Born in the Concrete Jungle: The Architecture of Hip-Hop

It is possible that if Corbusian developments like 1520 Sedgwick didn’t have ample, well-maintained public spaces, then hip-hop never would have had a place to grow.

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

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The South Bronx was getting cut up in the early 1970s. That’s not just a musical metaphor; the streets were literally getting cut up. Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway was just finishing its gash across the borough, and it left split and scarred neighborhoods in its wake. Moses was a man with a modernist vision, one of a city with Corbusian housing towers fed by a freeway network that cared not a wit about the charms of established communities of people who knew and loved each other.

Many of those people were Caribbean immigrants who had starting arriving in large numbers during the Civil Rights period. Jamaican DJs brought with them a way of separating percussion and bass-lines from popular tracks so that they could be reused and sung over by other people. Electronic music had also just started to bleep up out of disco and funk, two styles that were all about flash. Suddenly you didn’t need a live band or recording studio to make great music; you didn’t even need to sing. If you were in the Bronx without a whole lot of resources, and wanted to throw a party to get something going in the new concrete tower you had just moved into, you had a little bit to play with.

Through the cracks in the sidewalk of the addled South Bronx grew hip-hop, the flower of the concrete jungle.

The Cross Bronx Expressway under construction; via NYU Furman Center

The Hip-Hop Tower Block: 1520 Sedgwick

The birthplace of hip-hop is 1520 Sedgwick.It is a modernist affordable housing tower that was built on Robert Moses’s advice in 1967. Robert Moses was a lion of New York’s history, one who is known just as much for being a bully as for being a leader. Under his guidance, New York demolished huge swaths of the city to make room for arterials that could rush traffic through its beating heart.

While he undeniably modernized the city’s infrastructure, he also didn’t seem to care a bit about the lives of the thousands of people whose communities he destroyed, and still many people applauded his clearing out inner-city “slums” in favor of highways that made it easier for middle-class commuters to get back and forth from the suburbs. Moses’s idea of good housing followed in the footsteps of Le Corbusier, who evangelized a “tower in the park” vision that has since become synonymous with the bleakest of what the 20th century had to offer.

1520 Sedgwick Ave., Bronx, N.Y.; via Workforce Housing Group

Life at 1520 Sedgwick wasn’t terrible. It was one of the nicer affordable housing projects in the area, one that families have since fought to defend from degradation. It was, and is now, a well-maintained development with safe, clean spaces for lower-income families. Its rec room was a popular hangout, and it was at parties there that hip-hop was really born. On August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc threw a back-to-school party with two turntables and a microphone, and history was made.

A sign advertising Kool Herc’s party where hip-hop was born; via the New York Times

Did the architecture of 1520 Sedgwick create hip-hop? No. Hip-hop is the creation of the first MCs and DJs who filled the streets of the Bronx with their music. But architecture definitely set the stage for its emergence, and it’s possible that if developments like this didn’t have ample, well-maintained public spaces, then hip-hop never would have had a place to grow. This isn’t to say that tower-style housing projects like 1520 Sedgwick or “slum” clearance programs were a total success — far from it. The words of hip-hop, as quoted in The Fader, are testament enough to the failures of underfunded public housing:

“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” — Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, 1982

The relative success of 1520 Sedgwick shows what is possible when affordable housing is decently funded and gives its residents space to express themselves. Good housing projects are not necessarily about defensible space or expressive forms, but are about well-maintained spaces that residents can take pride in.

1520 Sedgwick Ave., Bronx, N.Y.; via The Fader

The Hip-Hop Architect: Mike Ford

Even if a lot of young architects have hip-hop pumping through their headphones, not many designers talk about hip-hop’s long relationship with architecture. The big exception is Mike Ford, who has built a career as the “hip-hop architect.” He is an architect out of Detroit who did his graduate thesis on hip-hop and urban planning and has since become one of the biggest voices on design’s relationship not just with hip-hop, but with young, urban, black and Latino people as a whole.

Mike Ford; via BrandNu Design

He says that you can listen to hip-hop as a post-occupancy report of the housing projects rap grew up in. Rap is “unfiltered, it’s direct and it’s telling you about the failures of architecture and planning that did not think to consult the end users of their architecture,” he told CO.DESIGN. In The Fader, he went on, “Think about Streetlife’s contribution to Wu-Tang Clan’s [1998 song] ‘S.O.S.’”: Street chronicle, wise words by the abdominal/ High honorable, rap quotable phenomenal/ Seniority kid, I speak for the minority/ Ghetto poverty fuck the housing authority.”

Ford’s expertise has brought him to the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, which is now being planned in the Bronx in the Old Bronx County Courthouse. Ford and Microsoft are planning a truck that will travel across the country with exhibits and recording booths so people can record their own stories about hip-hop. The result will be a map of hip-hop across the country and a wave of enthusiasm (and money, hopefully) for the museum.

Universal Hip-Hop Museum; via Curbed New York

Hip-Hop Architecture Camp

For all that fashionable architects like to talk about “social condensers” or spaces for collaboration and experimentation, very few architects talk about the lessons of hip-hop’s incubation in space. That might be because hip-hop is a product of black culture, and only 3 percent of American architects are black compared with 13 percent of Americans overall. Even fewer architects have ever lived in low-income housing. As a response to this deficiency, Ford started the Hip-Hop Architecture Camp where low-income kids explore architecture and urban planning through the lens of hip-hop.

“It was training people from being consumers to producers,” Ford said in Fast Company. “It’s important because [the kids] have been excluded from the design process for a long time. Architecture is a very exclusive field to be in. It costs a lot of money to be an architect. Getting the education, buying the software — it’s a pricey profession. New technology is allowing more people to have the ability to create. This is important in a community like the South Bronx, which was totally reshaped by someone outside the community with very limited input from the community during the design process.”

Hip-Hop Architecture Camp; via Madison 365

There’s a lot more to architecture’s relationship with hip-hop than the story of 1520 Sedgwick. Think about Detroit’s Brewster Projects or the Marcy Houses of Brooklyn. These are buildings synonymous with the blossoming of one of the largest global cultures of the past 50 years. Mike Ford may call himself the hip-hop architect, but as every follower of hip-hop knows, every title is a crown just waiting to be snatched. Go for it.

How can architecture be a force for good in our ever-changing world? During Future Fest, we’ll pose this question to some of the world’s best architects. Launching in September, our three-week-long virtual event will be 100% free to attend. Register here!

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