“It’s a coming-of-age story”: How a bunch of friends from 1990s Cornell University launched a hip-hop architecture movement-seminar-exhibition that lands in a remixed University Avenue auto dealership next week in St. Paul.
In the early ‘90s, frustrated by the white-male-old-school ways of architecture and academia, a group of Cornell University students (and like-minded friends, thinkers, and students from other universities) that included Sekou Cooke, James Garrett Jr., Amanda Williams, Nate Johnson, Craig Wilkins, and Nate Williams challenged the status quo by marrying two passions — architecture and hip-hop as a way of life — and launched the movement known as hip-hop architecture.
Throughout the ’90s, the relatively small coalition studied, worked, and pushed the edges of art, architecture, and design, all the while honoring the inclusive counterculture tenets of hip-hop and freedom of expression first expressed by graffiti art and rap music. In short order, the seeds of a revolution were planted: The students-artists-architects made up new rules for buildings and blueprints; Wilkins wrote the book “The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music” (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), and Cooke, a professor at Syracuse University, curated the seminar and exhibition “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip Hop Architecture,” which lands next week at SpringBOX! art space at 262 W. University Avenue in St. Paul.
“It’s been something that’s been percolating and brewing for many of us who are participating in this exhibition,” said Garrett Jr., a managing partner at 4RM+ULA, the St. Paul-based architecture firm that has won awards for people-centric designs, created the stops along the Green Line, and is currently at work on SpringBOX!, the new Springboard for the Arts-affiliated space. “It’s sort of a coming-of-age story about our generational cohort and the things that we thought were important as students, and we’re now having a chance to self-actualize and express.”
Like most things hip-hop, Cooke maintains that the exact definition of hip-hop architecture is fluid.
“Back in the early ‘90s, ‘hip-hop architecture’ was a group of students talking about and experimenting with a lot of these ideas,” said Cooke last week, as workers installed framed examples of the movement, a graffiti artist spray-painted the walls with lyrics from the Wu Tang Clan, Grandmaster Flash, Nas, Mos Def, Flatbush Zombies, and Open Mike Eagle, and Springboard associate director Carl Atiya Swanson scurried about, readying the new digs. “During the mid-90s, we had at Cornell a minority affairs adviser named Ray Dalton, and he did more than almost anybody else to really diversify the population of the architecture program there. It went from one or two or zero black students per class to seven or eight or nine in a class of 65 or 70 students.
“So between 1990 and 1999, there was a real hotbed, a critical mass, of black and Latino students who were in the architecture program at Cornell. Enough to start exchanging ideas about what it meant to be black and studying architecture, and what it meant to have a very different cultural background than what we were being taught and how our culture could actually become expressed within architecture.”
“We’ve all been friends since undergraduate [days],” said Garrett Jr. “We met at the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students conferences, and it was kind of like the Cornell crew on the East Coast and the Berkeley crew, which I was one of the leaders of on the West Coast. We would all always gravitate towards each other, we would all hang out with each other, and we were all very interested in these concepts of hip-hop and architecture and three-dimensional spaces and art.
“There was really no lane for that type of expression, so a lot of us that had similar mind states got together and started talking. We’d stay up all night designing projects, and the campus radio station had a show that one of my friends was associated with, so at three in the morning sometimes we’d go over to the campus radio station fresh from the architecture school and building models and building plans, and we’d freestyle rap. And we would often rap about the buildings that we were designing in class, and about the lessons we were learning. It was something that naturally emerged in my late teens and early 20s, and it’s something that I really started to write about in earnest when I was in graduate school in my late 20s.”
Now a full-fledged movement, examples of hip-hop architecture can be found in the United States, as well as Australia, the Netherlands, and France.
Cooke: “Early on, I had to keep redefining hip-hop, because every time I’d say hip-hop architecture, people would immediately just think about the music itself. Rap music is only one component of hip-hop culture, which is a larger culture that has all of these different modes of expression. If rap music is one part of a culture that can produce the drama of deejaying, the music of rapping, the dance of break-dancing, the artistry of graffiti, any natural progression would lead to an architecture [movement].
“All of these major movements throughout history had registers in all these different areas, but somehow because of the structure of architecture, the discipline of architecture, the industry of architecture, it prevented those same kids from having a really direct path to designing and building their own environments, to creating an architecture of their own. The thing is, it’s been happening. It just has a longer incubation period.
“These days, when I start defining hip-hop architecture, I start by defining architecture. I used to start with defining what hip-hop is, but now I find that more people don’t know what architecture is — even in architecture circles. To me, I like to define architecture as a culture’s values. It’s the physical manifestation of the zeitgeist. We build who we are, right? The trouble with that over the last few centuries is that who we are as a culture has only been reflected through a very narrow lens of the controlling elite class; those are the only ones who have be able to dictate what the terms of architecture is — which means it’s primarily Western-leading, connecting back to Rome and Greece and all of that history through the Renaissance in Europe and into modernism and even into post-modernism that really maintains the legacy of that way of thinking.
“So people who have very different cultural identities that want to create architecture and who want to have their own environment reflect their own sense of self don’t really have the tools to do that. So the early definition of hip-hop architecture is really … how do we define that? Because we recognized that we were at a moment of cultural change where not only this music, but this way of life, this way of self-identification, was affecting so many parts of our culture. How could it not affect architecture? It had to, if we understand architecture as defined that way. So hip-hop architecture is really hip hop culture in built form.”
Like all great art, “Close To The Edge” (which debuted at the Center for Architecture in New York in September) seeks to ask questions more than provide easy answers, via the work of 21 practitioners.
“It’s hard to define as a thing that you see. You can see an art-deco building and say, ‘That’s an art-deco building.’ You can see a midcentury modern building like the McDonald’s right there, which used to be a bank or something, and say, ‘That’s a midcentury modern building,’” said Cooke, nodding at the golden arches across the way from SoapBOX! “With a hip-hop architecture building, the danger is in commodification. If we say, ‘This is what it looks like, this is the image of it, these are the five steps you need to produce it,’ then it really takes it out of the hands of the people who have actually worked to develop it and create it.
“It becomes a commodity, instead of a way of personal individual expression, or expressing community values or community goals. It’s more grounded in process and intention and in ways of thinking and being and existing in the world, than just a singular image.
“The main idea behind the show is to answer the question, as comprehensively as I could, ‘What does it look like?’ I’ve been doing this for five years, and that comes up all the time. Now what’s happening is [architects, designers, and artists] have started self-identifying, ‘I’ve been working in this a while, and this describes my process, and what I do is hip-hop architecture.’ Interestingly enough, most of the built examples that I’ve identified are not in the United States. And we could talk for hours about why that is.”
The last few years, in fact, have revealed much about this country’s limitations, and further exposed its racist underbelly.
“I would attribute it more to architecture as a discipline being really conservative, and really closed-minded in general,” said Cooke. “Lots of people at the heart of architectural theory would argue with me or challenge me on that, but I believe there’s a lot of evidence to support that it is quite conservative in the way that it slowly changes and slowly evolves. It’s a very slow-moving organism, and it’s very slow to adopt new things and new ideas and say, ‘These are part of a canon,’ or their own canon.
“So I think that people in other countries have looked at hip-hop culture and seen that it’s something that’s incredibly valuable, incredibly thought-provoking, and within it has the seeds of change, right? The seeds of revolution, and really powerfully different ways of thinking. So people who feel marginalized or misunderstood or ‘other’ in any other context, they immediately gravitate towards hip-hop music, hip hop culture, and hip-hop ideas.”
But before hip-hop architecture became a movement unto itself, the pioneers had to burst through a few ceilings in college.
“We had to go against the grain a lot, especially in school,” said Garrett Jr. “There were very few professors who could relate to what we were trying to do. The way we saw the world was completely different. We saw the world in full color; we saw things as being dynamic, where they saw things as static. Complete opposites. A lot of us struggled in school, because we were interested in expressing things that were completely outside the imagination and possibility of the people who were grading and judging our work.”
“Nate Williams is the first person to do his full thesis as what he called at the time ‘hip-hop architecture,’ in 1993, at Cornell,” said Cooke. “And nobody knew what to do with it. It was such a shock. He had a deejay live mixing for two hours before his presentation started.”
“We had black elders, architects who bought into the way things used to be,” said Garrett Jr. “They were trying to tell us not to create any waves because ‘there’s so few of us and we’re such a minority in the profession, and if they listen to classical music, then we have to learn to appreciate classical music.’ We were just like, ‘F— that.’ Absolutely not. The world is going to have to respect who we are, what we are, and what we’re interested in. And what we’re interested in and what we feel is our inspiration for design and creativity is just as valid as anybody else’s. We would commiserate. We were not going to be denied. We were going to find a way to tell the world that we’re here to stay and our ideas are valid and we’re going to pursue them because this is what we love.”
Presented in conjunction with the American Institute of Architects Minnesota, “Close to the Edge” signals a sea change in how our living spaces are seen, and how things have been done.
“Why is our profession so racist, so sexist, so marginalizing?” said Cooke, nearly shouting over the sound of a drill. “Why have its products been so oppressive in so many different ways? This legacy of oppression from city planning to urban design to public housing to public prisons to a whole slew of architects lining up to design the border wall … you know, we have to be in a better position to say a lot of these things don’t work.
“A greater part of the profession is recognizing that, and the only silver bullet I see to that for architects is tackling the issue of under-representation. No matter how much we keep congratulating ourselves for the increased diversity of the profession, we have to really look at what the character of that diversity is. If we lose that voice of the same people upon whose backs this country was built, and the economic prosperity of this country was built, and the actual physical artifacts of this country was built, then you’re losing a major part of the equation.”
Time marches on, movements come and go. At the moment in the United States, monuments to this country’s racist past are being brought down, names are being changed, and attitudes about gentrification and architecture are shifting. Into the void and just in time comes hip-hop architecture, based on arguably the most inclusive and status quo-challenging music and culture of all.
“It’s a constant questioning of our reality,” said Cooke. “Why is it like that? Is it Ok? Should we accept it? And if the answer is no, change it.”