The Fifth Pillar: A Case for Hip-Hop Architecture

The following article by Sekou Cooke was originally published in The Harvard Journal of African American Planning Policy.

Not DJ Kool Herc. Not The Sugarhill Gang. Not Crazy Legs. Not even Cornbread. The true father of hip-hop is Moses. The tyrannical, mercilessly efficient head of several New York City public works organizations, Robert Moses, did more in his fifty-year tenure to shape the physical and cultural conditions required for hip-hop’s birth than any other force of man or nature. His grand vision for the city indifferently bulldozed its way through private estates, middle-class neighborhoods, and slums. His legacy: 658 playgrounds, 28,000 apartment units, 2,600,000 acres of public parks, Flushing Meadows, Jones Beach, Lincoln Center, all interconnected by 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges. Ville Radieuse made manifest, not by Le Corbusier, the visionary architect, but by “the best bill drafter in Albany.”

This new urbanism deepened the rifts within class and culture already present in post-war New York, elevated the rich to midtown penthouses and weekend escapes to the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley, and relegated the poor to crowded subways and public housing towers—a perfect incubator for a fledgling counterculture.  One need not know all the lyrics to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” or Melle Mel’s “White Lines” to appreciate the incendiary structures built by Moses and his policies. As the Bronx began to burn, hip-hop began to rise.

"Built by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair, in part as a celebration of the City’s municipal infrastructure, this 9,335 square foot architectural model includes every single building constructed before 1992 in all five boroughs; that is a total of 895,000 individual structures". Image Courtesy of Wikimedia User AaronSw

Each major cultural era in Western society—the Renaissance, the Baroque, Modernism—enlisted a plurality of creative outlets: theatre, music, dance, fine art and architecture.  The first four art forms find their counterparts in the “four pillars of hip-hop”: deejaying, emceeing, b-boying and graffiti writing.  Architecture is lost.  Hip-hop would not exist if not for architecture, urbanism, and city planning.  So why does hip-hop architecture not exist?  If it does, who are its practitioners?  If it is yet to exist, how will it come to be?  And, if we do eventually reconcile hip-hop’s recondite relationship with architecture, how will communities, spaces and lives transform?

Architecture has lived for most of its history atop the Ivory Tower. Though issues of diversity and underrepresentation in the field have gained increased popular attention, 150 years after the founding of the academy, power and control within the profession remain in the hands of white men with white hair and black suits.  Of all the creative forms, architecture was (and is) the least accessible to the denizens of the South Bronx.  As Architecture Magazine editor Kriston Capps explains in “Architecture Could Use Some Help from Kanye West,” five to seven years in a professional degree program and 5,600 hours of intern development can prove insurmountable to poor blacks and Latinos.  The absence of a significant minority presence in the field—less than required to muster a relevant voice—reinforces the disconnect between designers and users.  Cultural influence and social agency is far easier to acquire via a set of turntables, a microphone, a pair of Adidas or a can of spray-paint.

While the practice, profession and discipline of architecture have not been particularly receptive to the hip-hop nation, hip-hop has, conversely, embraced both the skillset and mindset of the architect.  The DJ’s use of tracks as existing conditions and vocals as interventions structurally evokes adaptive reuse projects.  By speaking over dance beats extracted from popular songs of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a practice Kool Herc borrowed from his Jamaican counterparts, DJs created an entirely new form of engagement with an otherwise familiar song.  Remix is renovation.  

The MC’s improvisational and iterative calibration of the spoken word in distinctive verse closely aligns with architectural design processes. The reciprocal nature of music and architecture has been canonized by Goethe’s statement “I call architecture frozen music” and Corbusier’s reference to jazz as “the music of an era of construction.”  Hip-hop’s unique structure creates a framework for new spatial relationships. Its lyrics (see “The Message”) continually reflect on the physical conditions of the urban environment. Rap is construction.  

Walden Houses, NYC. Image © Nick Oran
Walden Houses, NYC. Image © Nick Oran

Beyond the choreographic correlation of dance and architecture, the b-boy’s appropriation of public space can be recognized as a space-making exercise similar to temporary installations and urban interventions.  Breaking, which began as occupation of street corners, alleys, and subway platforms, marks territory within the city via the cardboard box and the dance circle.  Break-dance is form.  

The graffiti writer’s work, with its use of the built form as canvas and its inherently projective representational logic, carries more architectural gravity than any of the other pillars. The perceptual environment of New York, Philadelphia and many urban cores, first in the United States and later worldwide, was systematically and permanently altered by tags, throw-ups and more elaborate pieces on street walls, bridges, billboards and, most dynamically, on subway cars that painted the city’s overpasses and tunnels during the 70s and 80s.  Graffiti is surface.

Michael Ford, Adjunct Professor at The University of Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture, who first positioned Corbusier and Moses at the origin of hip-hop culture, has created a body of research dedicated to hip-hop architecture. His work cites a series of examples that hypothesize where hip-hop architecture, if it exists, might be found today. These range from architecturally inspired logos for sports brands, to surrealist building typology depictions, to partnerships between pop-culture icons and prominent practitioners.

Though it warrants inclusion in the conversation, the orthographic projection of a basketball court as Lebron James’s new logo does not exactly define hip-hop architecture. Artist Filip Dujardin remixing photographs of buildings comes close, but also does not define hip-hop architecture. The collaboration of rapper Pharrell Williams and architect Zaha Hadid, both of whom operate at the leading edge of their respective fields, on a design for prefab houses has a little hip-hop and a little architecture, but still does not define hip-hop architecture. These examples have yet to synthesize the disparate elements of an undefined form into a cohesive whole.

Rapper Pharrell Williams has collaborated with Zaha Hadid and will speak at the 2014 AIA National Convention in Chicago this June. Image © Flickr CC User Merlijn Hoek

Some have come close, over the years, to bringing architecture in alignment with the hip-hop revolution. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) of the 1970s, the architectural job market of the 1980s and the academic discourse of the 1990s each mirrored the conditions that birthed hip-hop. When the twelve black practitioners who founded the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) took a revolutionary stance and seceded from the AIA during their 1971 convention in Detroit, Michigan, they focused more on professional recognition than protestation against an oppressive system, and thus remained excluded from the movement.  

Jack Travis, a young architect at the time of NOMA’s founding, spent a significant portion of his career calling attention to the work of black practitioners, culminating in his1992 book, African-American Architects in Current Practice. Since then, his primary research has centered on the definition of an “Afrocentric Aesthetic,” a stylistic model for black architecture.  Manifestations of this project have been limited to façade treatments or brick patterns, or invoke formal and textural references to Kente cloth, yet lack an explicit response to social and environmental conditions, thus removing them from inclusion as hip-hop architecture.  

Appendx, the short-lived journal edited by Darell W. Fields, Kevin L. Fuller and Milton S.F. Curry, has the vitriol of hip-hop coursing through its veins. Despite their intentions, however, the contributors—including Cornel West, Preston Scott Cohen and Ila Berman (who contributes a critical review of Travis’s book)—most with Masters degrees, PhDs or faculty appointments from Ivy League universities, strip the journal of its street cred. As such, the endeavor is recognizable as an affront to the academic rather than a constructed environment.

To properly define hip-hop architecture we must first define each of its component terms. Definitions of the word “architecture” tend to be vague and cumbersome, even when they exclude misnomers like “web architect”, “information architect”, “lash architect”, or “architect of the Iraq war.”  For example, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture provides a 200-word explanation of the term beginning with a reference to an 1849 work by Ruskin and ending with a cynical quote from Philip Johnson defining architecture as “the art of how to waste space.”  A singular AIA sanctioned definition is difficult to find.  The preface to the 1951 edition of the “Handbook of Professional Practice” refers to “the science of building” and excludes any aspiration towards “architecture as an art.”  However, in his introductory essay to the book “Architecture: Celebrating the Past, Designing the Future: Commemorating the150th Anniversary of the American Institute of Architects,” Robert Ivy, FAIA calls architecture “the art of building.”  Additionally, no consensus is found in the definitions posited by the representative licensing boards in each of the United States.  Most refer to buildings or groups of buildings, some include evaluation, planning, and teaching in addition to design service, and many are concerned with the health, safety and welfare of the public.  Jody Brown, AIA, in his “Coffee with an Architect” web series, proposes several alternative definitions including “homes that hipsters admire,” “the solid form of angst” and the equation “Architecture = Career – Relevance.”

Hip-hop’s definition is far less vague.  It is unanimously recognized by reference standards, from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to, that hip-hop, though exemplified by rap music, includes all four stylistic elements or “pillars” previously listed.  Hip-hop is a subculture—a movement that comprises an entire generation of performers, artists, thinkers and designers, and began with young urban blacks and Latinos.  Even as the art forms find acceptance and legitimacy within contemporary culture—in fashion, film, television, literature, poetry, and education—there is a core of hip-hop that preserves its counterculture status.  DJs now come from upper-class neighborhoods in European cities, MCs now perform in the Super Bowl Halftime Show, breakers now sell “hip-hop aerobics” workout programs, graffiti is now displayed in the galleries of MoMA, and the hip-hop lifestyle generates more than ten billion dollars per year.  Hip-hop has evolved beyond the limits of black music, indeed beyond the musical or artistic forms, into a global phenomenon.

Hip-hop architecture, in its new definition, will embody the spirit of hip-hop’s birth, and use the tools of the architect to create structures and built environments.  It will be practiced by those raised in architecture’s traditions and hip-hop’s realities.  It will be both antiestablishment and socially responsible.  It will embrace the contradiction of conditions through which it emerged—idealized communities envisioned by a celebrated architect and executed by an infamous planner—and take a revolutionary stance towards preservation of the public health, safety and welfare.  The fifth pillar will be built by, for and upon the hip-hop generation.

Works Cited

Wikipedia. “Robert Moses.” Accessed December 9, 2013.

Caro, Robert A. “Annals of Power.” New Yorker. July 22, 1974. 

Capps, Kriston. “Architecture Could Use Some Help from Kanye West.” Slate. November 19, 2013. Accessed December 9, 2013.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Eckermann, Johann Peter; Fuller, Margaret. Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life. Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1839.

Bacon, Mardges. Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid. MIT Press, 2003.

“Interview: Michael Ford.” Unspoken Borders 2009: Ecologies of Inequity (2009): 20-21

National Organization of Minority Architects. “History.” Accessed December 9, 2013.

Fields, Fuller, and Curry. “Preface.” Appendx 1 (1993).

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York. 2006.

“Preface to the Handbook.” The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice (1951).

Ivy, Robert. “The Power of Design.” Architecture: Celebrating the Pat, Designing the Future (2008).

Brown, Jody. "Definition of Architecture." ArchDaily. October 21, 2011. Accessed December 10, 2013.

Watson, Julie. “Rapper’s Delight: A Billion-Dollar Industry.” Forbes. February 18, 2004. Accessed December 10, 2013.

Note from the Author

In reading the various responses to “The Fifth Pillar,” I realize that there is a distinction that needs to be made between the references to previous works and those that are my own readings and opinions. I’d like to point out that the article as published in hardcopy does include all the necessary citations; the ArchDaily version has now been updated to include them as well.

Because the subject of hip-hop’s relationship with architecture has yet to reach a wide audience “The Fifth Pillar” was understandably received by many as a series of unique and original ideas. The truth is this subject has long been studied by many in hip-hop, academic and architectural circles. 

More than anyone else today, Michael Ford has worked tirelessly to find and identify examples of hip-hop influenced architecture and made many arguments to define architecture’s role in hip-hop’s inception. While I call Moses the “true father,” this is a notion first forwarded by Ford, who has routinely coined Le Corbusier and Robert Moses the “Fore Fathers of Hip-Hop.” As he states in his cited article, this is not an attempt to give an outsider credit for the creation of hip-hop, but a means of bringing more attention to the relationship between the fields of architecture and hip-hop—not by mere hypothesis, but through the use of historical facts.

I have given Ford full credit for his positioning Le Corbusier and Robert Moses at the genesis of hip-hop and cited works that he has written on the subject. I have also cited quotes from Goethe and Corbusier that were quoted by Ford in the works of his that I cited. Those ideas were used to highlight the central thesis of the article that “hip-hop architecture,” as an autonomous subject matter, has yet to be completely defined.

Beyond these citations, any ideas or interpretations presented are original.  Any further resemblance to Ford’s work is purely coincidental as is common with those working on similar subjects.

Sekou Cooke is a Jamaican-born architect, licensed in New York and California, and a former assistant professor at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture. He is currently pursuing a post-professional degree in architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

About this author
Cite: Sekou Cooke. "The Fifth Pillar: A Case for Hip-Hop Architecture" 30 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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