“You’ll grow in the ghetto livin’ second-rate and your eyes will sing a song called deep hate” rap Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five in their 1982 debut anthem. The haunting lyrics, written in the alleyways of South Bronx, were the start of a massive revolution: cultural and political.

New York City in the 1970s bears close to no resemblance to the thrilling, booming metropolis of today. The city was buckling from the previous decade of social turmoil with the added weight of the white exodus, depopulation, rising crime rates and the nationwide economic stagnation that hit the industrial sector especially hard. 

It is in this terrorized world that the subculture of Hip-hop rose; from the smoldering ruins of a modernist projection.

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An ominous brochure greeted tourists at the airport in 1975 ©Islandersa1

Heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s visionary Ville Radieuse (an urban masterplan for the utopian city of the future), the merciless dictatorship of an urban planner; Robert Moses initiated urban renewal in the city. As he inched up the power pyramid of New York politics, he steadily materialized his grand vision. Like Corbusier, he was a proponent of eradicating blight to fit efficient high rise public housing. The spate of idealized apartment units, public parks, and bridges was built by bulldozing through historic neighborhoods and communities.

In the South Bronx, the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway that solidified the cultural and economic differences of the North and the South Bronx, triggered the domino effect of displaced residents, deprecating land value, landlord abandonment and demographic shifts with the arson epidemic heightening the decay of the quality of life in the borough.  Much of this was blamed on the ‘unruly and violent’ communities that inhabited the area, but the reality was more systemic, bureaucratic, and racist.

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Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, a Robert Moses project, an example of the tower block concept  Image: ©Alec Jordan

Hip-hop grew in retaliation; the voice of the voiceless; but also in an effort to keep violence off the streets. In the words of three-time Grammy award-winning rapper T.I., “Hip-hop traditionally has always been a reflection of the environment that the artist had to endure before he made it to where he was. So, if you want to change the content of the music, change the environment of the artist and he won’t have such negative things to say.”

Michael Ford, the founder of The Urban Arts Collective and BrandNu Design, rightly called Le Corbusier and Robert Moses the forefathers of Hip-hop. Not a compliment but a criticism, he clarified. In his Tedx Talk titled Hip Hop Architecture: The post-occupancy report of Modernism, he speaks of how Hip-hop was born from and lived in modernism, filled with commentary of its environment. If one paid attention to the music, they’d realize just how unsuccessful and unjust modernist ideals were, especially to people of color. 

Hip-hop is a broad conglomerate of artistic forms: deejaying, emceeing, b-boying, and graffiti writing; those that arose as a direct outcome of a certain style of urban planning and building. Ford says, “Architecture is beyond brick and mortar; it is an incubator of culture”. It is the backdrop to life. By limiting ourselves to just this, we render ourselves irrelevant to the communities we’re trying to help.

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Dilapidated and abandoned state of the Bronx in the 70s ©Camilo José Vergara Photographs

Ford has dedicated his professional career to stimulating cross-disciplinary discourse on the sociological and cultural implications of architecture and urban planning on its inhabitants. He has created a vast body of research on the intersection between hip-hop and architecture; from his thesis at the University of Detroit Mercy to designing an inclusive, informative and engaging curriculum in his camps. A self-proclaimed Hip-hop architect, he’s made it a mission to expose architecture, which is commonly represented by white males, to underrepresented groups. Under his Urban Arts Collective initiative, he runs free Hip-hop 

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The arson epidemic ©The New York Times
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1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx borough of NYC christened the birthplace of Hip-hop ©Erin Construction
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Michael Ford: The Hip-hop architect ©Curbed

Architecture camps that teach children from minority communities about architecture through a medium they already know and understand: music. They are taught to convert lyrical analysis into 3d models, to use rhymes to talk about the city they wish to inhabit and most importantly, shown that they have a voice in shaping the future of their communities. Ford coined the term ‘Design Cypher’ to a process he designed while working on the Universal Hip-hop Museum in the Bronx: bringing architects, urban planners, scholars, students, communities, hip-hop pioneers etc. to ideate and have a say in creating something that would directly affect all of them. Pioneers such as Michael Ford give us faith.

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Michael Ford’s immersive curriculum for Hip-hop Architecture camp Metro Times

Hip-hop architecture is up to us to define; a counterculture that brings accountability to space making. For half a century’s worth of angst of the hopeful and tireless youth to find peace; we need to relook at the stratification of the field; to diversify and engage with the underrepresented in an effort to create spaces that are inclusive and just.

Nihitha Sreenath

Nihitha recently graduated from architecture school and likes to ask rhetorical questions. Besides aggressively journaling, she likes a good romance or narrative history book, the rains and a steady supply of filter coffee to keep her company.

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