April 10, 2013

Pruitt-Igoe and the fate of modernist architecture

Since its demolition in 1972, the St. Louis housing project known as Pruitt-Igoe has proliferated among critics of art and design as a symbol of modernism's demise. In 1977, the architectural historian Charles Jencks famously suggested that postmodernism emerged precisely at 3:32pm on 15 July 1972 when the first of Pruitt-Igoe's 33 buildings fell. More recently, however, historians like Katherine Bristol have sought to demystify what they call the "Pruitt-Igoe myth," which, they argue, reduces the failure of the housing project to a question of form and style. This article attempts to hold together the housing project's consciously modernist design with St. Louis's rapidly changing urban environment and larger shifts within the global political economy. 

Pruitt-Igoe's failure lies not simply in the incommensurability between its modernist design and St. Louis's post-WWII conditions, but in the class bias inherent to both. "At Pruitt-Igoe," writes Craig Johnson, "low cost and low services were the primary design considerations. Therefore any association with 'modernism' was ideological, because modernism, deployed neutrally, really meant 'bourgeois modernism'" (35). And yet, Pruitt-Igoe persists as a symbol routinely used by critics like Jencks to discount the large scale projects of modernism in favour of a more "inclusive" postmodern architecture. In fact, the postmodern shift in architectural design, articulated by Jencks, corresponds to a different kind of pluralism in the socio-economic realm, which became increasingly resistant to public housing projects while relaxing regulation for American corporations at home and abroad.

Designed by the Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki, Pruitt-Igoe was conceived as a solution to an impending social crisis that many feared would overtake the post-WWII urban landscape. Due to great advances in industry during the war, wage labourers in the rural South increasingly found themselves out of work. Cities like St. Louis experienced a major population boom in the 1940s and early 1950s. As new residents flooded St. Louis, many of its white, middle-class residents departed for suburban life on the city's fringe. Many of St Louis's new residents, the majority of whom were African-American, settled in the slums of the downtown quarter, where property values were relatively affordable and low-level jobs were accessible. With a steadily growing concentration of low-income residents impinging on the city centre, St. Louis authorities and downtown business owners developed a plan to protect the city's central business district. Pruitt-Igoe was conceived as one of several public housing "solutions" to the slums of St. Louis' inner city, and its design would reflect this attempt to eliminate some of the obstacles faced by the inner-city working poor. Its double name reflects the conditions of segregation that determined its original plan: the Pruitt section would house black inhabitants and the Igoe would house the whites. Despite the fact that the buildings were erected shortly after desegregation laws were passed, most of the tenants ended up being poor African-Americans who had been relocated from the slums or had migrated from the rural South. 

As the historian Lawrence Larson writes, Pruitt-Igoe "displaced a black slum of 515 dwellings" and "met the goals of St Louis's capitalist reformers, but looked like something out of a Soviet Union-style socialist utopia" (61-62). Larson's association of Pruitt-Igoe with socialist architecture is somewhat misleading. While Yamasaki cited Le Corbusier and other exponents of modernism's "international style" in his designs, believing that "clean, safe, and democratic" architecture would provide people with conditions adequate for social improvement, the plans were largely determined by limited funding and city planning (Birmingham 297). The spare surfaces of Pruitt-Igoe were meant "to reflect the dissolution of the old hierarchies that made luxuriously superfluous decoration a demarcator of wealth" (296). Yet this kind of neutrality was no match for the structures of class disparity and racial segregation in which it stood. For Craig Johnson, political neutrality was never part of modernist architecture's utopian inclination. If Yamasaki's designs can be associated with modernism, Johnson argues, it is because of the architect's preference for abstract space and universal geometries over the specificity of place and the crucial considerations of population and need. To this end, he quotes Yamasaki on Pruitt-Igoe's design: "[I]ts Purist style, its clean, salubrious hospital metaphor, was meant to instil, by good example, corresponding virtues in the inhabitants . . . intelligent planning of abstract space was to promote healthy behaviour" (Johnson 34). 

If we begin, as many early commentators did, from the idealist principles of Yamasaki's vision for the housing project, Pruitt-Igoe's demise appears as the sole responsibility of the vulnerable population that was housed within it. But the city's modification of the downtown urban environment simply increased the social isolation of its most vulnerable citizens, reproducing and intensifying the structural violence of segregation and inner-city poverty. Larson sums up the new, "utopian" terrain:

The apartments were small. The kitchens had undersized sinks, stoves, refrigerators, and the water pipes were not insulated. Windows rattled in the wind. The elevators had a highly unusual skip-stop design with exits only on the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors. Muggers sometimes lurked in the stairwells, robbing and beating residents forced to use the stairs to reach their apartments. Parking facilities were inadequate; playgrounds and other recreational features were few. Residents had no easy access to grocery and drugstores. Public transportation was minimal. The lack of central air-conditioning and central corridors for ventilation made hot summer days virtually unbearable. Much open ground surrounded Pruitt-Igoe. (62)
Treating Pruitt-Igoe as a failure of design not only distracts from the social and economic conditions of post-WWII St. Louis, but, as Elizabeth Birmingham observes, it imposes an interpretive gap between the actual inhabitants of Pruitt-Igoe and the architectural space in which they lived. This kind of criticism, in other words, displaces the problems of Pruitt-Igoe from a larger socio-economic framework to its residents. Despite all this, Birmingham notes that the project's inhabitants, most of whom were single mothers children, recognized the larger structural forces working against them:
The residents of Pruitt-Igoe read and de-coded that housing project perfectly; they recognized it for what it was--an urban reservation which had the effect of containing and segregating its residents from the rest of the city and the city's resources. (293)
This was the fate of many attempts to spark urban renewal in post-war America. As Reinhold Martin writes, "Urban renewal internalized already-reified racial and class divides to the degree that, again paradoxically, a regime of desegregation was overlaid to compensate for the very partitioning of urban space on which many of these large housing complexes were founded in the first place" (14). The mixed intentions behind projects like Pruitt-Igoe are, in other words, already present in its conflicted design, which married low costs with the rational and moralizing imposition of common space throughout the building site. Along with the meagre attention given by city authorities to its maintenance and upkeep, Pruitt-Igoe fell short of high modernism's confrontation with existing social conditions.

Especially in the so-called international style of architects like Le Corbusier, political criticism was an integral part of modernist form, which arose out of its engagement with a rapidly changing urban context. As Fredric Jameson writes, "High modernism is . . . credited with the destruction of the fabric of the traditional city and its older neighborhood culture (by way of the radical disjunction of the new Utopian high-modernist building from its surrounding context)" (2). According to Charles Jencks, the problem with this disjunction is that it signalled "a lack of communication" that was typical of modernist architecture. In his criticism, Jencks worked to establish a decisive break with modernism, pointing instead to a new era of postmodern architecture, which embraced meaning-making above political interests. Architecture, suggested Jencks, "is part of society's superstructure; architecture reflects society, represents it by using a cultural code, and is therefore semi-autonomous, detached from society" (Kaminer 62). And yet, according to David Harvey, socio-economic shifts follow a similar trend, further displacing political intervention from the urban environment.

By the end of 1960s, most self-consciously modernist architecture had become a spectacle of corporate power. Indeed, Yamasaki's other infamous architectural achievement, the World Trade Center, opened in 1973, the same year that the American economy entered into a severe recession. Taking Jencks's periodization as a starting point, Harvey's analysis of post-modern trends in urbanization makes central the global deflation of 1973-75, which put all kinds of pressure on the employment base of urban regions throughout the United States. What occurred was a geographical dispersal of production to other regions and nations that coincided with "another phase of urban deconcentration of populations and production beyond the suburbs and into rural and small-town America" (255). Thus, in Jencks' pronouncement of modernism's death, Harvey finds a useful corollary for other transitions in the political economy of advanced capitalism. After the postwar boom had begun to fizzle, the capitalist world began "to evolve a seemingly new and quite different regime of capital accumulation." This new regime, writes Harvey, can be characterized by "a startling flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption" (252).

Modernism's demise and the emergence of a postmodern style thus provide aesthetic analogues to the transition of Fordism to post-Fordism in the United States and Europe, which can broadly defined by an increasingly globalized and diversified system of production that is more responsive to market whims. Back in the urban landscape, this economic transition marks as a period of heightened inter-urban competition among private investors and an increasingly informal (i.e., more entrepreneurial) set of labour processes among the working poor (Harvey 256). This is the historical narrative to which Pruitt-Igoe belongs. Its failure remains among the many arguments against public housing and other forms of social support.

Beginning with a cursory analysis of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, I've  argued that criticism of modernism as a style must also target the social and economic developments to which it responded. Along with the interests private business and city authorities in St. Louis, Yamasaki's designs sought to neutralize the utopian politics of modernism, a trend common to much postwar architecture. If nothing else, Jencks' assessment of Pruitt-Igoe's failure, provides us with a postmodern signpost against which we can better understand modernism's politics. While its architectural style may have fallen out of favour with the fluid capital of post-fordist America, the movement's attempt to radically restructure the urban environment for the better remains a struggle worth realizing.


Birmingham, Elizabeth. "Reframing the Ruins: Pruitt-Igoe, Structural Racism, and African American Rhetoric as a Space for Cultural Critique." Western Journal of Communication 63 (Summer 1999): 291-309.

Bristol, Katherine G. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth." Journal of Architectural Education 44.3 (May 1991): 163-171.

Harvey, David. "Flexible Accumulation Through Urbanization: Reflections on Post-Modernism in the American City." Perspecta 26 (1990): 251-272.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Johnson, Craig B. "Utopia and the Dirty Secret of Architecture." Colloquy: Text, Theory, Critique 14 (2007): 30-44.

Kaminer, Tahl. Architecture, Crisis and Resuscitation: The reproduction of post-Fordism in late-twentieth-century architecture. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Lawrence H. Larsen. A History of Missouri: Volume VI 1953 to 2003. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Martin, Reinhold. Utopia's Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

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