Tag Archives: St Louis

Urban Patterns | St Louis, Missouri USA

“I will be your tootsie wootsie,
If you will meet in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair.”
— Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland

Urban Patterns | St. Louis, Missouri USA
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

St. Louis is an independent city (meaning it is not part of St. Louis County) and major American port in the state of Missouri, built along the western bank of the Mississippi River, on the border with Illinois. The city had an estimated population of 311,404 in 2016. It is the cultural and economic center of the Greater St. Louis area (metropolitan population of 2.9 million people), making it the largest metropolitan area in Missouri and the 19th-largest in the United States (Source: Wikipedia).

A map of St. Louis in 1780. From the archives in Seville, Spain (Source: Wikipedia).

Prior to European settlement, the area was a major regional center of Native American Mississippian culture. The city of St. Louis was founded in 1764 by French fur traders Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, and named after Louis IX of France. In 1764, following France’s defeat in the Seven Years’ War, the area was ceded to Spain and retroceded back to France in 1800. Nominally, the city operated as an independent city after 1764 until 1803, when the United States acquired the territory as part of the Louisiana Purchase. During the 19th century, St. Louis developed as a major port on the Mississippi River. In the 1870 Census, St. Louis was ranked as the 4th-largest city in the United States. It separated from St. Louis County in 1877, becoming an independent city and thus, limiting its own political boundaries. In 1904, it hosted the World’s Fair/Louisiana Purchase Exposition and the Summer Olympics (Source: Wikipedia).

Satellite view from 15 km of St. Louis, Missouri in the USA (Source: Google Earth).

The St. Louis urban pattern is composed of a series of small-scale regular grids of varying size, which are offset in relation to each other. This originally occurred due to adapting the regular grid layout to the topography of the Mississippi River adjacent to the riverfront at this location to ensure that most valuable lots were rectangular in shape for the purposes of buildability. Like other cities in the world composed of offset, regular grids (such as Athens, Greece and New Orleans, Louisiana), this – in combination with the distribution of land from afar by the French/Spanish crowns during the Colonial period – had a ‘cascade effect’ in shaping the layout and orientation of future parcels of small-scale regular grids in the city. Later, railroad lines running east-west introduced a very strong north-south divide in the city, which persists to this day. Oddly, this divide (historically reflecting a post-war racial divide in the city, e.g. whites in south St. Louis and blacks in north St. Louis) has been reinforced by Federal, state, and city planning efforts such as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (i.e. Gateway Arch) grounds on the riverfront in downtown St. Louis.

St. Louis’ Warehouse District – same size as two New Orleans’ French Quarters – demolished during the 1930s to (eventually) make way for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds and Gateway Arch though this riverfront land remained vacant for over two decades.

Urban Patterns is a series of posts from The Outlaw Urbanist presenting interesting examples of terrestrial patterns shaped by human intervention in the urban landscape over time.

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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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NOW AVAILABLE | A Failure of Modernism | ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe

A Failure of Modernism: ‘Excavating’ Pruitt-Igoe investigates the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex in St. Louis, Missouri USA. A large literature implicates several factors in Pruitt-Igoe’s decline, which public authorities famously demolished in 1972. Often, this literature cites design and planning as contributory factors without specifying how or why in precise terms. Building on archival records and previous research, we analyze the ‘spatial archaeology’ of Pruitt-Igoe using space syntax. Our purpose is to better understand how design and planning contributed to its social malaise. It concludes: 1) provision of space (i.e. quantity) became a liability as declining occupancy generated a ‘broken interface’ between adults and children; and, 2) the pilotis of the residential towers mediated formal access and spatial distribution in a layout characterized by ‘intelligible dysfunction,’ which facilitated opportunity and escape for criminal activities. Both fed the perception and reality of social malaise at Pruitt-Igoe (2.5 hour course). Click here to purchase this course ($17.49).

Key concepts:  design, Modernism, planning, public policy, and social housing.

Includes a two-hour video presentation and PDFs of the course supplementary material and slide handout. The research paper is freely available here.

Please note there may be a delay for a couple of hours before you are able to access the course because we have to confirm receipt of payment for each order before completing the purchase.

About the Instructor

mark_v3Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A is an architect and planner with extensive experience in urban planning and design, business management and real estate development, and academia. He is a Professor of Urban Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Mark has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Florida, Georgia Tech, Architectural Association in London, the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and Politecnico di Milano in Italy.

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