Hip Hop has established itself as a gravitas culture that crosses borders of race, ethnicity, class, religion and professions. Members of the hip hop generation carry the residue of the culture into all spaces they inhabit and their individual works are seasoned with its’ flavor. As professionals continue to argue the academic validity of hip hop and disseminate the social significance of rap, it is time architectural professionals learn the benefit the culture provides to its’ practitioners. The architectural profession has taken initial steps exploring the intersection of hip hop culture and architectural practice, from Ice Cubes involvement with “Celebrate Eames” to Pharrell Williams’ invitation to be the Keynote Speaker at the 2014 AIA National Convention. More recently, YKK has produced a series of hip hop music videos titled “I’m An Architect” aimed at celebrating the profession in hopes of inspiring the next generation of practitioners. Each instance acknowledges the gravitas nature of hip hop culture while the later depressing uses the culture, especially the MC, as nothing more than an attention grabbing gimmick. The series is the latest example of eroding lyricism in favor of easy hooks, essentially dumbing down hip hop. The lyrical dexterity of hip hop MC’s far exceed what’s exhibited in the “I’m An Architect” series and can provide a much larger benefit to the professional when appropriately investigated.
The lyrical dexterity of hip hop MC’s far exceed what’s exhibited in the “I’m An Architect” series and can provide a much larger benefit to the professional when appropriately investigated.
Instead of simply using hip hop to promote architecture to new practitioners, I suggest that we study hip hop and rap lyrics to heighten the social and cultural consciousness of both current and future architectural practitioners. Doing so, would start to repair the professions’ reputation in underrepresented communities and assist professionals in providing holistic solutions to the problems plaguing those communities. Since its’ inception, the hip hop MC, has served as a voice of disenfranchised, underrepresented communities and the often unheard end users of urban renewal initiatives. Hip hop lyrics are saturated with first-hand accounts of injustices suffered at the hands of policies such as urban renewal and eminent domain, failed urban planning and the deplorable conditions of high rise, monotonous low income housing developments. It’s no secret that modern town planning and high density low income housing superblocks has failed it's inhabitants across the country.
During the 2014-15 academic school year, I embarked on an academic lecture tour, using three interconnected realms - education, practice and media to expose the subconscious roles of celebrated modernist architects in the creation of the environments which necessitated the birth of hip hop culture. Using hip hop samples as dialogue, commentary and counterpoints it is easy to see how hip hop lyrics serve as a post occupancy report of inner city residents’ inhabitance of modernists’ visions. During my lecture, Hip Hop Inspired Architecture, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I discussed Urban Renewal vs Urban Reality, a series of juxtaposed text, hip hop music videos, early urban sociology studies and architectural documentaries, aimed at using golden era hip hop lyrics as modernisms’ post occupancy report. This juxtaposition exposes the systematic destruction of working-class and poor African American communities and brings it to the forefront of discussions in academic spaces. Ultimately halting historical discourse and the acceptance of black ghetto existence solely because of the cultural behaviors of black and brown people”, while exposing both the conscious and subconscious efforts of our profession to absolve the most powerful shapers of society, architects, from any responsibility.
During the 2014-15 academic school year, I have embarked on an academic lecture tour, using three interconnected realms - education, practice and media to expose the subconscious roles of celebrated modernist architects in the creation of the environments which necessitated the birth of hip hop culture.
LeCorbusier Sought To Liberate African Americans?
LeCorbusier’s visions for Modern Town Planning, The Contemporary City and Plan Voisin, although originally intended for the Center of Paris, became the basis for how a large populous of low income inner city dwellers would live. In his book, “LeCorbusier in America”, Marges Bacon describes how LeCorbusier, because of Paris’ refusal to implement his audacious plan, substituted the intended inhabitants of his renewal schemes from the working class of Paris to the heavily discriminated African Americans of the New York City.
His “intimate friendship with Josephine Baker helped him to appreciate the character of the African American” and gain firsthand information on the discrimination faced by blacks in America. “LeCorbusier assigned special significance to African Americans because they were part of the underclass. He believed that unlike other groups in American society, “blacks were predisposed to change. He endorsed the widely held European belief that they were more primitive, more unspoiled, nobler, and open to new ideas”. In reality, he believed, “these Americans had the most to gain by change and renewal.”
In the conclusion of his book, “The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning”, Le Corbusier states that it’s a “great pity” that his plans do not take into account the various complexities including financial figures and required compromises which could further validate his position. He added that he is convinced that both the figures and the compromises are positives and will not negatively affect society. He wrote his wish for someone else, who he described as a specialist to come and implement his plans for modern town planning.
Robert Moses’ Sample Becomes The Standard
New York City developer, Robert Moses must have taken Corbusier’s self-criticism as a direct invitation to pull the plan forward. Between the 1930s and the late 1960s Moses, a very powerful city planner, executed a number of public works projects, highways, parks and housing projects that significantly reshaped the landscape of New York City. During one of Moses’ largest projects, the Cross Bronx Expressway which started in 1959 and cut directly through the center of the most heavily populated working class areas in the Bronx, he turned to Le Corbusier’s modern town planning to accommodate displaced residents and to support his slum clearance initiative. In Jeff Chang’s book, “Cant Stop Wont Stop, A History of the Hip Hop Generation”, he notes “[Robert] Moses found The Tower in The Park scheme to be a tidy cost efficient solution to slum housing”.
“Robert Moses found The Tower in The Park scheme to be a tidy cost efficient solution to slum housing”.
Robert Moses failed to fully implement LeCorbusier’s schemes for the Modern Town Planning, he simply extracted a sample from LeCorbusier’s visions, the physical architectural component itself, “Towers in a Park”, eliminating the social, economic and political amenities described by LeCorbusier as essential to the inhabitants. For instance, LeCorbusier envisioned that “provisions are bought wholesale, direct from the country, such as meat, game, vegetables and fruit, and then are placed in cold storage on the ground floors of the towers. This would provide inhabitants a savings of “30 to 40 percent as against the prices charged at the great stores”. This is in stark contrast to many of the inner city food deserts across the country. He envisioned lush green spaces and recreational facilities such as running tracks perched upon green roofs. Which is in stark contrast to the concrete jungles which were built. The low rise tenement housing in his plan, were located adjacent to places of employment, the high rise office twoers, affectionately known as the “Towers in a Park”. Instead of office towers flanked by tenement housing, America’s implementation of LeCorbusiers scheme, became high rise housing complexes which are times were flanked by low rise tenement housing, totally eliminating the idea of immediate access to employment. Developing these geometrical barracks, totally void of the amenities described by LeCorbusier, coupled with racially biased policies and practices of American cities, resulted in creating isolated architectural system which reinforced structural racism.
Urban Renewal vs Urban Reality
Why are some, now standard, building typologies copied over and over, but are never tested for evidence of their adaptation? It doesn’t occur to those architects to undertake medical response experiments just to make sure that what they are doing is not making people ill. Those untested environments may in fact be stressful or otherwise harmful to their users. The problem is that architects are not at present trained to measure physiological indicators.
The following excerpt is from the PBS American Experience series, The World That Moses Built”, exploring the career of Robert Moses. Despite Corbusier’s plan receiving its fair share of criticisms, Moses, and other developers would help propel the sample into a standard for low income housing.
Juxtaposed with this promotional film, is the greatest hip hop song of all time, Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message”. Grand Master Flash’s lyrical descriptions of the physical, economic, social and political discrimination instituted by modernists’ visions when implemented in the inner city, is a stark contrast to the Stuyvesant Town promotional film. Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five describes the urban reality of urban renewal as a stiffing, inescapable entanglements of failed urban policies which ushered among other things, predatory loan practices, racism and classicism into low income neighborhoods and to the front door of public housing developments, and that's only the first verse:
Broken glass everywhere
People pissin' on the stairs, you know they just don't care
I can't take the smell, can't take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car
“The Message” resounding chorus, “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle sometimes that makes me wonder how I keep from going under”
“The Message” resounding chorus, “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle sometimes that makes me wonder how I keep from going under”, is in harmony with Le’Architect’s 1925 criticism of LeCorbusier’s visions of Modern Town Planning which I deem a prediction of hip hop, nearly 50 years before hip hop’s officially recognized birth.
“Is the next generation really destined to pass its existence in these immense geometrical barracks, living in standardized mass production houses with mass production furniture?
Their games, and by that I mean their recreations, are all based on the same model…Poor Creatures! What will they become in the midst of all this dreadful speed, this organization, this terrible uniformity?
So much logic taken to its extreme limits, so much “science”, so much of the “mechanical” everywhere present and challenging one on every page and claiming its insolent triumph on every possible occasion. Here is enough to disgust one for ever with “standardization” and to make one long for disorder.”
Hip Hop Architecture is not a style, hip hop architecture is a methodology. It’s a method which allows the architectural profession to connect in new ways to an underrepresented populous which has been severely under-serviced by the profession. As the post hip hop generation becomes of age within the architectural profession, we are bringing the failure of modernism's in our communities to the forefront of discussion and calling for increase social justice and cultural consciousness within the profession. Stylistics approaches do not solve problems, only through the design process which includes proper programming and communication with end users can we produce holistic solutions which solves problems.
I am in total agreement with Bjarke Ingels’ advice to young architects, that we must, "understand and care about the people we are designing for. Far too often, this is not the norm. The intersection of hop hop culture and architecture presents an opportunity for change.