It remains nearly impossible to escape architecture, urban design, or planning education in the United States without hearing the name Pruitt-Igoe, even forty years after the St. Louis housing project’s demolition in 1972. Designed according to modernist principles by Minoru Yamasaki (subsequently the architect of the New York’s World Trade Center towers), Pruitt-Igoe was viewed by many architects and government officials as representing the solution to urban poverty and overcrowding when completed in 1956. But very serious vacancy, crime, sanitation, and other challenges quickly set in and living conditions deteriorated to horrific levels. For many within and outside of the architecture field, the demise of Pruitt-Igoe came to symbolize the larger failing of modernism. In fact, an argument can be made that Pruitt-Igoe triggered a massive turn in architecture, away from modernism and from a faith in the capacity of design to play a role addressing complex social issues. Theorist Charles Jencks referred to the buildings’ demolition as, “the day modern architecture died.” But the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth reveals that what happened at Pruitt-Igoe may have been misunderstood.
Weaving together historical footage as well as interviews with residents, government figures, sociologists, and others, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth is captivating, charged, and convincing. It places the housing project in a sea of detrimental social, political, and economic changes occurring in St. Louis and many other American cities during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Urban deindustrialization and population shrinkage were hastened by a federal programs funding the development of highways and other infrastructure, facilitating suburban expansion. The tax base that had been expected to fund management and maintenance of Pruitt-Igoe, as well as the jobs necessary to sustain its residents, evaporated as businesses and St. Louisans-with-means fled the city. Given this context, Pruitt-Igoe’s failure had very little to do with decisions made by the architects.
One of the most interesting and surprising parts of the film was the interviews with those who lived in Pruitt-Igoe. In addition to painful stories of the conditions that evolved there, many early residents shared affectionate memories of the facilities. At the outset, Pruitt-Igoe was a place where families supported each other, children played everywhere, and the environment was considered a major improvement over what many had been living in previously. “It was like an oasis in the desert, a very beautiful place… I never thought I would live in that kind of surrounding,” said Ruby Russell, a resident, about the early years of life in Pruitt-Igoe. Yet a large amount of the blame for what happened was placed on—and accepted by—the architectural community.
Today, the thirty-three acres where Pruitt-Igoe once stood remain largely untouched since cleared by the wrecking ball. The site has transformed into a dense forest. But, on this fortieth anniversary year, a currently active design competition (entries were submitted March 16) run by the non-profit Pruitt-Igoe Now, is asking for ideas to reinvigorate and liberate it from its troubled past. One can’t help but wonder if the architecture profession can also liberate itself from the ghosts there and tell a new story about the positive role design has and must increasingly play in addressing the challenges facing our cities.