After Pruitt Igoe

More than a year has passed since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. The event sparked violent protests and almost immediately after, racial tensions surfaced throughout the U.S.
10/02/2015 02:54 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2016

More than a year has passed since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. The event sparked violent protests and almost immediately after, racial tensions surfaced throughout the U.S.

Meanwhile things appear to have calmed down and the authorities have begun to take stock. Last month the New Ferguson Report, commissioned by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, was released on the general state of the city of St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs. The report comes out at a time of alarming statistics about the St. Louis Metropolitan area: a 60 percent rise in homicides, an increasing amount of its inhabitants below the poverty line and homelessness numbers much higher than previously assumed (see footnote 1). Amidst it all, a scandal has erupted on double-dealing municipal officials raising money for the cash-strapped city by excessively fining poor people for minor offenses, such as traffic and ordinance violations. (People who can't pay are sent to illegal debtor's prisons.) The report is everything but optimistic. It seriously questions if the downward spiral the St. Louis area has found itself in since the Great Depression can ever be reverted. To us architects, St. Louis has a familiar ring, as does the era of its last stance for the emancipation of the working poor in the form of large scale public housing projects. Time for a reconstruction.

July 15, 1972 (3:32 PM): The first building of the Pruitt Igoe housing estate in St. Louis, Missouri, is demolished through a planned implosion. Less than 18 years after it opens in 1956, the estate is considered beyond retrieve and torn down. Despite, or rather because of its demolition Pruitt Igoe makes history. If we are to believe the critics, it wasn't just a block of flats that received its 'coup de grâce' on that July afternoon of 1972, but the whole of 20th century Avant-Garde thinking. The demolition is featured live on national television, and definitively acquires cult status once it features in the 1981 film Koyaanisqatsi, with a soundtrack by Philip Glass; in The Language of Postmodern Architecture, Charles Jencks writes that 'Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite," (2) a view further adopted by artist Peter Blake (Form Follows Fiasco, 1977) and writer Tom Wolfe (From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981).

The prevailing reading of events around Pruitt Igoe is enough to make any architect uncomfortable. The repeated use of the demolition footage sends a clear message: Dear architects, when it comes to solving societal issues, do not get above yourselves - it will (literally) blow up in your face. And still there is a strange disjunction between the powerlessness that emanates from the imagery of Pruitt Igoe's demolition and the blame that is attributed to these buildings. Surely if architecture's power to fix societal issues is limited, then so must be its power to create them. One cannot help but wonder whether the critics, with their singular focus on the buildings as the culprit of Pruitt Igoe's demise, made themselves part of a cover-up. What lies beyond the truism that Modern architecture died in 1972? What story is buried under the rubble left after Pruitt Igoe's demolition?

January 14, 1947: While most US cities recover from the Great Depression, St. Louis is one of only four facing a declining population. Its housing stock has been deteriorating since the 1920s. Middle-class residents are leaving and their former residences are occupied by the poor. Slums threaten to engulf the city center. At the request of Republican Mayor Aloys P. Kauffman , the City Planning Commission devises a development plan for the next 25 years to bring (the right) people back to St. Louis through private sector gentrification in the city's poorest neighborhoods. The De Soto Carr neighborhood is one of these designated for renewal; the initial plan calls for three-story blocks with a public park.

Things take a twist in 1949 when the US Housing Act is issued, which makes federal funds available for slum clearance, urban redevelopment and public housing - creating a construction wave across America. St. Louis's new mayor, Joseph Darst (Democrat), seizes the opportunity and revises the existing development plan, quipping 'We'll take Manhattan', in reference to the high-rise structures imagined for the future.

In 1950, St. Louis receives a federal commitment for 5,800 public housing units; De Soto Carr is slated for public housing at densities higher than the original slum dwellings. Half of the units are allocated to a relatively modest tract of land, the design of which is commissioned to the architecture firm Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth. Minuro Yamasaki, who later designs New York's World Trade Center, is the project's main designer. He conceives a neighborhood of 33 eleven-story slabs, containing 2,700 units to house 15,000 people (3). The widely acclaimed design is marketed with great confidence; in 1951, Architectural Forum runs an article, 'Slum Surgery in St Louis', in its praise (4). Architectural Record applauds the unique design features such as skip-stop elevators and glazed internal galleries, intended to create "individual neighborhoods" within each building (5).

The area is planned as a racially segregated development, named for Wendell O. Pruitt, a black military pilot, and William Igoe, a white congressman; both men were from St. Louis but would never meet in their lifetimes. However, racial segregation is deemed illegal by the Supreme Court (following the 'Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka') in 1954; by the time the project is completed in 1956, Pruitt Igoe is destined to become one of the first models of a racially mixed inner-city neighborhood. In 1957, occupancy rates peak at 91% and it would be fair to say that before its eventual demise, there are a number of good Pruitt Igoe years. Footage from a 1950s documentary, made shortly after the project's completion, paints an almost euphoric picture about the increase in living standards: Pruitt Igoe is labeled as 'a cure for the disease, rising above the polluted slums, lifting its residents out of poverty... Here in bright new buildings on spacious ground, they can live, with indoor plumbing, electric light, fresh plastered walls and other conveniences that are expected in the 20th century.'

Meanwhile another trend takes hold in the American city: industrial bases move out, and residents follow. The 1949 Housing Act is distinctly vague; while ample funds are available for affordable housing, it remains ambiguous where these homes should be built. Inner-city regeneration is facilitated through high-density developments; this regeneration is undermined by subsidizing the private sector to build low-cost single family units in the suburbs. By the mid-fifties the suburban lifestyle has become the dominant trend in the US, celebrated through TV shows like 'Father Knows Best' and 'Leave it to Beaver'. Losing the battle against urban flight, by the mid-sixties St. Louis has lost half of its mid-century population. The white middle and upper classes leave the city; those who cannot afford to do so stay behind. It is a strange irony that in the decades immediately following the Brown decision, racial segregation is perpetuated through the free market: white neighborhoods in the suburbs, black neighborhoods in the inner-city.

This trend drastically affects the Pruitt Igoe project. Occupancy rates start to fall, and in 1965 only 2,500 of its original 12,000 inhabitants are left. Average tenant income declines as unemployment grows, and a disproportionate number of families on the estate live on welfare. Pruitt Igoe is increasingly inhabited by the poorest strata of black society; segregated and publicly vandalized, it begins to resemble the slums it replaced.

Pruitt Igoe's deteriorated living conditions make national press in February 1969, when its residents begin a rent strike - the first of its kind - in protest. The 1949 Housing Act ruled that maintenance for public housing should come from tenants' rents - but the falling number of tenants has created insufficient funds, causing the buildings' dilapidation. The rent strike continues for nine months, eventually: Pruitt Igoe's residents have a short lived moment of political engagement. Much of this takes place in the context of a backlash against government spending: "The government no longer has an open checkbook!" is the phrase attributed to Housing and Urban Development Secretary George Romney (Mitt Romney's father, chairman of American Motors, and presidential candidate in 1968). Public housing is increasingly seen as un-American, a communist erosion of the free market. In the end, forces against Pruitt Igoe prove too strong. On July 15, 1972, the first of the 33 blocks is brought down by explosives.

***

What was accomplished by blowing up the 33 slabs of Pruitt Igoe? It did not solve St. Louis's housing crisis, this much is clear. A 2010 documentary, The Hidden Homeless, suggests that for every recorded homeless person in St. Louis, there are three to four more unaccounted for, pushing numbers well beyond anything in the city's history. Last year, the rise in homelessness in Missouri was above 14%, well above the national average.

And there is the crime. One of the main reasons cited for the demolition of the Pruitt Igoe estate was the excessive rate of violent crime. Recent successes notwithstanding, St. Louis has seen a steady, uninterrupted rise in violent crime for the past decades. In 2014, St. Louis ranked as the fourth most dangerous city in the US, with more than 1,800 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, ranging from assault to shooting, from arson to robbery. In recent years, petty crime - or rather penalizing petty crime - has become a major source of municipal revenue. This is also known as the 'money ball approach'. At present, St Louis derives up to 40% of its annual revenue from fines and fees collected by their law enforcement agencies, fining anything from loud music to unkempt property; even a fine for wearing saggy pants has been proposed.

Forty years after the demolition, the same issues that led to the demolition are ever present, with still no adequate repertoire to deal with them. The city becomes the 'cadavre exquis' of public authorities desperately in need of money to sustain any credible level of service. During the last years of Pruitt Igoe the refusal of the authorities to take their responsibility met with a rent strike of the residents; but this time, there is nobody left to protest and nothing left to protest against. Thinking of Pruitt Igoe, one wonders: was it really the buildings that bothered us, or was it something else? Does its failure serve as an uncomfortable reminder that the American dream - even at the moment of the great civil rights movement - was not available to all? In historic terms the demolition of Pruitt Igoe seems to sound the death knell of political resignation rather than of buildings, where Charles Jencks's coup de grace becomes exactly that: a mercy killing, not of a movement in architecture, but of a commitment to progress in solidarity - a sigh of relief. After Pruitt Igoe, we should simply stop trying.

Footnotes:
(1) St. Louis Today, Jean Buchanan, September 11, 2015 (http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/stl-info/st-louis-crime-reports-for/html_9ffe4219-05aa-526d-92a1-3661d6b66842.html)
(2) The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Charles Jencks, 1977
(3) The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Katherine G. Bristol , University of California, Berkeley
(4) "Slum Surgery in St. Louis, Architectural Forum 94 (April 1951) pp. 128-136
(5) "Slum Surgery in St. Louis, Architectural Forum 94 (April 1951) pp. 128-136