Publics & Their Problems

Volume 1, Issue 09
October 8, 2015


“$100,000 for that little sound – and I’m like, ‘Come on! Where’s the love at?’ I’ll just play it my damn self.”[1] – J Dilla, 2003

New York City, 1975 – A Disco DJ cuts back and forth between tracks to keep a crowd moving. Techniques developed as means of shifting between records quickly evolves into a form of music very much its own. This music marries DJs, working with increasingly vast and varied libraries of vinyl records, to the rhymes and exclamations of rappers, or MC’s, the public faces and spokesmen of the city’s emergent Rap scene.

Such is one of Hip-Hop’s many creation myths. While I’m confident this music needs no introduction, I’d like to position the aesthetics of Hip-Hop alongside some of the architecture commonly associated with this very moment in time, that is, the architecture of Postmodernism. I do this, in part, to redeem a school of architectural thinking too long absent from thoughtful, critical discussion, an absence which persists, I believe, despite what certain ostensibly hip, but ultimately unthinking, design blogs and magazines have heralded as the new “PoMo Revival.”[2] Emerging from a very specific moment in history – and not insignificantly American – the various modes of Hip-Hop expression comprise a veritable textbook of cultural tendencies broadly understood in terms of the postmodern: formal and visual appropriation, the rejection of conventional notions of authorship, a non-linear understanding of popular history, artifacts put to use in the service of unabashedly public performance. Of particular interest here is the common Hip-Hop production technique known as sampling.

By sampling I refer to an artist’s explicit use of content, be it visual or aural, not original to the work of that artist, self-consciously appropriated from others, and combined with additional outside materials in the process of artistic creation. One familiar example of this technique would be Kanye West’s use of Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman in his popular hit Gold Digger. Other, perhaps more exemplary – and certainly more controversial – instances of sampling can be found on late Hip-Hop producer J Dilla’s album, Donuts, long considered a high-water mark in the history of sample-based Hip-Hop; or Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, a wholesale rethinking of Jay-Z’s blockbuster Black Album, wherein every note of instrumentation was sampled from the Beatles’ White Album. Operating outside the conventional strictures of modern intellectual property law, yet well within the sphere of public art and entertainment, these producers, and others like them, have helped to construct an approach to aesthetic production standing in clear opposition to both Romantic and Modern traditions – traditions favoring, above all, the twin concepts of originality and singular genius.[3] Indeed, in sample-based Hip-Hop music, far from eschewing explicit reference to previous work by others, Hip-Hop producers and musicians make appropriation of the old a veritable precondition of the new. In my view, this notion might, without too much of a stretch, readily be applied to a reading of Postmodernist architecture, thereby by raising important questions about the production and criticism of architecture today.

One such question regards architecture’s relationship to capital. Reading Postmodernism in terms of Hip-Hop’s culture of sampling might even free it from the common critique that would align its values with those global capitalism. Aside from creating new work by way of appropriating the old, sampling encourages the continued making of art through precisely these means. Denying the possibility of commodification, the free sampling of history results in works which constantly build on themselves, valuing process, temporality, and change over singular, salable objects. Such a definition, of course, would seem to refute the common argument, posited by Kenneth Frampton and others, that Postmodernism reduces the whole of architectural history to a series of easily consumable images, capable of being bought and sold on the world market. It also opposes the more recent, somewhat thoughtless embrace of the aforementioned “PoMo revival,” celebrated across the pages of web-based magazines, which so embarrassingly announce the return of Postmodernism as a style-in-vogue[4] — i.e. a commodity – as opposed to a set of convictions and values comprising a certain world view.

Seen in this way, the various arts associated with this brand of postmodern aesthetics, far from being tools, or instruments, of capital, might in fact serve as sites of resistance to it. Viewed through the cultural lens of Hip-Hop and sampling, architecture has potential be one of the most effective sites of such resistance, due in part to its stubborn denial of commodifiable, singular objects, but also by way of its relationship to the public. By public, I mean a range of constituent groups at varying scales which construct an identity, united by all they share in common, with common space, as such, the fundamental element of any public formation. Indeed, the various forms of Hip-Hop production – rapping (MC-ing), turntablism (DJ-ing), Breakdancing, and Graffiti – were all born, and survive, well outside of modern art’s foundational institutions, in places inextricable from generous notions of the public: the corner, the nightclub, the car, the ball court, the street.

Architecture’s unique and long-lived presence on the public street insists on a certain type of encounter, if not thorough engagement, with the public, providing the members of that public an opportunity for consent, resistance, or willful ambivalence vis-à-vis cultural, social, and political mores. It is in this dual capacity for encounter and resistance that Postmodernist architecture’s appropriation and reuse of history both requires and is enabled by a public sympathetic to that history – a shared heritage, evoked in order to be questioned, recontextualized in order to be put to work. A sampled architecture engages the aspirations, values, and history of its public, while nonetheless remaining critical of them, thus resisting the forces of capital which might otherwise serve to restrict its appreciation to the moneyed, landed classes; or worse, to enforce a cultural apathy in architectural design in the interest of easy commodification.

A sampled architecture, in the manner of Hip-Hop, also encourages in its public an attitude of resistance to laws and other restrictions which, in an attempt to protect, and thereby profit from, intellectual property, further enforce the stagnation of creative culture. The dispute surrounding Danger Mouse’s Grey Album is a well-known case in point, resulting from EMI’s attempt to end distribution of that record on the basis of copyright infringement, despite the “original” artists’ approval of the mash-up.[5] Impossibly expensive use rights for samples also prove to be a constant frustration for many Hip-Hop artists. To wit, see J Dilla, above. We should be thankful that no similar situation existed to stop Rossi from appropriating the image of Plečnik’s dome in Ljubljana for his project in Milan.

A public that views its history not as a stagnant document of long-past words and deeds, but as something to be put to work – to be shared in a creative commons, reused, willfully misappropriated, and sampled – can and must resist the forces serving to stall and bankrupt creative culture, in the interest of a culture based on proceeds and profit. Not merely a fad to be consumed, Postmodernist architecture’s enduring value will be found in its aspirations for meaningful engagement in the public sphere, an engagement which takes stock not only of form and space, but of time and place, too. It heralds a living architectural tradition which, like Hip-Hop, constructs its future through public engagement with its past.

Afrika Bambaataa, “Master of Records”

Jože Plečnik, Project for Ljubljana

Aldo Rossi, Project for Milan

[1] YouTube,. ‘Dilla Interview 2003 Part 1 Of 4’. N.p., 2015. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.
[2] Dezeen,. ‘Postmodernism Is Back. Welcome To Dezeen’s Pomo Summer’. N.p., 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.
[3]Schusterman, Richard. “The Fine Art of Rap.” In Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, 205. Second. ed. Boston, Massachusetts: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000
[4] Dezeen,. ‘Postmodernism Is Back. Welcome To Dezeen’s Pomo Summer’. N.p., 2015. Web. 19 Sept. 2015.
[5] Cbswods2.wordpress.com,. ‘Paul Mccartney Is Down With Hip-Hop’. N.p., 2015. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.

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Volume 1, Issue 09
October 8, 2015

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