Pruitt-Igoe: The Making and Unmaking of Architecture’s Greatest Myth
In 1949, the United States Housing Act was passed, allowing the US government to introduce several urban rejuvenation projects, one of which was the Pruitt-Igoe public housing, largely created to restrict the growth of slums that were economically degrading the value of real estate in downtown St. Louis, Missouri. A 57 acre site was cleared for the construction of 5800 housing units that would house nearly 15000 residents. Architect Minoru Yamasaki, who was also responsible for the design of the World Trade Centre that went down in the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks, was commissioned by the St Louis Housing Authority for the design of Pruitt-Igoe in 1950. His initial design consisted of a combination of mid-rise and high-rise blocks, intermingled with lush green community spaces. However, his proposal was over ruled by the Public Housing Authority that insisted on a much denser scheme of 33 eleven-storey blocks. Yamasaki’s proposal for Pruitt-Igoe included several design features such as the skip-stop elevator, locally found at the Vikas Minar in ITO, and glazed internal galleries that were meant to promote “neighbourly interaction”. These features were initially heralded by leading architectural journals of the time as “innovative compensations for the short comings of the high rise form” (Bristol, 1991) but the same journals would go on to criticise Yamasaki’s efforts as a follow through to Charles Jencks’ initial critique of Pruitt-Igoe.
Section showing the skip-stop elevators (Image courtesy: Bristol, 1991)
The downfall of Pruitt-Igoe began with its occupation. Construction was completed in 1954 for a residency that was expected to consist of one-third whites and two-third blacks but ended up housing 98% black residents due to the Supreme Court ruling that ended segregation (Birmingham, 1999). Immediately, funds for the project significantly dropped resulting in major modifications to the original design. The densities of the blocks were nearly doubled and landscape was discarded as an unnecessary expense. What was meant to be lush green community parks shrivelled into dry, dirt grounds, barricading the site from the context around it and spatially preventing any interaction with the surrounding city space, the interactive galleries contorted into gang hangouts, the skip-stop elevators that were designed to ensure usage of the gallery now forced residents to pass through the gang dense space that became epicentres of excessive violence. Yamasaki imagined a housing that would voice Le Corbusier’s “three essential joys of urbanism: sun, space and greenery” (Jencks, 1977) but the final product proclaimed mirror images of this hope. The safe, healthy environment as envisioned by the architect slowly morphed into a near prison like seclusion. In an effort to reduce construction cost, the Authority used products of such low quality that they broke after initial use. In The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Katherine Bristol talks about window panes made so poorly that they broke apart under wind pressure. Doorknobs and handles snapped when pulled, the thinnest plywood available was used in the kitchens. The design elements that Yamasaki had so carefully thought of for Pruitt-Igoe were routinely vandalised by the local youth: graffiti, territorial gang symbols, covering most of its facades, doors and windows smashed in, plumbing destroyed. The Housing Authority enforced a number of odd, almost racist policies in an effort to curb the rising vandalism: heavy metal grills and chain link fences installed in the galleries, converting what should have been pleasant outdoor settings into unsafe, prison-like enclosures; armed men patrolling the housing complex, further emphasizing on the subtle message that Pruitt-Igoe was less a home and more of a prison. To begin with, the Housing Authority disallowed husbands from living with their...
References: Birmingham, Elizabeth, Reframing the Ruins: Pruitt-Igoe, Structural Racism, and African American Rhetoric as a Space for Cultural Critique, Western Journal of Communication, summer 1999.
Bristol, Katharine, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, nd., University of California Berkeley.
Newman, Oscar, Creating Defensible Space, Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers University, April 1996.
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