A Walk In The Ruins Of Modernism

These are photographs taken from a recent trip to Pruitt Igoe in St Louis. Except of course that Pruitt Igoe, the giant housing scheme designed by Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1956, isn’t there. Beginning with a spectacular implosion in 1972, it had been completly demolished by 1976. Famously, that first implosion was dubbed the ‘Death of Modernism’ by Charles Jencks. Almost all traces of the sites life as a huge housing scheme have been erased. It is now a forest – a surreal and unsettling landscape that has grown out of the debris dumped on the site from other demolitions.

The last remianing Yamasaki designed structure is the substation which still serves the surrounding neighbourhoods through cables buried under the ground of the forest.

Pruitt Igoe is the site of a studio I’m running at UIC this semester. It takes Pruitt Igoe both as a site of architectural rhetoric and as a place of real facts on the ground. From these two perspectives, we hope to imagine alternatives to Pruitt Igoes past and its future – practical proposals that also serve to re-write the apparent inevitability of architectures historical narrative.

An apparent forest walk but in a forest grown out of the ruins of previous architectural formations.

The site now though is a stunning and tragic place – the result of Pruitt Igoe’s traumatic history of hopes and failure: of slum clearance, architectural vision, political and social collapse, economic abandonment that all adds up to what appears to be a natural environment. Except this is a forest that grows out of all that socio-political debris.

Dixon Street with the forest encroaching

The forest has an archeological atmosphere – as though one were discovering an ancient civilisation amongst the undergrowth. Roads are still there but gradually encroached upon by the forest. A lamppost stands amongst the trees. Depressions in the ground are not natural topology but formed by the sites of imploded buildings.

The forest is still heavily serviced – here a drain cover – as though it has become a version of David Greenes Log Plug

At the site of C-15 Implosion (AKA the site of the ‘Death of Modernism’)

Site of C-15 Implosion

A lone lamp post emerging from the tree canopy

South Entrance to Site (original sidewalk + new link to school) Looking NE

To the north of the site is a historic neighbourhood which reveals the extent of devastation to the fabric of the city. Whole blocks of housing have been pulled down leaving grass fields. In others a single house stands as the remnant of the urban fabric. Of couse, here we might imagine the image to be of some bucolic paradise, yet we should also recognise that this is the result of economic collapse rather than any picturesque intention.

To the south is this New Urbanist development, where the vague image of historical-ness is applied to neo-traditional house typologies. This, perhaps, is the most depressing aspect of Pruitt Igoe now. An image of the failure and retreat of architecture, a symbol of a clear political victory over architecture’s own forms of ideology.

Yet, it is more complicated than that. As much as it this seems an admission of failure, it also seems successful in some senses. While the image projected by its typology and language may seem traditional there is no history here – its use of history in the present is an attack on the real forces and narratives of history. Even more ambivalent is the idea that there could be no New Urbanism without Modernism – or even, we could suggest, that this is what Modernism became.

Here, more than anywhere, one longs for the resurrection of something, the resurrection of ambition, the resurrection of will in the face of such a devastating and tragic narrative ingrained into the very soil of Pruitt Igoe.

The photos are a medley from our excursion, so thanks to the students at UIC for their contributions. And thanks too to Michael R. Allen of Preservation Research Office who is also part of the team behind the competition Pruitt Igoe Now who gave us a fantastic tour.

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