Decades after its inception in the playgrounds and block parties of the Bronx, hip-hop has influenced countless corners of American culture including music, visual art, dance, and fashion. However, architect, curator, and Syracuse University professor Sekou Cooke, wondered why architecture wasn’t more prominently featured as part of this picture. As he explained in a phone interview with Hyperallergic: “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?”
Cooke spent the past five years exploring this question; the result of his extensive research is Close to The Edge: The Birth of Hip Hop Architecture, now on view at the Center for Architecture. The exhibition brings together 21 architects, artists, academics, and architecture students from all over the world who explore what hip-hop architecture looks like and what it can do for both the people who create it and the communities it exists in.
The upside of an exhibition on a movement in its infancy is that it’s hard to pigeonhole. But it’s also hard to determine what visually brings the works in the exhibition together. The works on display: architectural renderings, experimental models, as well as projects already completed or under construction, are coherent in their spirit if not in their design.
That spirit is one of constant reinvention, adaptation, and making something out of nothing. It remixes a building’s design and structure in the way a DJ might remix a song. It’s also a spirit of equity: considering who a particular building, park, residence, or public space might be for, who has access to it, and who might be left out.
The remix begins with the gallery walls. The usual white plaster is replaced with panels from shipping containers, which artist David “Chino” Villorente tagged, in black, with rap lyrics, mini-manifestos, and the names of prominent rappers, dancers, and DJs.
The structure,”Berlagelaan,” (2013) is by Dutch graffiti artist Boris “Delta” Tellegen’s design for a building facade in Haarlem, Netherlands. It alters the facade of a beige brick housing project to make it three dimensional, with walls and windows projected at multiple angles. The angles are created by laying bricks in diamond shapes across the middle of the building. The 3D effect adds movement and visual interest to an otherwise bland exterior, but also cuts off some of the windows, making it too dark to live in though interesting to look at.
Because the idea of hip-hop architecture is still very new, the design elements aren’t quite apparent yet, though Deconstructivism and Postmodernism are probably the closest reference points in forms that emphasize the design of façades, different heights for different sections of buildings, and references classical architecture. Hip-hop architecture borrows some of the visual language of both movements with an emphasis on façades and mixing multiple fragments of varied architectural styles, putting them together in unexpected ways, for example with modulations in height and width and shape, sometimes appearing as if the buildings are in motion.
Olalekan Jeyifous’s “Shanty-Megastructures” (2015) are an example of this. Jeyifous’s design features Orange, barrel-shaped buildings with steel frames built on top of older, blocky buildings, connected by monorails. The structures resemble something out of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, a 1960s vision of what the future might look like, sleek and optimistic and brightly colored.
A design from students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a proposed Wildstyle Museum of Hip Hop in the Bronx takes a similar approach, with a building shaped like an undulating triangle, rendered in white, black, and red.
In Cooke’s own “3D Turntables: Remixing Hip-Hop Architectural Technology,” (2017) Cooke and a team of his students took scale models of houses in Syracuse that are scheduled for demolition, and used 3D printers and laser cutters to deconstruct, reassemble and reimagine them instead of destroying them.
A few of the most compelling pieces in Close to the Edge are those that directly address the aforementioned questions of equity that come into play with architecture. These works include designs for non-profit organizations and public spaces in traditionally Black, Latino, and low-income neighborhoods that are facing gentrification.
A plan for Elementz, a Cincinnati arts center that teaches visual arts, dance, DJing, and other classes through a hip-hop lens, features a jungle-gym structure on the lobby’s ceiling, making it feel like an inviting playground, an inclusive space that would excite children and adults alike to learn and participate.
Students in Cooke’s third-year design studio at Syracuse University tested ideas of hip-hop architecture on their project “New Chocolate City: Hip Hop Architecture in Washington, DC” (2017) It includes designs for public spaces in changing DC neighborhoods. The project includes curbside seating and picnic tables, even a plan for a park space that looks like a sunken living room (or conversation pit as some design magazines call them). Even in computer renderings these pits look like inviting places to sit, and make an argument that all neighborhoods, of all income levels should have accessible public spaces.
My favorite public space design in the exhibition was Lauren Halsey’s “Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project” (2018), a prototype of which was recently on view at the Hammer Museum in LA. When completed, it will be located on a section of Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles. In the pictures here it looks like a miniature Temple of Dendur — cool gray stone etched with people, symbols, and designs inspired by the South Central neighborhood. Written on one side is a manifesto: “We Still Here.”
At odds with that spirit of inclusiveness however, is the question of what happens if hip-hop architecture, like rap music or graffiti, or fashion, becomes a trend, a style, ripe for co-option. Hip-hop culture has already influenced real estate, as wealthy developers like Steve Wynn and Goldman Properties sponsor walls painted by big names in graffiti and street art, drawing in affluent buyers who want their luxury with a side of street cred. Recently, the Citizen M opened in New York City’s Chinatown with a Museum of Street Art featuring murals from artists who previously had pieces on the much missed Five Pointz building in Long Island City. This isn’t the goal for Cooke, for both this exhibition and the future of hip hop architecture in general. Existing only as a style or for marketing, Cooke says, “is the saddest possible way for this movement to end up.”
Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip Hop Architecture is now on view at the Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place, Manhattan, through January 12. It was curated by Sekou Cooke.