Museum of Design Atlanta exhibit adds another element to the hip-hop art form

Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture runs through January 29

Museum of Design Atlanta exhibit adds another element to the hip-hop art form
City Thread, by exhibit participants Molly Hunker and Greg Corso, remixes an unused alley in downtown Chattanooga into a vibrant public space using a linear steel tube and painted graphic surfaces.

Photograph courtesy of MODA

Around the same time that urban designer and architect Sekou Cooke first learned about Bankhead from its famous “Bounce,” new ideas placing hip-hop in conversation with the field of architecture were being hashed out at his alma mater, Cornell University. There, Nathan Williams’s 1995 thesis on “hip-hop architecture” was sparking investigations into how the genre’s methods could become imperatives in the streetscapes and built environment of a hip-hop hub like the Bronx or Bankhead.

Twenty-five years later, in the Museum of Design Atlanta’s new exhibition Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture, Cooke brings the conversation forward in a gathering of architectural works by 34 practitioners from across the globe. Their installations, on view through January 29, include experimental visualizations, development proposals, facade studies, and building designs. Each riffs off of hip-hop’s methodologies—deejaying, emceeing, b-boy dancing, graffiti, remixing, sampling—to translate hip-hop’s energy into built form. Among the featured installations is a rendering of Atlanta’s Trap Music Museum—a necessary type of preservationist space, says Cooke—that sits at the mouth of the Bankhead corridor.

Below, Cooke, director of the master of urban design program at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, discusses using hip-hop as a lens through which to provoke new architectural ideas.

The Blueprint Most people think that hip-hop is just a genre of music, but really, hip-hop is a culture. It’s the largest, most powerful cultural phenomenon worldwide. It shapes more of what we think about daily than we realize. Architecture, at its best, is supposed to reflect culture. In European architectural history, you had the Baroque period, the Classical period, the Renaissance period, they all had architecture that was reflective of their times. Atlanta, which is currently the hotbed of hip-hop culture, has potential to be ground zero for implementing the ideas of hip-hop architecture at an urban scale.

The Elements Architecture, just like hip-hop culture, isn’t limited to one project type or group of people. It’s really about the process and attitude. Can you use processes that are directly derived from hip-hop culture, like sampling, remixing, and layering; or use traces of things that might have been forgotten or lost? This bleeds into architecture easily in terms of using surfaces in different ways, or reusing buildings, structures, or materials in ways that they’re not typically used or designed to be used. For example, in the exhibit, there’s interactive exploration of the relationship between hip-hop technology and architectural fabrication through 3-D turntables.

The Scope The work exhibited is organized using three primary characteristics: identity, process, and image. The first includes practitioners who self-identify with the hip-hop community; the second invokes a method of production using specific techniques or values; and the third creates products recognizable as part of an established aesthetic.

The Flow In Atlanta, there are different types of neighborhoods and streetscapes that are still clearly rooted in hip-hop. It’s not just projects, like the high-rise buildings in the South Bronx, or Brooklyn, or Queens—the type of architecture that gets immediately connected with hip-hop culture. But you also have the neighborhoods right outside of Atlanta like East Point; and inside of Atlanta like Bankhead that are an inextricable part of that identity.

This article appears in our January 2023 issue.