What’s Hip-Hop Architecture? ‘Hip-Hop Culture in Built Form’

By Walsh, Jim | MinnPost.com, April 11, 2019 | Go to article overview

What’s Hip-Hop Architecture? ‘Hip-Hop Culture in Built Form’


Walsh, Jim, MinnPost.com


“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. …

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