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Hip hop architecture

"Hip hop has always had to be sustainable" says Atlanta hip-hop architecture exhibition curator

Architecture uses many of the same creative principles as hip-hop music, the curator of an exhibition tracking the relationship between the musical genre and designing buildings, Sekou Cooke, says in this interview.

Titled "Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture", the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) exhibition showcases the work of 34 designers, artists and activists.

Hip-hop architecture is a term applied to architecture that takes influence from the culture of hip-hop music.

Like the music, the architectural styles are rooted in the experience of people of colour in the United States, particularly the tradition of solidifying identities through improvisation and reusing resources.

"[Hip hop] is something that's constantly adapting, constantly changing, constantly redefining itself," Cooke told Dezeen. "It's always layered and improvisational."

Hip Hop Architecture Exhibition
Top: Sekou Cooke is an architect in North Carolina. Photo by Michael Barletta. Above: Close to the Edge is an exhibition showcasing Hip Hop Architecture. Photo by Erik Bardin

The process of making hip-hop music carries striking similarities to an architecture team's process when designing a building, says Cooke, who himself is a practicing architect based in North Carolina.

Projects include Nathan Williams' Hip-Hop Housing in the 1990s, which took abandoned buildings and turned them into public housing, and the more recent work of Ujijji Davis' conversion of derelict lots in Detroit into public parks.

"Making do with what you have"

"I think hip hop has always had to be sustainable," said Cooke. "It has always had to operate in a realm of making do with what you have and adapting to the available resources."

"Sampling, layering, referencing the past in a very specific way, amplification, remix, flow – all of these words start to hint at us for a specific kind of process. We can start to see those processes as working in architecture in a very specific way."

Cooke said that aspects of hip hop culture like DJing, graffiti and breakdancing tend to be impromptu and use existing structures and technology to form a sense of identity.

Similarly, hip-hop architecture takes the disused aspects of the urban environment and reuses them.

According to Cooke, this practice, which is embedded in the hip hop genre, pushes back against the need for newness that drives much contemporary architecture.

"It forces architects to let go of their sense of self, their sense of permanence," he said

"I think those ideas and how they affect people are what's gonna last longer than the structures that don't have that kind of cultural connection but might last 100 years."

A legacy of displacement 

For Cooke, hip-hop architecture's attempts to do a lot with a little are linked to people in North American cities feeling disenfranchised and disconnected from culture.

"It comes from the legacy of being displaced from a homeland or being enslaved in this continent and being dealt scraps and having to turn it into something useful," he said.

When it comes to architecture, this philosophy involves acknowledging the cultural value of buildings and places and instead of knocking them down, building around them and with the existing infrastructure.

This emphasis on reuse chimes with a style currently gathering pace in architecture worldwide – driven by concerns about the embodied carbon impact of construction – that advocates for adaptation and renovation of existing buildings over building anew.

Cooke's interest in hip-hop architecture began during his time as an undergraduate at Cornell, where his friends were discussing the thesis of Williams, and he continued reading about the style in architecture graduate school in the 1990s.

The exhibition emerged from Cooke's realization that, though many people were working with a similar set of ideas, the hip-hop architecture field was "disjointed".

While acknowledging that no single person "owned" the idea, Cooke thought it important to organise the works set around a "singular set of ideas" into more of a "movement".

Read on for a selection of works featured in the exhibition, accompanied by comments from Cooke.

Nate Williams Rendering
Photo courtesy of Nate Williams

Hip-Hop Ar(t)chitecture Signifyin’; Sample, Layer, Repeat by Nate Williams, New York, 1993  

"Signifyin' translated the creative processes within hip-hop culture and related histories of African American peoples into new interventions for 'underused spaces in underserved communities' across New York City."

"The products of this research are presented as investigations: 'Hip-Hop Housing' (appropriations of abandoned buildings and empty lots for public housing), 'Hip-Hop Sidewalk' (underground DJ booths buried below sidewalk grates), and 'Hip-Hop Under and Over' (transient living units suspended below elevated train tracks)."

Image courtesy of Boris Tellegen

Berlagelaan by Boris "Delta" Tellegen, Amsterdam, 2o13

"In 2011, Ymere, a low-income housing program in Haarlem, Netherlands, commissioned Delta to design a brick façade pattern for one of their housing projects."

"The result is a warped, layered distortion of the base window pattern that suggests a deeper three-dimensional reading of the surface. In this project, Delta, one of the pioneers of European graffiti writing, was able to go beyond mere wall painting to affect the wall construction itself."

Shanty Megasctructures
Image courtesy of Olalekan Jeyifous

Shanty Mega-Structures by Olalekan Jeyifous, Lagos, 2015 

"First exhibited at the 2015 Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, Shanty Mega-Structures is another of Jeyifous' utopian/dystopian visions for urban environments, this one for Lagos, Nigeria."

"It imagines shantytowns that evolve into towers drastically transforming the skyline of the city and elevating the vibrant and varied activity within them. The formal language and materiality of the towers are designed with improvisation and sampling, techniques commonly associated with hip-hop DJs in their live performances."

Bodega Project
Image courtesy of Ujijji Davis
The Bottega by Ujijji Davis, Detroit, 2015
"In 2015, Detroit real-estate developer Jacobs Street commissioned Davis to convert a derelict structure in Detroit's Milwaukee Junction neighborhood into a fully-functional neighborhood park."
"Her design envisions multiple public uses collaged against a backdrop of new and existing walls. The Bottega, currently under construction, will serve as a public amenity featuring commissioned artworks from local and international street artists."

Lauren Halsey
Image courtesy of Lauren Halsey and David Kordansky Gallery

Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project by Lauren Halsey, LA, 2017

"For her Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project, Lauren Halsey continues the theme of carving culturally charged images onto 12x12-inch wall tiles used in previous installations. The new project is planned as a permanent structure embedded within the Crenshaw community with carved panels, or hieroglyphs, hand engraved by the local public."

"Halsey imagines these as 'a medium to express narratives, honor community leaders, celebrate events, [and] leave memorials'. A full-scale prototype of this structure was on display at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2019."

Museum of Hip Hop
Image courtesy of Michael Muchmore

Wildstyle: Museum of Hip-Hop by Michael Muchmore, Milwaukee, 2017

"Chris Cornelius, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning, led two design studios asking students to design a new Museum of Hip-Hop in Brooklyn. Fourth-year undergraduates in 2015 and graduate students in 2017 created designs for the museum based on drawing and model studies of various aspects of hip-hop culture."

"'SNAFU' and 'song analysis' drawings help to dissect hip-hop production into diagrams for form generation, and 'found object' models comment on the tradition of making 'something from nothing' – one of hip hop's core ideals."

Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture is showing at the Museum of Design Atlanta until 29 January 2023. For a comprehensive listing of architecture and design events, exhibitions and talks see Dezeen's Event Guide