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 Kanye West 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 Harvard GSD 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?”
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.