Tag Archives: social malaise

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 during 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 enrolment”) 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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Pruitt-Igoe | A Photographic Essay

Today, we set a very specific task to promote our forthcoming, new course on The Outlaw Urbanist online learning platform: A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe (2.0 hour). Namely, create a photographic essay telling the story, in part, of the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex in St. Louis, Missouri using only ten photographs with shortish captions, i.e. no plans, maps, statistics, or computer models. Quite frankly, it is a near impossible task. Nonetheless, the photos are fascinating and there are plenty of informative links to related materials available in the captions so you can discover more about this (in)famous housing project.

Pruitt-Igoe is one of the most commonly cited examples for the failures of Modernism in the world. The televised demolition of Pruitt-Igoe residential towers in 1972 is one of the most iconic images of 20th century architecture and planning (Photograph: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth Press Materials).

Opening circa 1954, Pruitt-Igoe was Federally-funded social housing constructed with 2,870 apartments for 13,000 people (228 people/acre) in thirty-three 11-story buildings on 57 acres with a housing density of 50 dwelling units per acre in north St. Louis (Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis via The Guardian).

Pruitt-Igoe was a ‘hybrid design’ for a high-profile, strategic site. It incorporated Modernist principles (i.e. high-rises towers, separation of uses and building siting, stripped down aesthetics where ‘form follows function, etc.) utilizing a regular grid layout in the urban pattern of St. Louis, which was commonly planned on offsetting ‘smallish’ regular grids in a process of deformation, i.e. small for American cities, big for European ones (Photograph: U.S. Geological Survey via Wikipedia Commons).

Pruitt-Igoe replaced 19th century tenement housing, which was typical of the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood and many areas of St. Louis at the time. Survey of a 1938 Sanborn map indicates there were a minimum of 730 street-oriented dwelling entrances with minimal street setbacks on the site before Pruitt-Igoe, i.e. exclusive of buildings with deep setbacks, large (non-residential) footprints, alleyway-access, and vacant lots (Photograph: State Historical Society and Missouri/University of Missouri-St. Louis Archives).

The pilotis design feature partially ‘liberated’ the ground level for circulation routes, which crucially mediated inside to outside and vice versa, i.e. formal access to the elevator/stairwells in each tower and spatial distribution in the exterior spaces of the layout. The residential towers elevated dwelling entrances in section to internal corridors, effectively representing a complete elimination of front doors in the site (Photograph: Affordable Housing Institute).

The cost-cutting inclusion of ‘skip-stop’ elevators only stopping at the 1st, 4th, 7th, and 10th floors forced most residents to use dark stairwells – principally designed as fire exits – to access the floors of their apartment. They were publicly accessible due to the uncontrolled pilotis design feature, which also provided access to multiple routes at ground level in an ‘easy to read and use’ layout. Collectively, this facilitated opportunity and escape for criminal activities, initially focused on the stairwells but later spreading to other spaces (Photograph: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth).

People must have quickly realized the opportunities inherent in the design and planning of the pilotis feature because intensive patrols of the buildings and grounds began shortly after Pruitt-Igoe opened, even before any welfare recipients were allowed to live there. Former residents indicate these stairwells/elevators were problematic spaces from the very beginning (Photograph: St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

The number of unsupervised children in archival footage of Pruitt-Igoe is startling. ‘Baked-in’ problems of racism accentuated by many regulatory failures skewed Pruitt-Igoe’s demographics  towards female-led households with children. Declining occupancy led to a ‘broken interface’ between adults and children. There were too few adults (especially males who belonged there) and too many children for too much space. Unsupervised children (especially teenagers) participated in petty vandalism, which worsened the perception of social malaise at Pruitt-Igoe (Photograph: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth).

There was an asymmetrical relationship (i.e. unequal) between the Vaughan (foreground) and Pruitt-Igoe (background) social housing in terms of formal access, horizontal and vertical scale, and spatial distribution. Nine strategic diagonal/gridline routes passing through, within or to the edge of Vaughan provided direct/adjacent access to every Pruitt-Igoe residential tower, suggesting the opening of Vaugahn circa 1957-58 might have been complicit in Pruitt-Igoe’s social malaise (Photograph: U.S. Geological Survey).

Social malaise accelerated at Pruitt-Igoe during the 1960s even as residents maintained some apartment interiors until a cataclysmic mechanical failure in 1968 (watch a 5-minute KMOX news report on YouTube here) led to a St. Louis Public Housing Authority order for phrased vacating of the premises in preparation for demolition. According to news reports/resident testimony, the worst, most violent criminal activities at Pruitt-Igoe occurred during this 5-year period from 1968-1972 (Photograph: Zuma Press/Alamy via The Guardian).

This photographic essay only begins to scratch the surface of the issues surrounding this housing project. There is a LOT MORE to the story of Pruitt-Igoe. Learn more by participating in our forthcoming, new course – A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe – when it becomes available!

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