Saturday, October 09, 2010


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The tower blocks which we see from above as half-deserted slums, and from below as they spill to the ground, make up the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St Louis, Missouri. It was built in the early 1950s and demolished at 3pm on 16 March 1972. Charles Jencks, in what sounds suspiciously like a meta-narrative statement, later that 16 March 1972 was “the day Modernism died.” Many go further, citing the Modernist style of Pruitt-Igoe as the direct cause of its failure.

There is no doubt that Pruitt-Igoe was a failure. Post-war St Louis was experiencing white flight on a massive-scale, and its deserted and dilapidated houses were filled with poor black families. Yet, Pruitt-Igoe replaced one kind of segregated slum with another. From its conception it was cursed by political and economic constraints – the emergence of the Right, the need to divert funds to the Korean war effort, endemic racism and segregation of neighbourhoods, and a growing opposition (somewhat coloured by McCarthyism) to welfare. The final development – 33 11-storey blocks, nearly 3,000 units of housing – was under- occupied, cheaply built and suffered from poor elevation and non-existent ventilation. By the end of the 60s, Pruitt-Igoe was ridden with crime and decay (though, through the efforts and protests of some residents, pockets of well-maintained domesticity remained).

But can it really be wise to blame Modernist ideals and methods for its ills? In The Language of Post-Modern Architecture Charles Jencks, cheerleader of the postmodern movement, wrote that,

Pruitt-Igoe was constructed according to the most progressive ideas of CIAM ... and it won an award from the American Institute of Architects when it was designed in 1951. It consisted of elegant slab blocks fourteen storeys high, with rational “streets in the air” (which were safe from cars but, as it turned out, not safe from crime); “sun, space and greenery”, which Le Corbusier called the “three essential joys of urbanism” (instead of conventional streets, gardens and semi-private space, which he banished). It had a separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the provision of play space, and local amenities such as laundries, crèches and gossip centres – all rational substitutes for traditional patterns.

This is something of a straw man argument, suggesting that Pruitt-Igoe was an archetype of Modernism, and that its failures could be applied to CIAM-influenced projects as a whole. In fact, Pruitt-Igoe never won an award; it was always compromised by economics and politics (which Jencks fails to mention); and it seems rather convenient to pick out the very worst example of Modernism in practice to denigrate the whole movement. Katharine Bristol notes that a Pruitt-Igoe myth has flourished, in which a writer like Tom Wolfe can invent a public meeting where the residents elected to dynamite the buildings – a complete fabrication.

According to this myth, people like Jencks can put forward the notion that if its architecture had been more vernacular, more sympathetic to “traditional patterns” of behaviour or local history, Pruitt-Igoe would have been a success. As an argument, it is astoundingly insular, and utterly blind to outside forces. In its own way, it is even more dogmatic, even more wedded to the principle that society can be engineered by design alone, that Modernism as its Highest. It is understandable that the architectural profession would put forward such an argument – it legitimates them as the be-all and end-all of the urban environment. But as Bristol notes, “what this obscures is the architects’ passivity in the face of a much larger agenda that has its roots not in radical social reform, but in the political economy of post-World War II St Louis and in practices of racial segregation.”

This over-emphasis on architecture lets other actors, policy-makers and politicians whose actions were far more damaging to Pruitt-Igoe, off the hook. St Louis’s Public Housing Administration, under pressure from a Congress more interested in bombing Korea back to the previous century than building housing for its own citizens, insisted that the site accommodate a higher density of people than in the old slums. The poorest sections of the black community were placed there and, unable to fill it, the Housing Authority lost income and struggled to maintain the scheme. The elevators stopped only at every third floor (a consequence of housing policy rather than design), and the galleries which were originally designed to instil a sense of community were viewed by residents as “gauntlets,” where they could be bullied or attacked by gangs. The myth that faulty architecture was wholly to blame had a racist tinge to it, with some (including the architects themselves) claiming that middle-class, white architects had designed a building without taking into account the “behaviours” of its intended residents.

There are a number of anomalies which cast a shadow on the “Pruitt-Igoe myth”. Firstly, a nearby development called Carr Village – built according to the same principles, housing a similar demographic, but subject to less damaging external factors – was a success. Secondly, Pruitt-Igoe;s architect also designed a building – put to an entirely different use – which has become a symbol of economic and political patriotism: the World Trade Center in New York. Thirdly, what the right wing of the postmodern movement fail to mention is that many of the most notorious Modernist public housing scheme were commissioned by right-wing (Conservative and Republican) governments who built them cheaply and treated them as slum clearance. And fourthly – and perhaps we might be permitted a little schadenfreude here – it turns out that Poundbury, that monarchist-pomo wet-dream, is a crime-infested hellhole too!


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