‘House is a machine for living in’ – Vers Une Architecture, Le Corbusier, 1927.
As a response to unprecedented industrialization and social changes of the 20th century, few Architects took it upon themselves to create a utopian modern society by reimagining how humans could live, work, and interact. Flat roofs, asymmetrical geometric compositions with an emphasis on volumes, rational use of modernist materials, white/neutral palette, open-plan interiors, structural innovations, and blatant rejection of ornament defined the Modernism movement.
The widely telecasted demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development reflected the general public disenchantment towards highly idealized unrealistic ambitions of the Modernist design approach. What led to this spectacularly infamous large-scale failure that Architect Minoru Yamasaki wished he hadn’t conceived?
In the years following World War 2, many American cities experienced ‘white flight’ which is essentially the movement of the wealthier class to the suburbs leaving the cities with slums. The Housing Act of 1949 gave loans to the cities for Urban Renewal projects to combat the ills of poverty and urban blight.
St. Louis is a northern Industrial city and was experiencing a housing crisis. A public housing program named after Wendall Oliver Pruitt, an African-American fighter pilot in World War 2 and William. L. Igoe, a former U.S. Congressman, was proposed by urban planner Harland Bartholomew. The city government and business leaders saw Pruitt-Igoe as an investment that could raise land and property values. They chose the progressive and optimistic Modernist Architectural style for the project.
The original vision for the 57-acre project was to have nearly 3000 housing units as a mix of 2-story row houses and widely spaced slab blocks with a ‘green river’ of grass and playgrounds interspersed across the site. Yamasaki innovated ‘skid stop’ elevators which stopped only at intermediate floors with community centers forcing interaction amongst residents. In 1951, an article in the Architectural forum praised its ingenious cost-saving methods and ‘refreshing’ parkland.
Low and behold, Pruitt-Igoe housing development held a high promise with acclaims like ‘Best high rise apartment of the year’, ‘slum surgery’, ‘cure for urban poor…’, ‘epitome of the modernist high-rise’ and believed that it ‘might well set a new rescue pattern’ for other cities filled with slums.
But, succumbing to the larger pressures of bureaucracy, draconian federal housing regulations, and cost cuts, Yamasaki had to double the density of units per acre, shrink the individual units, and eliminate row houses and the ‘green’ river. The 33 imposing high-rise buildings each with 11 stories, looked alien amidst the miles of low-rise brick structures surrounding it.
It became the ‘death knell of the entire Modernist era of design’ with people calling it ‘hell on earth’ as the housing complex swiftly nosedived from being a dream to a nightmarish menace. It was even called an economic and racial ghetto.
Lack of private property and ‘defensible space’ was considered a major design flaw as residents didn’t feel responsible for physical property occupied by so many people.
Cheap construction was employed where the quality of hardware was so poor that doorknobs and locks were broken on initial use, window panes were blown from inadequate frames by wind pressure and kitchen cabinets were made of the thinnest plywood possible.
The Maintenance and Operations of this massive complex solely depended upon the rental payments which were inconsistent as the low-income tenants had unsteady jobs. This set up a vicious cycle of dwindling occupancy and a lack of funds for upkeep. Heaters, toilets, garbage incinerators, and electricity frequently malfunctioned. At one point, the faulty plumbing let loose floods of raw sewage through the hallways. Despite tenants’ repeated requests to tend to their needs, managerial indifference forced the residents to flee.
The Housing Act of 1949 encouraged contradictory policies, presenting incentives for Urban Renewal projects as well as subsidies for moving to the suburbs.
The area around Pruitt-Igoe gradually became something of an amenity desert with a shortage of transportation, jobs, and food stressing the stigma around it. In the 1960s, changes were made in the eligibility criteria to increase occupancy leading to Pruitt-Igoe becoming a dumping ground of all people that nobody wanted. It was considered as a status loss and social rejection to live there.
Initially planned along racial lines with black residents in Pruitt homes and white residents in Igoe apartments, the entire project was integrated into a single complex after the 1954 Supreme court ruling that made ‘separate but equal’ segregation illegal in the USA. The law didn’t seem to erase the deep-seated racism in St. Louis. In a decade of its opening, it had become a dilapidated warehouse exclusively inhabited by poor, black residents.
Vandalism and crime became rampant. All city services were slowly cut off. Galleries and ill-lit staircases became ‘gauntlets’- perilous passages where residents were mugged, harassed, or even assaulted. Attempts to renovate didn’t focus on the deeper social and fiscal issues leading to further decay. Drugs, gangs, prostitution, and shootings were daily occurrences that often went unreported.
Pruitt-Igoe was declared to be beyond rescue and was demolished in 1972. The overall downfall of this housing project is attributed to a combination of unfortunate design choices, racism, poorly structured housing policy, and failure to consider the overwhelming cost of maintenance and operations.
In hindsight, architect Yamasaki regretted the ‘deplorable mistakes’ committed at Pruitt-Igoe. His remorse was so strong that he left out this project from his autobiography. But thanks to the full-fledged revisionist history to debunk the ’Pruitt-Igoe myth’, Yamasaki is now viewed as a scapegoat in the face of larger social forces that could not have been humanly predetermined.
Today, the plot is an urban forest reminiscent of the promise of failed paradise holding valuable lessons for the design of public housing.