Tag Archives: Missouri

PHOTO ESSAY | Country Club Plaza | Kansas City MO

PHOTO ESSAY | Country Club Plaza | Kansas City MO
Photographs by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

Opened in 1923, Country Club Plaza is a privately owned American shopping center in the Country Club District of Kansas City, Missouri. The center consists of 18 separate buildings representing 804,000 square feet of retail space and 468,000 square feet of office space. The standalone buildings are built in a distinctive Seville Spain theme and are on different blocks mostly west of Main Street and north of Brush Creek, which blends into the Country Club neighborhood around it. The area as a whole is often simply called the “The Plaza” (Source: Wikipedia).

It is all-too-easy to examine the figure ground of building footprints (top, above) and conclude that Country Club Plaza is defined by ‘strong edges,’ especially to the south (Brush Creek) and east (Mill Creek Park). However, this is misleading and less important than the relationship of ‘edge streets’ to the larger context of Kansas City in all directions. In fact, the spatial logic of the Plaza area (and Country Club Plaza, in particular) is simple, yet quite sophisticated. A central cross-axis (cardo and decumanus) defines the local catchment area (in black, see below).

Central cross-axis defining the local area relationship and the layered ‘edge streets’ defining the larger contextual relationship to Kansas City in all directions.

A series of sequential ‘edge streets’ defined the relationship to the larger Kansas City context with the one closest to Country Club Plaza tending to split along the southern, eastern and western edges (in blue) for the purposes of traffic management. This includes Ward Parkway running parallel along both sides of Brush Creek (see below).

A series of major streets (in red, see above) farther afield – West 43rd Street to the north, State Line Road to the west, Gillman Road to the west, and West 55th Street to the south – define another edge to the Plaza area. It is this second edge that is the more important one for Country Club Plaza to access a regional catchment area since the cross-axis of the local catchment area reaches to each of these edge streets, helping to structure of the relationship of Country Club Plaza within a much larger area. The Plaza neighborhood itself then uses a series of streets of low/moderate length and connectivity within the interstitial areas formed by this classical morphology to generate its distinctiveness at different scales of movement (automobile, walking/biking) within Kansas City.

Looking north along Broadway at the corner of Nichols Road (Photograph: Mark David Major).

Plentiful on-street, short-term parking (2 hours or less) helps to slow down the traffic on the streets within Country Club Plaza itself though some road section improvements (central landscape medians instead of continuous left turn lanes) might prove more beneficial for the area over the long term.

Looking west along 47th Street at the corner of Wornall Road in the small public space associated with the Neptune Fountain (Photograph: Mark David Major).
Looking southwest along Broadway towards Brush Creek from the small square associated with what is called the Mermaid Fountain (technically, the fountain depicts sirens, as indicated by the ancient megaphones they are holding) (Photograph: Mark David Major).
Looking west through the small public square at the southwest corner of Pennslyvania Avenue and Nichols Road. I call this “Penguin Square” because of the three bronze statues of penguins at its center (Photograph: Mark David Major).
Looking west across the outdoor patio for the Gram & Dunn restaurant at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Ward Parkway across the street from Brush Creek (Photograph: Mark David Major).
Looking south down Jefferson Street through the outdoor eating plaza of Kaldi’s Coffee at the corner with Nichols Road (Photograph: Mark David Major).

Country Club Plaza makes very clever use of public squares and plazas (often in conjunction with fountains, for which the area is renowned) by turning over some of its most valuable parcels (street corners or “100% location”, according to William Whyte) for public uses. Some of these street corner spaces also operate as outdoor patio seating for restaurants and coffee shops. Most are quite successful, which emphasizes the greater importance of ‘people watching’ than enclosure for a successful public space.

Streetside entry to interior parking building on Nichols Road near the corner of Broadway (Photograph: Mark David Major).

As pointed out by numerous New Urbanists over the years, Country Club Plaza provides for a generous allocation of off-street parking by ‘burying’ parking structures within the center of urban blocks. This is necessary due to the lack of an extensive rail transit system in Kansas City. The KC Streetcar, opened in 2016, has a limited route in downtown Kansas City. However, once that rail transit system expands, then Country Club Plaza would be an ideal candidate for a station; preferably in the central block, which is mostly composed of off-street parking and smallish, single-story retail space along the street frontage at this time (right of the photo below).

Looking west along Nichols Road at the corner of Central Street outside of Starbuck’s Coffee (Photograph: Mark David Major).
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PAPER | A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe

“The present contribution is a nice and proper scientific excursion through the fits and misfits of an emblematic “failure” of modern urbanism – Pruitt-Igoe, overcoming superficial critiques and less interesting commentaries on the case. I recommend it to be accepted for presentation at the conference and published (in) its proceedings.” (Referee Comment about M.D. Major research on Pruitt-Igoe for SSS11)

Click to download a PDF of the paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe” here.

During the closing reception of Space Syntax 10 at University College London in 2015, Dr. Mário Krüger asked me to “promise” to attend Space Syntax 11 in Lisbon, Portugal in 2017 after attending my first Space Syntax Symposium since 1999. I politely promised to “try” to attend. Two years is a long time and I hate to make promises without knowing beforehand whether it will be possible to fulfill them. Mário noticed my equivocation, so he again asked me to promise to attend. He asked again… and again… and again… and again. Upon Mário’s fifth request, I finally offered the unequivocal promise to attend SSS11 that he was seeking from me. This created two problems for me: one short-term and the other long-term. I could delay answering the long-term problem until the last minute; namely, would I have the personal and/or professional resources (i.e. time, money, etc.) to visit Lisbon, Portugal in two years time? The short-term problem required an answer much sooner since the SSS11 call for abstracts was only five months away; namely, what suitable research could I possibly write about for the blind referee process of Space Syntax Symposia? I did not know.

However, finding an answer was one of many issues I was dealing with in the latter part of 2015, including the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) hiring me as a part-time, adjunct Professor of Urban Design in November, my subsequent relocation to that city in December, and preparing the syllabus/materials for the URBA 739: Economics of Urban and Regional Planning course at SCAD, which I would begin teaching in January 2016. I decided one of the lectures for URBA 739 had to be about social housing. I had conducted some social housing research in Europe during the 90s and I had also read a great deal about the most infamous public housing project of them all, Pruitt-Igoe, because I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. That was when the ‘lightbulb went off over my head’ (always an Edison bulb in my imagination). Space syntax is famous for its research into European social housing and crime patterns (see the “Back to the Street” article in The Economist). However, as far as I knew, no one had ever researched Pruitt-Igoe using space syntax. It was easy to understand why. Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in 1972-76 and, as I state in the paper, “any researcher is willingly wading into a distinctive American cesspool of racism and ideology sufficient to scare most people away” (Major, 2017; pp. 5).

Figure-ground (space in black, blocks in white) of north St. Louis showing the Pruitt-Igoe site (highlighted in gray) in 1933 (left) and circa 1958 (right).

The paper you can now download for free (see above and below) represents about a year of research and only 5,000 words about this particular subject. My first full, unedited draft of the paper was about 15,000 words. Quite frankly, this was also insufficient for the scope and multitude of issues raised by the design, management, and history of Pruitt-Igoe. For example, there is some delicate nuance preferable for many of the issues crudely summarized in the paper as well as additional material by other researchers, which deserve to be more fully described than I have time for even in the 2.5-hour course about Pruitt-Igoe, now available on The Outlaw Urbanist course website. I fully intend to expand this research into a book at some point in the future. This because Pruitt-Igoe remains an important lesson for us; one that many people still misconstrue or fail to understand altogether, where the consequences of future mistakes can be just as costly as our past ones if we are not careful. We consign Pruitt-Igoe as something solely belonging to the past at our peril. As Albert Einstein pointed out, “only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

In the end, researching Pruitt-Igoe was an often frustrating but hugely rewarding experience for me as an architect, urban planner, and native St. Louisian. However, as fate would have it, I could not answer the long-term problem to keep my promise to Dr. Krüger about attending SSS11 in Lisbon, Portugal. I simply do not have the resources at my disposal that so many other people casually take for granted to attend conferences worldwide. For failing to keep my promise, I feel bad and I apologize to Dr. Krüger. Nonetheless, the end-product of this journey is far more important for our profession than a broken promise so I am making my paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Prutt-Igoe” freely available online for anyone to read. I welcome any comments or suggestions about the ideas discussed in the paper and, once again, I strongly recommend you watch the 2012 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, especially after reading my paper if you have not before seen the documentary.

Click to download a PDF of the paper “A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe” here.

NOTE: This research was paid for and supported by me. There was no grant to pay for this research. I have not had any classes assigned to me to teach for over a year (due to “declining enrollment”) so the Savannah College of Art & Design did not financially support this research, either directly or indirectly, in any way. This research was not born of any privilege except the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Enjoy!

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