Sekou Cooke blends hip-hop and architecture to rethink urban design

The Jamaican-born architect, who first encountered hip-hop architecture as a student at Cornell in the mid-1990s, is on a mission to challenge urban development.

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Sekou Cooke, a UNC Charlotte professor and leader in hip-hop architecture, is on a mission to challenge the way architects design buildings. 

Jamaican-born Cooke first encountered hip-hop architecture as a student at Cornell in the mid-1990s, and he would go on to be at the vanguard of the movement, Charlotte Observer reports. 

The university’s uptown Charlotte building currently houses Cooke’s exhibit, “Close to the Edge: The Birth of Hip-Hop Architecture,” which will be on display through July 15 before heading to Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. 

As the director of the urban design program at UNC Charlotte, where he landed after seven years at Syracuse University, Cooke said his goal is to reshape the program and challenge students with projects that get them to thinking about affordable housing and racial disparities in the real estate market.

Sekou Cooke sits amid works from We Outchea, a design project of his sekou cooke STUDIO that appeared in the 2021 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America.” One theme the project explores is the history of the displacement of Syracuse, New York’s Black population through urban renewal projects. (Sekou Cooke/Photo credit: Michelle Schenandoah)

Other goals are to diversify the white male-dominated profession of architecture and shake up the landscape of urban development. There are roughly 116,000 registered architects in the country, and only 2 percent identify as African American, Cooke told the Observer.

Cooke believes that hip-hop architecture can be a game-changer in urban development because it allows Black building designers to unleash their limitless imaginations and vivid creativity through their projects.

“What hip-hop architecture does is say, here’s a process, here’s a platform, here’s a framework that includes you,” he told the Observer. “You can play along with us. We’re going to reshape this thing in ways that aren’t necessarily within the rules. They’re actually challenging the rules and saying how can things be completely different or better or something that we never even imagined.”

As Cooke writes in his recently published book, Hip-Hop Architecture: “Many have managed to exist simultaneously as successful architects and Black. Few have managed to express their Blackness through their architecture.” 

Cooke also notes in the book that it’s easier to describe the process behind creating hip-hop architecture rather than what it looks like. During his master’s studies at Harvard, he addressed this subject in a 2014 essay titled “The Fifth Pillar: A Case for Hip Hop Architecture,” which appeared in The Harvard Journal of African American Planning Policy.

“In that essay I was really just trying to make a singular case for positioning architecture within the realm of all the hip-hop elements and saying that it can be a viable product of hip-hop culture,” Cooke said in a February interview with The Architect’s Newspaper. “It really was supposed to be a one-off thing, like, ‘okay I’m doing this, I’ve got the ideas out of my head, it’s out, now I can move on with my life.’”

Moving on entailed the way he identifies professionally and the implications of this identity. “I’m not a hip-hop architect, I’m not even a Black architect, I’m an architect and primarily I want to identify as an architect,” said Cooke, who runs the architectural and urban design practice, sekou cooke STUDIO. “To me that means someone who is capable of developing really complex ideas and getting them built and tested in the real world.”

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