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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  1. Rube says:

    Goosebumps! – Down the spine and up my mouse hand.

    ‘The retreat of architecture’ – so well put!

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Richard B says:

    These are great images, thank you for sharing them. I thought your point about challenging the sense of inevitability in architecture’s historical narratives was excellent and important – the accepted significance of Pruitt Igoe depends on the notion of it being rejected and cleared away. When you look at the physical legacies, that changes.

    I was particularly moved by the photograph of the paths ending in nothing, an old destination removed but not the idea of being able to get there. It reminded me of the old colliery lanes in the British coalfields, once leading to a centre of a community, and now blocked by concrete buffers.

  3. Xak says:

    I don’t understand why you seem to bemoan the razing of Pruitt Igoe. The Modernist ideals behind the development were just wrong despite whatever aesthetic appeal of the buildings, and those ideals eventually lead to Pruitt Igoe’s destruction. It concentrated and exacerbated poverty and dispair more than any “slum” that it replaced could, and it removed any sense of place or connection to the urban fabric previously experienced.

    Frankly, to equate the architecture of the homes in the development to the south to New Urbanism is the equivalent of a strawman attack. The principles of New Urbanism have more to do with urban layout than any distinctions of architecture, and a New Urbanist development could just as easily use a contemporary and distinct architectural style. The Mcmansionization of residential development seems more due to large scale developers and the prevalence of prefabrication than a system of encouraging transit oriented design and a broader connection to the community.

  4. M. says:

    You’re kidding, right? You’re actually sitting there and telling us that your heart aches for a somber, brooding, monolithic, crime-filled, racially segregated, high-rise housing project, and that you think it a “retreat of architecture” for it to be replaced by a simple, elegant, traditional New Urbanist neighborhood of lovely, colorful, multistory homes? Homes, I might add, which will undoubtedly form the backbone of a future, thriving, multi-use neighborhood that will breathe new life—and jobs—into this depressed area?

    And for what? An architectural style? Over living, breathing human beings? There are plenty of existing examples of Modernism all around us, for good or ill. To declare that this is an example of “The Death of Modernism” when, in fact, it is simply an example of stopping the excesses of Modernism, is melodrama, at best, and historical revision, at worst. Housing projects like this failed precisely because Modernism put its nose where it didn’t belong and thought it a wonderful idea to concentrate poverty and entire racial groups into one area. That you now cry foul at the destruction of a poorly-designed public housing project is absurd. The attempt by Modernism to create public housing failed spectacularly, while its other failings include leveling whole neighborhoods for dubious, often racist, urban renewal programs and warping cities beyond recognition to build highways, mostly for the benefit of white, wealthy, conservative suburban motorists. Modernism should have stuck with commercial skyscrapers, museums, libraries, airports and the occasional single family home and left it at that, but no. It thought much too highly of itself.

    As for your accusation that New Urbanism is somehow only a “vague image of historical-ness…” and that its “use of history in the present is an attack on the real forces and narratives of history,” you must be reminded that much of architecture throughout the decades and even centuries, has been one historical revival, or another. To turn your nose up at attempts by New Urbanism to bring back what worked in the past with a few tweaks to update it, only reveals your own snobbery, elitist thinking and blind support for the past.

    At the end of the day, that forest that has sprung up looks a heck of a lot better than Pruitt-Igoe ever did.

  5. Michael G says:

    I agree with what Xak and M say.
    Equating New Urbanist layouts is not the same as traditional architecture. Don’t understand the ‘political’ victory either when zoning codes still make new urbanism difficult to build.

  6. Ethan I. says:

    What’s next for these budding young architects, a trip to the south side of Chicago to lament the loss of Cabrini Green? It would be nice to hear you discuss the kind of social conditions that existed amongst the architectural community’s beloved modernist housing projects, and the fact that the architect’s attempt to solve social problems through architecture was a total failure. But no, it’s all about the architect, me, not the wider ramifications of what the architect created. Go ahead and bash the new urbanists. Fact is, they’re creating successful communities, not just buildings that look trendy, only to be demolished after the extremely short lifespan is up. And as the poster above mentioned, I think its pretty clear our cities need thriving communities much more than another building, or collection of them, as a monument to individual worship.

  7. Mitchell Austin, AICP says:

    Yes, the misguided narcissism that passed for architecture in the middle of the 20th century has been purged from the landscape. While the overly quaint architecture-impaired by the cardboard construction methodologies popularized by the modernists-is not good, one can imagine that is it much more beloved by the people actually living there. Certainly is appears much better cared for than Yamasaki’s grandiose modernist gesture ever was by its inhabitants. This is not because people are “dumb” and just don’t understand the academic greatness represented by the tower in the park non-sense promulgated by the architectural elites. No, the New Urbanism is loved simply because it works better for the people inhabiting the spaces created by it.
    This points out in stark contrast the fundamental flaw with architecture since it rejected all things Classical or historic in a headlong embrace of the machine and mass produced building materials. In losing the Classicism, architects and architecture lost somehow the sense of scale. Not just scale in terms of scale and proportion-although that is definitively the case-but also of the scale, as in purpose, of architecture within our lives. Architecture first and foremost purpose is to create spaces for us, as humans with human scale, to inhabit. We live and work and play in architecture. Architecture is NOT sculpture. Architecture is NOT about the artistic or academic abilities, skills, or talents of the architect. Architecture is about the provision of spaces that allow us to conduct our lives with dignity, purpose and if we are especially fortunate with grace. Good architecture is about serving the pedestrian functions of living. Great architecture is about providing an inspiring, enlightening, and delightful series of spaces in the service of the basic needs and functions of human habitation.
    If you want to make grand artistic statements, do the world a favor, drop out of architectural school and go get a Master of Fine Arts degree. The art world can always use another painter or sculptor. The societal benefit will be fewer Pruitt Igoe projects in the future.

  8. C says:

    Perhaps as part of your studio you could meet with people who grew up there.
    They HATED it!!! And that’s an understatement.
    I had one woman tell me, “I was so happy the day they blew those projects up.”

  9. R. T. Ernst says:

    Reading the blog and the comments left me weak and saddened at the level of ignorance exhibited. As a native St. Louisan and urban planner with 40 years experience, I wonder if any of the people involved in the commentary on Pruitt-Igoe know much of substance about what actually happened. Yamasaki, for one, tried every legal move he could to have his name removed from the drawings because of horrendous changes to his design forced by the St. Louis Housing Authority. I personally taught more than a dozen university students who lived in Pruitt-Igoe; some enjoyed that experience, others did not. Universally, the ones who disliked living there identified the changes required by the Housing Authority as key to their discontent, not the modernist design. And how correct was Jencks in his “Death of Modernism” crap? One minor point. What happened to the neighborhood north of Pruitt-Igoe was not “economic collapse” and the author maintains but massive disinvestment and abandonment. There’s quite a significant difference between the two.

  10. Frank Gruber says:

    Of course modernism of the tower block did not die — it’s more vibrant than ever, from cities in China, to Vancouver, to Manhattan. What doomed P-I, Cabrini-Green, etc., was not the architecture, either substance or style, but the social policies that intertwined a certain utopianism with greed and racism, plus the movement of vast numbers of rural poor people to cities to be warehoused after they were kicked off the land.

  11. gen katz says:

    Architecture is not responsible for the despair, drugs, anger, segregation, injustice and racism. It is only the naivete and arrogance of architects who think they can improve life by design that you complain about.

  12. Erik Ostrom says:

    Some of the commenters here might enjoy Chad Friedrichs’s film “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” screening November 29th at the Missouri History Museum. I did!

  13. Dae says:

    It kinds of stuns me to see some of the ignorance of some of the people commenting on this. I am an 18 year old female, I have grown up and still live in North Saint Louis, not to far from the old Pruitt Igoe site. I don’t know much of it but every time I would pass buy it I would ponder for a while on what was behind that sad slouching fence. Now that I know the history of it, it kind of saddens me, as a member of that neighborhood, to see it in ruins like that. I really wish it could become something else, to better my community, to make people who grew up in Pruitt-Igoe smile. It really is just a shame that it’s just……a wasteland.

Pings to this post

  1. […] Now, Strange Harvest, an architectural blog brings us picture of what’s left of Pruitt-Igo. Click here. […]

  2. […] has been replaced with even lower-density single family housing. The site of Pruitt-Igoe remains a ruin. This entry is filed under Architecture, General, Urban […]

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