Sekou Cooke reflects on connections between architecture and hip-hop as the music genre celebrates its 50th birthday

The Architecture of Hip Hop

Sekou Cooke reflects on connections between architecture and hip-hop as the music genre celebrates its 50th birthday

Fifty years ago today, DJ Kool Herc hosted a party at Sedgwick Houses in The Bronx that is now identified as the origin of hip-hop. (Stephanie Morillo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fifty years ago today, DJ Kool Herc hosted a party at Sedgwick Houses in The Bronx that is now identified as the origin of hip-hop. To recognize this anniversary, AN is sharing an essay by Sekou Cooke that was previously published in The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, a book which accompanies an exhibition of the same name co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum. The show was on view in Baltimore through July 16. It will open in Saint Louis on August 19.  

Hip-hop emerged from the urban conditions of American cities in the second half of the 20th century. Cooke’s essay makes connections between the domains of hip-hop and architecture while incorporating recent developments after the murder of George Floyd. He writes that his “dream is that we can arrive at a place of recognition for the contributions of hip hop in shaping our cities, defining or tastes, influencing our language, and creating space.”

The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century (Courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art)

I have something to confess. Despite being a leading emissary of the Hip-Hop Architecture movement, I don’t consider myself a “hip-hop head.” It’s a dirty little secret I’ve carried with me throughout my public life. Don’t get me wrong, my basic hip-hop cred is on point. I can recite like 80 percent of the lyrics to Biggie’s “Juicy” (1994) and I can remember my sister and me jumping on the bed with our cousins from Brooklyn and the Bronx to Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (1980) in the summer of 1981. But when I think of a hip-hop head, I think of someone who is fully immersed in hip-hop culture and fully identifies with the broader hip-hop community.

I identify as an architect. It is not just my job; it is who I am. In adopting that identity, I’ve gladly accepted all the elitist awe that being called an architect inspires while having to make peace with its reprehensible relationship with capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. Like many other Black architects, I struggle to reconcile my identity with a field that refuses to identify with me. I wrote the monograph Hip-Hop Architecture as an explicit argument to architects that cultural identity is a legitimate source of architectural production. Being included in The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century provides a unique platform to make the case anew to a community already fully invested in producing works of art, music, dance, drama, fashion, and literature through their cultural identity—a community where I already feel accepted whether I identify as a hip-hop head or not. If I manage to be half as convincing to the hip-hop community as I have been to the architectural community, then maybe hip hop will count architecture among its list of creative pursuits.

Before publishing the monograph, I spent the better part of a decade talking to architects about hip hop and its power to transform our discipline. The primary thesis of these talks rests on two fundamental principles: that hip hop is as valid a source of cultural production as the Renaissance, Modernism, Postmodernism, or any other major cultural movement throughout history, and that architecture can be generated through close analysis and interpretation of hip hop’s four primary elements. Whatever pushback I’ve encountered was grounded in misunderstandings about exactly what hip hop is or what architecture should be. However, once we define Hip-Hop Architecture as being connected to hip hop as a culture rather than hip hop as a musical genre, and we accept that architecture at its best reflects the social consciousness of a people, then it becomes clear that an architecture of hip hop is not only possible, but necessary. Additional resistance has come from those looking to package Hip-Hop Architecture as an easily commodified set of stereotypical hip hop images. Once reduced to an architectural “style” with a checklist of dos and don’ts (must have graffiti wall, no gridded elements, must reuse an existing factory, etc.), what began as a movement about process and identity becomes an easily replicated consumer product. I’ve also had to circumvent the gatekeepers of architectural thought––those wanting to protect architecture’s disciplinary limits from what they perceive to be underdeveloped trends or passing fads. It is precisely this rigidity that has kept the field from escaping its most damaging legacies and has brought it dangerously close to irrelevance.

Since the social justice uprisings of summer 2020, the architectural establishment has had a unique opportunity to look inward at its shortcomings. The racist legacy of architecture was a truth easily apparent to Black architects for generations but was breaking news to most architects in the Western world in the days following George Floyd’s murder. The fact that architectural discourse had survived for so long without this legacy being thoroughly confronted gave a different flavor to its version of the Black Lives Matter movement. Further interrogation of each shooting, lynching, and other forms of public execution of Black men, women, and children at the hands of police officers and vigilantes has revealed how differently communities experience the public and private domains within American society. Each crime has a crime scene. And there is much to be learned about the role of design in institutional oppression from understanding the spaces in which these crimes were committed. Floyd: killed in the middle of a public street owned by a municipality and paid for by taxes. Breonna Taylor: killed inside a private residence accessed without her consent. Ahmaud Arbery: killed while jogging on a public street through a residential neighborhood where private homes were predominantly owned by white residents. Each incident report brings spatial justice in direct conversation with social justice. As writer Katherine McKittrick puts it:

It is useful, I think, to begin with the idea that Black people do not passively inhabit space and place. . . . If we begin from this premise––that the production of space and multi-scalar geographies are, in themselves, a kind of Blackness––we can avoid conversations that rely on linearity and conceptualize Black people as an afterthought (first there is oppressive space, second is the oppression of Black people in that space, third is resistance).

In academic circles, these same conversations, and the awareness they elicited, inspired new courses, public events, and opportunities for underrepresented faculty to take pedagogical risks. The reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement also spawned or bolstered progressive organizations like Dark Matter University, the collective Design as Protest, BlackSpace Urbanist Collective, and the Black Reconstructions Collective (BRC). Each organization is committed to reshaping design education and practice through greater cultural awareness without emulating the same oppressive institutions they are working to upend. As Emanuel Admassu, co-founder of the BRC, puts it, “As long as we [the BRC] refuse ever becoming fully formed and make sure that we stay in the space of incompleteness, then I think we have a chance. The moment we become ‘institutionalized’ we lose the game.”

When architect and academic Craig Wilkins states that “Hip-Hop Architecture should be a model for all architectural practice,” he is positing an answer to the questions about diversity, equity, and justice that architectural institutions have been asking themselves since that infamous summer. Hip hop embodies the core attitudes of refusal that can form the blueprint for liberating architecture from its self-inflicted wounds. Its fluid delineations of public and private space can inform new approaches to designing more equitable environments. Its irreverence toward authority and masterful remix of capitalism can guide the structure of new institutions. Within hip hop lie the seeds of architectural evolution. The two fields have the makings of a true symbiosis given that architecture is embedded within hip hop’s DNA. Indeed, there are several architectural cues written into hip-hop’s origin story. In Wilkins’ view, “hip hop architecture is one model for addressing questions of property, halting the destruction and deterioration of African-American urban communities and its best hope to restore their viability as sustainable communities.”

The location of hip hop’s celebrated birth 50 years ago, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, was not an inconsequential architectural environment. The famous rec room was in an apartment building constructed as one of several identically uninteresting concrete-and-brick boxes. This particular box is perched at the edge of a steep embankment overlooking a twisted web of highway interchanges. These roadways run alongside and across the banks of the Harlem River and parallel the railway tracks connecting Manhattan to Upstate New York. Each physical attribute of this location speaks volumes about several historical moments in architecture, urban design, and planning that transformed New York in the second half of the last century. If Kool Herc’s party for his sister had taken place in a different building, a different borough, or a different city, hip hop may still have had the same artistic legacy and cultural impact on the globe; however, these specific conditions of space, structure, and infrastructure place architectural discourse at the very heart of hip hop’s inception. Any retrospective conversations about hip hop must include an understanding of the design decisions that created the environments within which hip hop thrived.

“Let’s build.” The opening sentence in Michael Eric Dyson’s foreword to Hip-Hop Architecture was intended to connect the worlds of architectural production and hip-hop conversation. It also reminds us of the ways similar language has been used to divide communities. When two groups use the same words to mean completely different things, they often operate under the misconception that one group doesn’t (and can’t possibly) understand the other. Language, like a highway, a bridge, or a wall, is more easily seen as a connector than as a barrier once we let go of disciplinary constrictions. Many words fundamental to architectural understanding are used in ways that make them inaccessible to the public. Words like “praxis,” “typology,” and “juxtaposition” are mainstays of what has come to be known as “archispeak.” Simpler terms co-opted by architects, like “structure,” used to indicate a building, or “condition,” to describe an almost physical or ephemeral state of a building, obscure the many other meanings each word might indicate outside of architectural discourse. They are intended to protect a way of thinking for which one must be trained to understand. Though hip hop operates similarly with its coded dialects and ever-changing phraseology, its references are typically much richer and suggestive of multilayered social norms. Even a cursory analysis of basic greetings within the community can expose a world of potential anthropological research. (A feature on The Root’s column Very Smart Brothas, which lists 23 ways Black men refer to each other, including “cuz,” “god,” “homeskillet,” and “money,” is one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon.)

There are also several architectural terms that have parallels in hip-hop culture, each reinforcing a connection point between the two fields. I have packaged these into the quartet, “remix is renovation,” “rap is construction,” “breakdance is form,” and “graffiti is surface.” These phrases were drafted to illustrate how hip-hop processes can be translated into design processes, but read in reverse, they can identify areas within hip-hop culture where architecture and design are already present. Renovation can be seen wherever a DJ chops up old records to create a new composition. Construction happens whenever a lyricist puts pen to paper or lays words on a track to illustrate an intangible concept. Form is inscribed by each movement a b-boy performs or stance their body takes. Surface shapes and is shaped by each stroke of a graff writer’s pen or can. DJs, MCs, b-boys, and graff writers move freely and effortlessly within realms typically reserved for architects only.

The term “architect” itself is one of the most legally protected words in the United States (more protected even than “doctor”). Being licensed in one state and stating that fact publicly in another state is grounds for prosecution by the local registration board. There are also regular debates within professional associations about what to call those who have graduated from architecture school and work in architecture firms, but have yet to pass their licensing exams—intern? design associate? architectural designer? The idea that architecture can come from the same people as any of the hip-hop archetypes is an affront to the entire system. My dream is that we can arrive at a place of recognition for the contributions of hip hop in shaping our cities, defining or tastes, influencing our language, and creating space. Maybe architecture, like me, should be calling at hip hop’s door asking to be let in.

Sekou Cooke is an architect, urban designer, researcher, and curator. Born in Jamaica and based in Charlotte, North Carolina, he is the director of the Master of Urban Design program at University of North Carolina, Charlotte; the 2021–2022 Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; and a founding member of the Black Reconstruction Collective. The work of his practice, sekou cooke STUDIO, is centered on the exploration of Hip-Hop Architecture.