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Can hip-hop make architecture more equitable?

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“Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture,” a new exhibition at the Center for Architecture, makes an urgent case for why it can

Curated by Sekou Cooke, “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip Hop Architecture” examines 25 years worth of design through the lens of hip-hop.
Erik Barden

Throughout history, major cultural movements—like the Renaissance, Modernism, and Postmodernism—have expressed themselves through visual art, music, architecture, and dance. When Sekou Cooke, an architect, curator, and professor at Syracuse University, thought about hip-hop, he wondered why it was so prolific in everything except architecture.

“Why is that? Why hasn’t hip-hop created its own architecture? And if it did, what would it look like? If it has, can we find it?,” he pondered at the opening of “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture,” a new exhibition at the Center for Architecture, in New York.

For the past five years, Cooke has been investigating potential answers to those questions and drawing throughlines between manifestos, conceptual projects, constructed work, and scholarly theses in an ambitious undertaking to identify—and define—architecture’s next great -ism. According to Cooke, Hip-Hop Architecture has arrived. But in hailing a countercultural philosophy as the next great mainstream movement in architecture, will the exhibition also hammer a nail in its coffin?

Olalekan Jeyifous’s 2015 project “Shanty-Megastructures” explores adding contemporary infrastructure and architecture to bustling Lagos, Nigeria.
Courtesy Center for Architecture

So what exactly is Hip-Hop Architecture? According to Cooke’s exhibition, it’s spaces, buildings, and environments that embody hip-hop culture, a movement established by Black and Latino youth in the South Bronx in the 1970s. It riffs on and adapts what was there before; it advances social equity and justice; it breaks things apart, adds something new, and remixes it together; it’s vibrant and colorful. It benefits people mainstream architecture has ignored, left behind, or harmed, and, often, is created by those very people.

While some of the techniques within Hip-Hop Architecture might sound similar to or are echoed in existing -isms—like Postmodernism, Deconstructivism, Afrofuturism, and activist architecture—Cooke argues that since those movements weren’t actively responding to the “cultural, political, or economic conditions that are related to hip-hop” they wouldn’t be categorized as such.

Craig Wilkins, a professor at the University of Michigan, an advisory committee member for the exhibition, and one of the first practitioners to design architecture through the lens of hip-hop, puts it this way: “I’m just going to be honest: Architecture has been hostile to the influence of people of color. It’s been slow to recognize it, slow to embrace it, still slow to discuss it. I’m excited for the possibility for a real sort of architectural philosophy—an ideology and aesthetic—that’s undeniably rooted in African-American experience.”

Graffiti artist Boris “Delta” Tellegen’s design for a housing development in the Netherlands deconstructs the facade to make it look three dimensional.
Courtesy Center for Architecture

The projects in “Close to the Edge,” which surveys 25 years of work, and begin with Wilkins’s 1992 proposal for a “Hip-Hop Park” in Chicago—a public space made from reclaimed materials found in a former vacant lot. The exhibition also includes Nina Cooke-John’s “Urban Porch,” a 1995 project that turns spaces between buildings in predominantly Caribbean neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens into spaces for music storytelling.

Then, there’s the work of Delta, a Dutch graffiti artist who deconstructed the brick facade of a 2013 housing project in Haarlem, the Netherlands, so it looks like it’s three dimensional. “Shanty Megastructures,” a 2015 conceptual project from Olalekan Jeyifous, layers modern infrastructure and buildings in frenetic Lagos, Nigeria.

“[Jeyifous’s] eye and the kind of work he creates is aesthetically recognizable as hip-hop architecture, or an architectural form that’s about collage, remix, and sampling,” Cooke explains during a walk-through of the installation. “And it’s always in these locations and contexts that are culturally provocative, whether in Legos or a warehouse in Brooklyn—they’re urban strategies.”

Architects working in a fine-art context also make appearances, like Amanda Williams’s 2014 Color(ed)Theory Series, photographs of vacant, soon-to-be demolished buildings Williams painted with vibrant hues as an investigation of gentrification and privilege. Nathan Williams—an artist, designer, and researcher focusing on the African diaspora—is behind one of both the oldest and the newest pieces, both collages, in the exhibition: His 1993 thesis from Cornell University and a 2017 project that maps the city using hip-hop ideas. Lauren Halsey’s 2018 Crenshaw District Hieroglyphic Project, a monument to South Central Los Angeles’s communities, represents one of the most contemporaneous works.

Lauren Halsey’s Crenshaw District Hieroglyphic Project, from 2018, is a monument to South Central Los Angeles.
Courtesy Center for Architecture

The exhibition design itself—by Cooke’s own studio with graphics by WeShouldDoItAll—represents Hip-Hop Architecture, too: The walls are layered with remnants from the previous exhibition, graffiti by Chino, and a deconstructed shipping container.

In bringing all of these works together under the guise of a singular architectural movement, Cooke’s exhibition is drawing comparisons to Philip Johnson’s 1932 Museum of Modern Art International Style show, which profoundly influenced the field aesthetically and socially for at least three decades.

“What it did was it tried to define a term—tried to grab a term that had been around for a while—create a group of objects around it, and say, ‘This is a historical term to define the ... previous decade,’” says historian and Center for Architecture president Barry Bergdoll. “No sooner was it exhibited and categorized than people began to debate it. People began to tear it apart.”

The installation includes found objects used as models for a workshop on designing a museum of hip-hop.
Courtesy Center for Architecture

This year, hip-hop and R&B surpassed rock as the most popular musical genres in the United States. As it moves into the mainstream, its elder statesmen are also exploring what that means for broader forms of expression. High-end hip-hop galleries are opening in the Bronx. Dueling organizations are racing to be the first to open a hip-hop museum. So-called hip-hop architects are wrestling with this, too. In moving from the fringes into wider acceptance from academia and institutions, practitioners are questioning what this style is, what its promise will be, and how it will be used—and potentially misused.

“The possibilities [of Hip-Hop Architecture] are what really excite me: the architectural process becomes more democratized, that everyone has access to do something or has agency in creating their environments and shaping their environments,” Cooke says. “The biggest possible pitfall is when people expect that it’s the architect’s responsibility or duty to take a socially proactive stance with every single work they do. I think architecture can exist within the entire spectrum within pure aesthetic project and social activism.”

When Nina Cooke-John completed her thesis project, she felt like she was alone. Now, she’s excited to see her work within the context of other practitioners working though similar issues over the past 25 years.

“When I was in school kind of we had a really strong modernist base,” she says. “The idea that we could challenge that in a specific way, in different contexts, is really exciting. It’s not just about a small group of people who can look at architecture and urban design this way, but all architects can ask, ‘How can we design in a humanistic way, understand the needs [of people], and give them a voice?’ And not just coming in as the grandmaster knowing what’s best for everyone and creating super-bland, washed out buildings that are supposed to be a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Wildstyle: Museum of Hip-Hop, 2017, by Michael Muchmore
Courtesy Center for Architecture

Hip-Hop Architecture’s social mission—giving a “voice to the voiceless,” as Wilkins said in a TED talk about his work, and using architecture as a tool to achieve spatial justice and social equity—is a foundational goal of the movement. However, there is concern that this ethic might get lost if hip-hop architecture is appropriated.

For the communities that invented hip-hop music, real estate development of any kind—even well intentioned—is often a violent and destabilizing force. Like the misuse of “creative placemaking” for projects that don’t actually engage with the communities they claim to benefit, “Hip-Hop Architecture” could simply become another buzzphrase co-opted by commercial interests, ultimately rendering it superficial.

“Historically, the wheels of capitalism have [rolled over] anything and everything that has been perceived as a threat to its existence,” Wilkins says. “KRS-One has this profound statement: ‘Rap is something you do, but hip-hop is something you live.’ I’m afraid that the more this becomes part of a mainstream conversation, the more it’s relevant, the more people recognize its legitimacy, and it becomes apart of larger conversation about what architecture can do, it will become appropriated. And there’s a history of this.”

Wilkins draws parallels to the Modernist movement, which began as a way to improve the standards of living for all, through design, technology, and architecture. By using new technologies, prioritizing efficiency, and finding ways to build inexpensively, more people could be housed and greater equity could be achieved.

“That was one of the major tenets [of Modernism], that this is a social movement; it’s not just architectural,” Wilkins says. “That failed miserably for a lot of reasons. At the end of modernism, it was simply high fashion. That’s all it was. I’m definitely afraid that will happen to Hip-Hop Architecture as well—that it will become fashion and not actually something that is created to raise all boats.”

Amanda Williams, This is my Nursery School, from There Are No Blank Sheets of Paper, 1997
Courtesy Center for Architecture

But appropriation, in a negative light, isn’t necessarily Hip-Hop Architecture’s fate. Wilkins and Cooke-John remain optimistic about the movement’s potential to make positive change, particularly when it comes to making architecture’s ranks more diverse—which is sorely needed to ensure the field of architecture can be relevant and exciting.

The works in the exhibition focus on hip-hop architecture in an educational context. In 2015 and 2017, Chris Cornelius hosted studios in which undergraduate students designed a museum for hip-hop. He invited them to examine the processes behind creating hip-hop music and use them in the design process, like diagramming a track and using similar organizational principles in their conceptual drawings, which are on view in the exhibition.

There’s also a 2017 TED talk from Mike Ford, an architect using hip-hop to introduce children of color to the architecture through design camps, in which he argues that hip-hop can be interpreted as a post-occupancy report on Modernism’s failures.

“If you go around promoting architecture as architecture, [young people of color] will look at buildings that gentrified their neighborhoods, offices they’ll never work in,” Wilkins says. “But when you look at it through a lens that puts you at the center, that puts your concerns at the center, that allows you to create from that position, you say, ‘Yeah. I see that I can do something in architecture. That’s for me.’ This exhibit, and the whole Hip-Hop Architecture movement, is about community. It’s about empowerment. That empowerment comes from the designer. It’s available to the community, to the client, and to the youth.”

PHAT (Nathaniel Belcher, Stephen Slaughter), Harlem Ghetto Fabulous, 2003
Courtesy Center for Architecture

This past weekend, the Center for Architecture and AIA New York hosted a symposium about Hip-Hop Architecture to discuss the movement as a tool for cultural preservation, analyze its aspirations, and situate it within the broader issues facing architecture and design today. Hip-Hop Architecture is here to stay.

“If you are open to having the discussion [about Hip-Hop Architecture], you will see that this isn’t some off-the-block countercultural movement to sort of make people of color and practitioners of color relevant—we are relevant,” Wilkins says. “It’s trying to have a substantive conversation and bring to the table untapped knowledge that is helpful to the entire discipline. It’s an offer for the profession and the discipline to embrace that knowledge. We’re going to do what we do regardless, but if you want to be more relevant in this country where there are more people of color who will be your clients, if you want to be more relevant in the world, perhaps you want to have this conversation.”

Correction: Sekou Cooke is a professor at Syracuse University, not Cornell, as a previous edition stated.