Architect Sekou Cooke doesn’t take his power to make changes lightly

Sekou Cooke defines himself as someone who has always felt a little outside the world of hip-hop, but he has dedicated his career as an architect to exploiting what makes him vibrate. The architect and director of the Masters in Urban Design program at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, practices hip-hop architecture, and while he admits “defining the term is something I constantly refining,” its core is shared with the products of this billion-dollar music industry: a dedication to innovation, challenging existing norms, and giving voice to marginalized people.

“Understanding the potential of hip-hop culture, that spark at the center of hip-hop, has the potential to change the whole field [of architecture]he says from his Charlotte office, which he set up just a year ago after leaving Syracuse, New York for the manager‘s job. “Hip-hop ideology is pushing boundaries, doing something new, and innovating not just for the sake of innovation, but because it’s going to have powerful impacts on other communities.”

Sékou Cooke in his office. Photograph by Michael Barletta.

Cooke’s work in academic and physical settings takes this power of change to heart. Working on real estate, commercial and cultural projects through his eponymous studio, he engages in projects with clients who also want to bring real, positive and inclusive change to urban spaces and are not shy about exploring . Recently, Cooke was commissioned by City of Los Angeles Design Director Christopher Hawthorne to participate in the Department of Building and Safety’s Standard Plan ADU program. Its ADUs 1 and 2, a new take on an LA case study home whose twisted shape references West Coast hip-hop culture, will be built this year. Currently, he is working with the Washington, D.C. Housing Authority to create a new financial model for low-income, affordable housing ownership, allowing residents to form a development entity to help control what is newly built in communities. places where they grew up. , and protect against rapid gentrification.

“One of the most exciting things for me is that it provides new access to a designer, an architect, that people in low-income communities almost never have,” says Cooke who notes that, as he often does, he shaped the model of the pro bono project and then called on the development partner and other stakeholders to make it a reality. Atypical for an architect, this method gives them the freedom to create a solution-based project and then bring in a willing client, rather than simply providing the design services to implement someone else’s vision. Another ongoing project in the capital will transform vacant residential buildings into publicly accessible amenities with sought-after stories while they wait for a demolition date. And in Syracuse, he’s transforming a 40,000-square-foot former dairy into a new hip-hop headquarters for The Good Life Foundation nonprofit for at-risk youth and working on a major development project in southern the town tied to a church in the black neighborhood. Both remix their existing contexts to create site-specific designs.

man in the office
Sékou Cooke in his office. Photograph by Michael Barletta.

Much of Cooke’s work for the public is devoted to bringing the often inaccessible figure of an architect back to the people he designs for. “Only about 2% of the population interacts with an architect,” he says. “The most healing are those conversations in design sessions, where they can talk to someone one-on-one about how they’re shaping their own environment.” It’s a similar approach he’s taking to shape the urban design curriculum at UNC, Charlotte. Preparing to enter his second year at the helm, Cooke made changes to some of the structures of the one-year program, uniting the overseas and capstone sections of the program, giving students more agency over the work they are doing and focusing research on Charlotte as a regional planning center. Longer-term changes will include revamping the program to emphasize urban design architecture, expanding conversations about urban change and planning.

For those living in urban contexts, architects have historically been associated with gentrification, redlining and other forms of exploitative design. “I identify primarily as an architect and understand that this definition comes with a lot of baggage and a troubled history that I have to come to terms with, while trying to change it,” says Cooke. “I’m really doing what I can from the inside to show his potential.”

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