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Pruitt-Igoe 40 Years Later
Is the ghost of Modernism still haunting north St. Louis?
By Sara Fernández Cendón
Four decades after the end of what was perhaps the nation’s most infamous public housing complex, there’s no longer much point in arguing that Pruitt-Igoe was not a failure. At the end of its brief 20-year existence, the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis crashed down with enough force to (allegedly) take down Modernism and, with it, the nation’s faith in large-scale public housing. For many years, the design of the buildings took the brunt of the criticism. But efforts to understand factors beyond architecture shed light on a larger systemic failure and issue a warning about the limits of design.
The project’s first tenant was Frankie Mae Raglin, who moved in in 1954 and later told The New York Times that Pruitt-Igoe was “perfect--the nicest place [she]’d ever had.” But by the late 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe started showing signs of fiscal trouble, and occupancy rates began to slip. By 1970, 65 percent of the complex was vacant, and crime was rampant. In 1972, 40 years ago, the housing authorities that commissioned it began demolishing Pruitt-Igoe. Four years later, the last building fell.
A project so massive and a demise so spectacular immediately captured the collective imagination. Widely circulated images of the towers crumbling to the ground helped solidify the idea that something had gone terribly wrong—and the architect, Minoru Yamasaki, of Hellmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber, became one of the prime suspects.
The devil in the details
At heart, Pruitt-Igoe was an optimistic idea—perhaps too optimistic. Planned to accommodate the growth of an industrial powerhouse city already a shade past its prime, the project was a Modernist dream come true: an effort to replace St. Louis’ slums with new, clean affordable housing rising into the sky. It was profoundly influenced by Le Corbusier’s “radiant city” vision of Modernism, with landscaped parks surrounded by towers of glass and concrete lifting working people out of dark, near-shantytowns isolated from running water, electricity, and civilized urban infrastructure.
While history has not been kind to the architecture of Pruitt-Igoe, many familiar with the project will admit that no measure of good design could have solved all the problems that lead to its demise. First, the complex was hopelessly oversized. Pruitt-Igoe consisted of 33 11-story buildings spread over 57 acres on the city’s north side. It was planned by the City of St. Louis in the late 1940s, when the city had about 850,000 residents and projected a population of nearly 1 million by 1970. Instead, between 1950 and 1970, St. Louis lost about 30 percent of its population, with many residents bleeding out into newly planted suburbs. This was the beginning of a downward trend—from which the city has not yet recovered—that lies at the heart of Pruitt-Igoe’s perennial vacancy problem. Vacant units were particularly pernicious because federal public housing policy stipulated that the project’s operating costs had to be covered by rent revenues. Near the end, with only 340 out of 2,800 apartments occupied, the local public housing authority simply couldn’t keep up.
Karl Grice, AIA, of Grice Group Architects and 2011 president of AIA St. Louis, has an aerial photograph of Pruitt-Igoe sitting on his desk. “It sticks out like a sore thumb,” he says. “It’s almost like it doesn’t belong in the fabric of the city of St Louis.” As seen from the air, towering above a sea of two- and three-story row houses, the complex interrupts the street grid with massive abstracted superblocks, its 33 modular façades glistening in the sun like broad-faced highway signs advertising the obsolescence of everything around it. Grice, who has a master’s degree in social work, says he keeps that photograph as a reminder. “If more architects had a better understanding of the clients they’re serving, Pruitt-Igoe probably never would’ve happened,” he says.
Second, the buildings were not built the way they were designed. Yamasaki originally planned a less massive development of low-rise and high-rise apartment buildings. In addition to the shape of the towers (which were homogenized to cut costs), outdoor playgrounds, ground-floor restrooms, and finishes throughout the buildings were value-engineered out. All of it resulted in buildings that were not responsive to residents’ needs, and began falling apart almost from the start.
Third, Pruitt-Igoe was built during a tumultuous time in U.S. race relations in a city with an intense history of racial segregation. Pruitt and Igoe were designed as separate, racially segregated projects: Pruitt for African-American residents, Igoe for whites. As the towers were going up, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision banned segregation. Faced with the possibility of living next to African-American neighbors in an integrated Pruitt-Igoe, white residents moved out en masse, exacerbating Pruitt-Igoe’s vacancy problems.
The death of Modernism?
The complex situation surrounding Pruitt-Igoe notwithstanding, a simple design-centric narrative about its demise began to emerge: Pruitt-Igoe failed because architects and civic leaders had pushed a Modernist design agenda onto a population whose needs had not been carefully considered. Furthermore, this Modern architecture had failed because it divorced residents from personal and communal ownership of public spaces.
A key design feature in the buildings were elevators that stopped only at the fourth, seventh, and 10th floors of each tower. On each of those floors were “galleries” (south-facing corridors that served as playgrounds), laundry facilities, and a garbage chute. This scheme meant residents would have to walk at most one flight of stairs to their apartments, and galleries would function as busy common areas where neighbors would go about their daily business and socialize. In his 1972 book, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, Oscar Newman, a Washington University professor at the time, described public spaces in Pruitt-Igoe as anonymous no-man’s lands for which residents felt no sense of ownership or responsibility. This, he argued, explained the vandalism and crime that became the norm in galleries, stairwells, and elevators. In a more recent book, Creating Defensible Space, Newman pointed out that by raising residents 11 stories into the air, the design aspired to keep the grounds free for communal activities, creating a Le Corbusier–inspired “river of trees” to flow under the buildings. However, these landscaped spaces hundreds of feet below the buildings didn’t feel like anyone’s front yard, and no one took care of them. “The river of trees soon became a sewer of glass and garbage,” Newman wrote.
Shortly after the demolition of the last buildings, architecture critic and author Charles Jencks, in his 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, declared the July 15, 1972, demolition of Pruitt-Igoe to be “the death of Modern architecture.” He even specified an exact time of death (“3:32 p.m.”), which, according to The Guardian, he later admitted to making up.
Ironically, it took an architecture student to shift the discussion of why Pruitt-Igoe failed away from design. With her 1991 Journal of Architectural Education article “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” University of California-Berkeley architecture doctoral student Katharine Bristol became a leading Pruitt-Igoe revisionist. She argued that the public discourse on Pruitt-Igoe had overemphasized architecture, both in its imagined greatness and fabricated failure, and disregarded the broader political and social factors that led to the project’s demise. Bristol examined the City of St. Louis’ budget constraints that forced Yamasaki to modify his original design and eliminate crucial amenities, the fiscal and vacancy crisis that led the housing authority to neglect maintenance, and the ways the design community exaggerated the supposed design virtues of Pruitt-Igoe only to create a more poignant portrait of its failure. For example, Pruitt-Igoe is often cited as an AIA-award recipient, but the project never won any architectural awards. Bristol’s analysis concluded that Pruitt-Igoe was a systemic failure, not a failure of Modern architecture. “By continuing to promote architectural solutions to what are fundamentally problems of class and race, the myth conceals the complete inadequacy of contemporary public housing policy,” she wrote.
Eric Mumford, professor of architectural and urban design history at Washington University, echoes that sentiment when he says perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Pruitt-Igoe is “to be very wary of really large-scale simple solutions to complex urban problems.”
This myth of victimization of the urban poor at the hands of Modernism also attracted filmmaker Chad Freidrichs. He set out to tell the story of Pruitt-Igoe with a focus on design, but his research led him away from Modernist architecture scapegoats as well. His documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, was released last year, and opened for a series of limited screenings in January. Like Bristol’s work, it focuses on the greater economic, social, and political contexts that drove Pruitt-Igoe to ruin. Freidrichs says viewers looking for deep architectural analysis won’t find it in his movie. But, he says, what they will find is “an important story about the limits of architecture.”
Not that the film doesn’t offer architects lessons to learn. While the project’s inattention to scale and mix of uses are easy to pick out today, perhaps Pruitt-Igoe’s greatest remaining architectural legacy is a plea for multidisciplinary collaboration amongst policymakers and all building professions. From the beginning, the policy framework for funding and operating affordable housing during the mid-20th century presupposed multitudes of programmatic and functional design requirements without stopping to ask an architect or designer. The density of the units, cost per unit, plan for maintenance, and bargain-basement fixtures were all set by the public housing agency. As envisioned by the St. Louis public housing authority and the federal government, no design could have saved Pruitt-Igoe. The problem wasn’t bad architecture; the problem was a bad client. Had Yamasaki and his colleagues (which perhaps could have included a few landscape architects, engineers, and urban planners) had the opportunity to collaborate with the government on its affordable housing guidelines before the die was cast, Pruitt-Igoe might have deserved its fictitious awards.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen on a broad scale until the early 1990s, when HUD established the Hope VI grant program, a more holistic approach to affordable housing intended to improve public housing design, empower residents, and deconcentrate poverty. Hope VI relies on partnerships with public and private agencies, local governments, and businesses to demolish distressed public housing and create housing based on New Urbanist design principles. With Shaun Donovan (a former architect) currently at the helm of HUD, the department recently introduced the Choice Neighborhoods program, which aspires to build upon Hope VI by explicitly connecting housing investments to services, schools, transit, and employment.
Since Pruitt-Igoe, architects have expanded their involvement with intensely multidisciplinary and policy-driven efforts like the International Green Construction Code and the GSA and State Department Design Excellence programs. In 2001, HUD published the Affordable Housing Design Advisor, a resource created in collaboration with the AIA to educate developers, sponsors, and users of affordable housing on what constitutes good design and how to achieve it.
Capitalizing on the film’s release and the upcoming 40th anniversary of the demolition of the first Pruitt-Igoe tower, Michael Allen, director of the St. Louis–based Preservation Research Office, and Nora Wendl, an architecture professor at Portland State University, have launched an open-ended ideas competition called Pruitt-Igoe Now. The competition seeks a broad spectrum of ideas and is open to design professionals, students, writers, and artists of every discipline. “Although architecture is a critical part of the site’s past, only responding with built form is not enough,” says Wendl.
Following a more traditional path, in 2009 developer Paul McKee, of O’Fallon, Mo.–based McEagle Properties, unveiled the $8 billion NorthSide Regeneration Proposal for 1,500 acres of north St. Louis, including the Pruitt-Igoe site. McEagle is seeking $391 million in tax-increment financing for infrastructure projects to prepare the area for development. Although the actual program is still fairly vague, it includes several “employment centers” composed of varying mixes of commercial, retail, and high-density residential development.
Anything built on the site will have to overcome its toxic status as an architectural untouchable. Today the Pruitt-Igoe site remains mostly alone, overgrown, and isolated from the lessons learned since its destruction. One of those lessons: Architecture practiced in isolation can’t solve the world’s biggest problems.
Visit The Pruitt-Igoe Myth website.