by STIRworldOct 28, 2021
"Hip-hop culture began to influence the built environment from its very inception. The first time anyone wrote on a wall, or popped and locked in an empty lot, or hosted a party in the basement of an apartment building, they were asserting hip-hop’s influence on the city."
- Sekou Cooke
Hip-hop for most of us has always been linked to rapping, turntablism, DJ-ing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Hip-hop, a dominant cultural movement of our times, was established by the African American, Latino American, and Caribbean American youth of New York’s South Bronx neighbourhood in the early 1970s1. While its widely popular creative practices–deejaying, emceeing, b-boying, and graffiti–have globally been recognised, as a part of the culture, with even fashion and lifestyle associated with hip-hop being fairly well documented and celebrated, the design and architecture associated with it do not seem to be discussed as much. Imparting extensive knowledge on hip-hop architecture and bringing together different architects and designers practising in the domain, the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) is hosting the architecture exhibition, Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture. Curated by researcher, educator, curator, and Jamaican architect, Sekou Cooke, an active presence in vocalising the significance of hip-hop architecture, the MODA exhibition aims to throw light on necessary conversations around the design movement, through the medium of architecture and design.
In the simplest form, the exhibition introduces visitors to hip-hop architecture and defines it as "a design movement that embodies the collective creative energies native to young denizens of urban neighbourhoods." Adding to this statement, the official release by MODA mentions, "Its designers produce spaces, buildings, and environments that translate hip-hop's energy and spirit into built form." The exhibition presents works of 34 participants including students, academics, and practitioners from across the world. Through different mediums and forms of expression, the projects exhibited vary from experimental visualisation formats and installation strategies to facade studies, building designs, and urban development proposals. The exhibition is divided into three primary sections: hip-hop identity, hip-hop process, and hip-hop image. "Now three decades in the making, hip-hop architecture is finally receiving widespread attention within the discipline of architecture, thanks to years of dedication to its principles by practitioners such as—Sara Zewde, Ujijji Davis, James Garrett Jr., Craig L. Wilkins, and the show’s curator, Sekou Cooke,” states MODA.
With an intrigue to know more about the design movement, its past, its role in building the future, and what’s NEXT for hip hop architecture, STIR talked to Sekou Cooke, the curator of the exhibition and author of the titular book, Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture.
Sunena V Maju: How would you define hip-hop architecture?
Sekou Cooke: Hip-Hop architecture has been quite hard to define. It's not like any other easily visualised style or even like most architectural movements. It takes cues from hip-hop culture’s defiant attitude toward being defined. Every time you think you understand it and can put it in a box to be packaged and sold, it redefines itself, changes the rules––simultaneously frustrating and innovating. Hip-Hop architecture is much more grounded in that attitude of defiance, than any specific image of what its buildings might look like. It borrows from processes of sampling, layering, remixing, distorting, etc. but has no requirement to include any specific elements. For a simpler definition, I’ll cite the one given in the book: “hip-hop culture in built form.”
Sunena: How would you explain hip-hop architecture to someone who is not familiar with hip-hop?
Sekou: I would first challenge (the claim of) whether or not they are really unfamiliar with hip-hop culture. As I have often argued, hip-hop is the dominant cultural force of our times. As such, there are very few places you can go in, our physical or digital world, where hip-hop or its effects cannot be read. If you wear Beats headsets, watch basketball, listen to any kind of contemporary music, or ever use street slang of any type (lit, dope, homies, hood, etc.) you are directly connected to hip-hop. Similarly, if you have spent any time in an urban environment almost anywhere in the world, you have had some interactions with how hip-hop's ideas help inform certain aspects of the modern city (for instance, public space usage, street art, event spaces).
It is impossible to discuss hip-hop culture without considering its urban context, and it’s equally impossible to properly discuss contemporary urbanism without mentioning hip-hop. – Sekou Cooke
Sunena: Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture is an initiative that was translated from a book to a symposium and then to an exhibition. What is the primary aim of the initiative?
Sekou: Actually, the book came at the end of the process. The first aim, with my original essay The Fifth Pillar: A Case for Hip-Hop Architecture was to get thoughts that had been brewing in my head about the subject to the public. I wrote it once I noticed the topic getting renewed attention almost 20 years after I first encountered Nate Williams' thesis project at Cornell entitled Hip-Hop Architecture. Then, once that received widespread recognition and I was fed some new material on the topic from Craig Wilkins, I decided to host 'Towards a Hip-Hop Architecture', a symposium I hoped would be a definitive statement on the subject. I invited 12 speakers in five sessions over two days to discuss a topic that I was ready to put to bed. At the time, I just thought it was a cool idea that a few people were interested in. By the end of the two days, I was convinced hip-hop architecture needed more time and space to solidify as a movement. I then dedicated the next five years of my career, researching the topic. That research produced the exhibition, first shown at the AIANY Center for Architecture in 2018, then the book that I finished in 2019 which was published in 2021. The aim has always been to create a solid foundation for a movement that would grow beyond any work that I could possibly produce myself, and for that work to be stable enough for me to move on to other areas of interest, in my practice.
Sunena: Could you tell us a little about the different works displayed at the exhibition?
Sekou: The exhibition's collection represents my best attempt at answering the question 'What does Hip-Hop Architecture look like?' That question took me on a journey to find, at first, 25 different projects, now 34 projects, from students, academicians, practitioners, theorists, and hip-hop artists involved in the design world, working in seven countries across a time period of almost 30 years. Many of these works are also represented in the book. In both locations, you’ll find work from Amanda Williams, Olalekan Jeyifous, Theaster Gates, Craig Wilkins, Stephane Malka, Lauren Halsey, James Garrett, Jr., DELTA, ZEDZ, Tajai Massey, Demar Matthews, Sara Zewde, and many others. My favourite areas of the show are in the side gallery of MODA, where we have both the 'I Know You Seen Me on Your Videos' and 'On Form' sections. The former is a collage of various videos from lectures, TED talks, public fora, and music videos that explore the relationship between hip-hop and architecture. The latter is a series of newly printed 3D models from the show, painted all white and stripped of their materiality, colour, and context to only focus on their formal language. As a bonus, there is a new element to the show called '3D Turntables' where we hacked a couple of 3D printers, to allow visitors to disrupt live prints that later get displayed on the gallery walls.
Sunena: When according to your research, does hip-hop culture begin to influence the built environment?
Sekou: Hip-hop culture has influenced the built environment from its very inception. The first time anyone wrote on a wall, or popped and locked in an empty lot, or hosted a party in the basement of an apartment building, they were asserting hip-hop’s influence on the city. Architecture, on the other hand, still believes that it has the sole power to exercise dominion over all things built. It still has a long way to go in acknowledging outside influences or recognising the impact hip-hop has on the way we navigate a city, or interact with public space, or occupy places in ways they were never designed to be occupied.
Sunena: Could you speak of a few built spaces that come under hip-hop architecture's school of thought?
Sekou: A couple of spaces that I refer to, in the book, are in New York and Saint Paul. The Rooftop Legends event takes place annually on the rooftop playground of a public school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Each year a whole community of graffiti artists transform the bulkhead walls of the building with bolder and more skilful pieces while exchanging tags in each other's sketchbooks, eating amazing Jamaican food, and listening to the old school house, reggae, club beats, and hip-hop. You can taste hip-hop in the air. In Saint Paul, we had the second iteration of the Close to the Edge exhibition, and put it together with mostly volunteer labour in the back-of-house garage of a former car dealership, in the heart of the Frogtown neighbourhood. The assembly of the show, which was a kind of performance in its own right, and the community events held throughout its summer run were great examples of hip-hop and architecture working synergistically. I’ll also mention Camp North End, here in Charlotte, where I now live. This is a massive area of land filled with vast stretches of old warehouses that were abandoned for ages, before being developed as—art studios, business incubators, and public event spaces. The way they have allowed various businesses and artists to transform the space, in a serially temporary way has made it a thriving destination for everything culturally innovative. I often use this as a good example of hip-hop architectural principles at work.
All dominant cultural forces have historically expressed themselves through architecture and have subsequently impacted societal norms––the Classical period, the Renaissance, the Baroque, Modernism, and Postmodernism. Why not hip-hop? – Sekou Cooke
Sunena: “So why does hip-hop architecture not exist? If it does, who are its practitioners? If it is yet to exist, how will it come to be? And, if we do eventually reconcile hip-hop’s recondite relationship with architecture, how will communities, spaces, and lives transform?” You had raised these questions in your 2014 article for The Harvard Journal of African American Planning Policy. After eight years, how would you address them?
Sekou: I didn’t know it at the time, but each of these questions I posed in 2014 would become the research questions that have guided and driven my work, over those eight years. I was happy to have this all culminate in the thoroughly presented positions I was able to make in the book. In conversation with my former self, I would say now, 'Yes, it does exist. Its practitioners are to be found in architecture schools, embedded in large corporate firms, running rogue individual practices, and inside and outside the walls of academia. Its impact in transforming architectural practice, and eventually the world, is yet to be seen.'
Sunena: One last question to round up our conversation, what’s NEXT for Sekou Cooke?
Sekou: I am working on walking the walk. I am really investing myself in seeing these projects come to life, in my work, in service of various communities that rarely have interactions with architects. That work takes time. It takes deep commitment, patience, and resilience. I am growing in each of these areas. I am also clarifying for myself that the architecture I am committing to is an architecture about people.