douchebag who thinks he knows everything about architecture.

  • harleymc

    “My aim is not so much to validate West’s language against an ivory standard.” Indeed people of colour don’t need to be validated against anything as racist as an “ivory standard”.

    The other starteling indightment of architects is that if lay people don’t know anything about architecture, then the professionals have failed in what is a public performance art. Had no impact on public thinking with a public performance art… give up your failed vocation!

  • Felipe Vallejo

    Wow now Mr West has discovered the source of his next business plan, really bad that a “serious” blog waste bites on this kind of articles. Every man to his own trade!.

  • Chelsea

    Perhaps all the hoopla about Kanye’s verbing of “architect” arose because the rest of his “speech” was completely banal and delusional? Let’s not forget that this dude said he believes architecture can save the world…

  • RMPV

    What is wrong with you people? seriously. First of all I consider Kanye as a pretty good musician, but that is it. The people who you say are claiming to protect the guild might be actually right, why? they, we are not prejudging we are making a very assertive judgement base not only on the shallow character of the rapper but also on his previous failures e.g. the nike incident.

    Why should someone who claims to like architecture for a very long time, start acting too look so in such very recent time? It seems to me that he doesn’t know how else to attract attention. All of this subjects often take us to the problem of the rights of woman in architecture, and this is because you people profoundly believe that the gender or race of a certain person tells you everything about her/him when actually that characteristic must never be in your rational process because what should be in there is their ability to create architecture, their ability to work, their ability to get the job done right. That is what everybody should be searching for, not just a pseudo call for help base in another point, that has nothing to do with it, and if architecture firms choose to select a person only for their gender or raze, they might be making a huge mistake, for that person might not be the one you need. And base on all of Kanye’s considerations I believe that we do not need this kind of drama in our profession, what we need is more people capable of resolving problems, not giving them, and if you can’t even resolve your own problems of finding a job (which is very easy, I’ve been offer 3 jobs in the past 2 months for different firms and I’m a latin american fellow), you better be more creative.