“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)
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).
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.
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!