Hip-hop architecture may sound like an oxymoron, but for Sekou Cooke, an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, it’s an imminent artistic and cultural movement that has been brewing for at least two decades. The tie between hip-hop and architecture isn’t as farfetched as one may think. In his essay “The Fifth Pillar: A Case for Hip-Hop Architecture” (Harvard Journal of African American Planning Policy, 2014; and republished at ArchDaily), Cooke argues that hip-hop owes its existence to architecture, urbanism, and city planning. In turn, architecture deserves a place alongside the four pillars, or elements, of hip-hop: deejaying, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti.
The true father of hip-hop remains up for debate—was it Le Corbusier, Robert Moses, or someone else?—as does what hip-hop architecture entails. Cooke, for one, envisions in his essay that the movement will “embody the spirit of hip-hop’s birth … be both anti-establishment and socially responsible … and take a revolutionary stance towards preservation of the public health, safety, and welfare.”
To further the discussion, Cooke is bringing together design researchers and practitioners for Towards a Hip-Hop Architecture, a symposium on March 19 and 20 at Syracuse University. ARCHITECT spoke with Cooke to learn more.
Describe the connection between hip-hop and architecture.
It's a subject that's been talked about and thought about for at least 20 years. In 2009, Craig Wilkins, at the University of Michigan, published The Aesthetics of Equity (University of Minnesota Press). To me, it's almost like a hip-hop architecture instruction manual. He talks about otherness, how spaces are designed for inclusion or exclusion, who is being included or excluded, and the potential of hip-hop architecture to be more inclusive to underrepresented groups. At end of each chapter, he has this section called Remix, where he basically restates the argument using hip-hop slang, or Ebonics, to break down the idea. In this manner, that really connects to the hip-hop generation.
Beyond Craig Wilkins, there's Michael Ford, who has been formulating own ideas about hip-hop architecture. In my opinion, he mistakenly states Le Corbusier is the father of hip-hop, but in the last year or two, his work and arguments have been making the rounds and getting more popular.
More recently is the book Archi.Pop (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), which is about architecture and popular culture. The last chapter, written by Lawrence Chua, covers hip-hop and urbanism, how hip-hop grew out of the Modernist idealized project buildings, and how the architectural context spawned this new movement.
How does architecture fit in with the four elements of hip-hop?
Each major cultural movement had its register in five areas: art, music, theater, dance, and architecture. Somehow in the hip-hop cultural movement, architecture got left out. It’s always been this thing that has been inaccessible to the underclass, the underprivileged. Now that more people in those communities are making their way into architectural practice and academics, this is an opportunity for architecture to stake its claim as the fifth basic element of hip-hop.
What can architects learn from hip-hop?
Right now, architecture is desperately lacking in diversity, profitability, and pervasiveness; it hasn’t made a dent into popular culture. Frank Gehry might make it into The Simpsons, and Rem (Koolhaas) may make it on the cover of Time magazine, but architects aren't very well known in popular culture. It's still this elite, obscure, marginal thing. What hip-hop is good at is being diverse, being profitable, and being pervasive. If we can embrace hip-hop architecture and learn from those lessons, architecture as a whole can rally itself around a new cultural movement that may make it more relevant in today's society.
How can the principles of hip-hop architecture apply to a built project?
It’s a bit early to know what the built remnants of this movement will be. It's more in the early stages of studying where this is going to be most impactful. Any creative work benefits from diversity, and architecture has long been looking for diverse opinions. The idea of otherness has been talked about for at least 30 years: What is value of otherness, what is really outside of it? Because architecture remains [primarily] white, it’s limited in the things that it can see and do, and the people it can reach. [The movement] might not be about a specific type of formal language, structural pattern, or rhythm that buildings take on, but about who do we engage, who are the user groups and communities that we include at the table, and can that be remixed and re-understood in a different way.
Why the recent interest in architecture by hip-hop artists?
We haven't had anybody in hip-hop who's had this influence until the last five or 10 years. Ten years ago, Jay Z wasn’t the king of America, and Dr. Dre was still pushing his record label, diversifying his business, and then selling his company for billions of dollars. They realize now that they have a larger agency and influence in the public sphere. They're looking at all the creative elements that they’re good at and asking themselves, "Why can't I do that as well? If I can influence fashion, product design, and furniture design, why can't I influence building design?"
When we brought Kanye (West) to the GSD (Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design), we realized we had this massive opportunity. We weren't going to laugh at Kanye and mock him about how he's influenced by Le Corbusier or about how many architects he's dealing with on a weekly basis. This is an opportunity to engage him in new kind of conversation. You have something that we need: celebrity, the ear of the public, and connections to a much broader audience than any architect has ever had. So can we bring you in here and engage with you, talk with you, and see if you can get what we have. At the time, what the GSD had is legitimacy within the architectural and academic circles. So this is something that he is seeking as well. The conversation we had was about how can we exchange these ideas and benefit from this new territory that both of us are moving into.
Your symposium lists a series of provocations on its agenda. What’s going to happen?
You can’t really [engage a hip-hop presence in some] conference hall with people sitting down to get their CEUs. It has to be in the hallways, in the corridors: Hip-hop re-appropriates public space. The panel discussions will be in the lecture hall, but the big provocation sessions will be in the public realm—in the atrium space of Slocum Hall. The first session will present a series of quotes from hip-hop lyrics that talk about architecture, urbanism, or the built environment, and also quotes from architectural writings that talk about hip-hop. Then, in a circle, the invited participants will engage in a freestyle session where they can stand up and state what they're thinking about. It's something unique to the hip-hop cypher where a freestyle session breaks out, and new lines and flows come out. We'll then go into sessions where we do panel discussions. [On the second day] we'll end with another freestyle session that reflects back on the sessions. Hopefully we'll end up with something of a manifesto to move forward on this topic.
Hopefully this will be a landmark event for the topic and spawn more events, projects, exhibitions, and publications. I’d like to liken it to Philip Johnson's MoMA show (Modern Architecture: International Exhibition in 1932). Modernism was being practiced for 20 years before that but nobody called it modernism or the International Style until that show started. So hopefully this will be that MoMA moment.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.