Hip-hop is about the hood. What started out as a cultural movement in New York’s South Bronx led by Black and Latino youth in the early 1970s has now become a globally popular music genre and culture. But its origins wouldn’t be the same without paying consideration to the backdrop, and how hip-hop offers a glimpse into the urban spaces of the under-represented African-American diaspora across the United States.
In 2015, architect Sekou Cook, a professor and curator at Syracuse University, wondered; why hadn’t hip-hop made its way into architecture? What would it look like? And thus a movement was born.
Hip-hop music uses storytelling through rap to reach its audiences and be part of the narrative for the marginalized community. Hip-Hop Architecture is the spatial manifestation of the subculture, examining the cultural identity of African diasporic community in the urban built environment since the 1990s.
To get to the core of Hip-Hop Architecture, look at the methods. Spaces, buildings, and environments are produced based on the creative practices of hip-hop music; remixing, collage, graffiti, and so on. Hailed as the counter-dominant narrative against mainstream architecture, Hip-Hop Architecture seeks to explore a broader form of expression to architecture and design crossing borders of race, ethnicity, class, and religion.
The founding members of the Hip-Hop Architecture Movement are mainly a group of Cornell University students that include Sekou Cooke, James Garrett Jr., Amanda Williams, Nate Johnson, Craig Wilkins, and Nate Williams. Fed up with the status quo white-male-old-school way of thinking about architecture, the group pushed the edges of design and architecture inspired by the rap music and graffiti art evident in hip-hop culture.
For architect, curator and Syracuse University professor Sekou Cooke, hip-hop is poised to produce its own architecture; “if all these major creative movements in history, like the Renaissance, Baroque, Post-Modernism, Modernism, had creative products in all these different ways, why did hip-hop not have a creative product that included architecture?”
After pursuing this question, in 2018, Cooke curated and organized the landmark exhibition of Hip-Hop Architecture — “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip Hop Architecture” at the Center for Architecture in New York in September, which brought together the works of 21 architects, academics, and students from five countries at the center of this emerging architectural revolution.
The projects ranged from an array of modes of expressions, from experimental visualization formats and installation strategies to facade studies, building designs, and urban development proposals. “Early on, I had to keep redefining hip-hop, because every time I’d say hip-hop architecture, people would immediately just think about the music itself. Rap music is only one component of hip-hop culture, which is a larger culture that has all of these different modes of expression. If rap music is one part of a culture that can produce the drama of deejaying, the music of rapping, the dance of break-dancing, the artistry of graffiti, any natural progression would lead to an architecture [movement].” Cooke argues.
As a professor at the University of Michigan, and an advisory committee member for the “Close to the Edge” exhibition, Craig Wilkins is considered one of the leading scholars on African-Americans in architecture. His prominent treatise on Hip-Hip Architecture The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) proposes the goal of achieving spatial justice and social equity of the underrepresented groups with the tool of hip-hop inspired architecture.
Watch Craig Wilkins’ TED Talk on “The Architecture of Hip Hop” below for more information.
Born and raised in Detroit, hip-hop architect and scholar Michael Ford is also the co-founder of the Urban Arts Collective and designer of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the Bronx. Ford’s most direct dedication to hip-hop architecture is his Hip Hop Architecture lecture tour, in which Ford conducts a week-long Hip-Hop Architecture Camp organized by the Urban Arts Collective across the country that teaches students about design and urban planning by analyzing rap lyrics. According to the American Institute of Architects, only 4 percent of architects are black and only 0.3 percent are black women. As such, the Camp hopes to use hip-hop as a catalyst to create more opportunities for the underrepresented youth in careers to architecture, design, etc, and thus diversify America’s architecture community.
“Our environment has a profound impact on the way that we live. Architecture has challenged the ability of people of color to live in certain communities.” Ford said. “Music has been, for African-Americans, the voice of the voiceless. The message embedded within our music is telling us about the history of our cities and how they were replaced with horrific architecture. I think the biggest thing that I want to do with hip-hop architecture is to solve some of the issues that are talked about within the music.”
Olalekan Jeyifous’ project “Shanty Mega-structures”, 2015
Hip-Hop Architecture examines the dominant elements of re-purposing, sampling, and appropriation within hip-hop culture, and one exemplary case of this in practice is Olalekan Jeyifous’ 2015 project “Shanty Megastructure.” As Cooke revealed during his exhibition, “[Jeyifous’] 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.”
Jeyifous’ design features brightly colored, colossal buildings looming high above the shanty towns in Lagos, Nigeria all linked by monorails. The somewhat dystopian, retro-futuristic vision dissects the common feature of marginalized groups living in outskirts of cities. “These images juxtapose sites of privileged and much coveted real-estate throughout Lagos, Nigeria, with colossal vertical settlements representing marginalized and impoverished communities,” said Jeyifous about the project.
Boris “Delta” Tellegen’s Berlagelaan, 2013
Dutch graffiti artist Boris “Delta” Tellegen deconstructed a public housing brick facade in Haarlem, Netherlands in the project “Berlagelaan” (2013), making an otherwise mundane housing complex bend convention, with walls and windows projected at multiple angles.
Zvi Belling’s The Hive Apartment, 2012
Designed by ITN Architects Zvi Belling and a respected Melbourne graffiti artist Prowla, the Hive Apartment located in Melbourne can be seen as a literal interpretation of hip-hop culture. The apartment is structurally impressive by graffiti lettering and hip-hop iconography embedded in its concrete relief facade, with graffiti relief panels making up the external structure spelling “HIVE”.
“Graffiti is usually ephemeral — it’s only on the wall until another piece comes over it,” Belling says. “We wanted to play with that, with that idea of permanence. I guess we weren’t thinking about it in terms of literal. We were trying to think of it more metaphorically.”
Hip-hop architecture is carving out a new space, consistent with hip-hop culture’s focus on fluidity and rupture. Making its way from the margins to center takes awareness and movers, but slowly we can see that it’s shaking things up in the field of design. By including diversity in the design process and responding to the sampling shifting nature of the hip-hop subculture, architectural discourse empowers a wider range of people and shows the world how we can design for everybody.
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