The life of Kanye West is a complex menagerie of contradictions. He is the motherless father, the misogynistic romantic, and a self-proclaimed god searching for a higher power. He is a writer, a celebrity, a rapper, a designer; the Chicagoan living in Tribeca. One of the most prominent architectural enthusiasts in the popular zeitgeist, Kanye’s persona and his work evoke a range of reactions.
The decision to make Kanye West the focus of a Chicago-based museum in the Fulton Market district in the West Loop is a creative decision made simple by the mere fact that this city is his home, which he strings references to throughout his body of work. His beloved late mother Donda West moved her family from Atlanta to Chicago when Kanye was three, an event he describes on his track “Homecoming” as a formative experience:
I met this girl when I was three years old
And what I loved most, she had so much soul
She said, “Excuse me, lil’ homie, I know you don’t know me
But my name is Windy, and I like to blow trees.”
And from that point I never blew her off
People came from out of town, I like to show her off.
They like to act tough, she likes to tear them off
And make them straighten up their act
Cause she knows how they’re soft
And when I grew up, she showed me how to go downtown
In the nighttime her face lit up, so astounding
I told her in my heart is where she’ll always be.
West’s clear affection and profound respect for Chicago make him an ideal candidate for a gallery orbiting his life, work, and art.
From an architectural standpoint, the other major draw is the site of Fulton Market itself, which has a violent and controversial background. In the composition, I attempted to capture the feeling of sensory overload from the site, by blocking out the city as a whole, then focusing and zooming in on multiple, autonomous points, layers of information filtered through chaos. In much the same way, Kanye’s music is about overload— verbally, lyrically, politically, economically, religiously— so it would seem apropos that his gallery would function the same way. Fulton Market has a recorded history of sensory overload as a meatpacking “hell” or “jungle,” as Upton Sinclair described it in his book “The Jungle,” written about the awful conditions that the site used to have at the turn of the twentieth century.
The resulting architectural composition is my attempt at creating layers of information filtered through chaos. By drawing from the inhumanity and violence of the neighborhood’s history as well as the dissonant music of Kanye himself, I attempted to form a sterile framing device— in this case, the resulting obelisk— to process this new landmark and point of reference. From a design standpoint, the building attempts to process multiple nodes and touchstones to form a machine understanding, wrapped around a core of vulnerability.
That heart— the animus of the machine— drew inspiration and guidance from external sources, as well. Sekou Cooke, an assistant professor of architecture at Syracuse University, argues that hip-hop architecture is an imminent cultural movement that has been simmering for the better part of two decades. He argues that hip-hop owes it’s existence to both architecture and urbanism, and that architecture, in turn, is the “fifth pillar” of hip-hop, alongside deejaying, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti.
Cooke, in his symposium, cites Craig Wilkins from the University of Michigan, who argues that spaces are designed either for inclusion or exclusion, otherness, and the potential for “hip-hop architecture” to be inclusive to underrepresented groups, while Ashton T. Crawley writes in his book Blackpentecostal Breath that “racial categorization and distinction is but one way to think of the world, one way to consider organizing, and racial categorization and distinction is, in many and fundamental ways, about the disruption and interruption of the capacity to breathe in the flesh,” while Katherine McKittrick writes in her examination of blackness Demonic Grounds that “black matters are spatial matters.”
While this gallery originated as a simple architectural tribute to a prominent artist from Chicago, the themes that kept recurring in and around Kanye’s life and work, like racial profiling, police brutality, and the black experience as it relates to the city of Chicago, all burst to the forefront of the project. This led to the 9th and 10th levels being reimagined from museum and gallery spaces into youth outreach and educational spaces, specifically for the Donda Foundation’s use.
The Dr. Donda West Foundation is a Chicago-based nonprofit whose mission is to support young aspiring artists in Chicago, by honoring the educational legacy of Dr. West by implementing arts and literature experiences that transform the lives of inner-city youth. The instruction is not only in arts; after the programs, students who had previously dropped out are ready to re-enroll in school, and are given a blueprint for personal and professional growth beyond school. Giving the foundation a new base of operations inside the West Gallery seemed like a logical next step towards incorporating outreach and inclusive spaces with the architectural mandate.
The program is tightly divided into four distinct zones, meant for as many uses: the concert zone on the first and second levels for events and community engagement; the administrative zone on the third and fourth floors for offices; the gallery zones on the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth levels, for museum-type areas; and an outreach zone on the ninth and tenth levels for the Donda Foundation and special exhibits.
There are three primary sustainability drivers: night-flushing, using a combination of subterranean ventilation mazes and underground thermal mass; a green plaza for gathering and events that takes up roughly 2/3rds of the site, and direct solar orientation and gain tactics that shield the building’s interior from overpowering east and west sunlight.
Kathleen M. Kirby writes in Indifferent Boundaries that “Space, and where we are in it, determines a large portion of our status as subjects, and obversely, the kinds of subjects we are largely dictates our degree of mobility and our possible future locations.” This gallery is an attempt to deconstruct the experience of black artists in Chicago, and create an equitable space that propels it’s inhabitants forward in their art towards calmer futures.
As the final project of my graduate studies career, The West Gallery, itself an automaton collecting and diverging information, serves as a touchstone to my own growth and learning in the field of architecture. The skills I've learned in putting this massive undertaking together, and utilizing skills learned in the past-- Revit, Rhino, Sefaira, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, OSM-- all converged to create a singular reference point, a grand finale for my time as an architecture student, that I will forever be proud of.