"It seemed to us that we were being penalized for being poor. That caused so much anger." -- One-time Pruitt-Igoe resident Jacquelyn Williams, in the new documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
The public housing debate has been largely left un-examined in recent years -- unremarkable in the sense that periods of economic boom hardly necessitate popular dialog on remedies to poverty. But a new film on St. Louis' most infamous public housing project -- Pruitt-Igoe -- restarts the discussion with what has clearly been lacking in previous conversations: primary-source interviews, with real tenants. And secondly, an urban history of the city surrounding it.
America experienced its high-rise epiphany significantly later than Europe, for obvious reasons: Europe's post-war landscape, crippled with rubble and ruined infrastructure, demanded an immediate and intensive remedy to ruined and outmoded vernacular housing tradition. The result was, of course, the post-war incarnation of CIAM - the Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne that promoted the high rise typology as a solution to the massive housing crisis that plagued reconstruction-era Europe.
The similarly monolithic public housing epoch in the States didn't begin in earnest until the mid-50s, adding a distinctly Protestant moral after-taste to typology: the poor need to be helped, because they can't help themselves. What's more, federal regulations and labor unions necessitated a high unit-to-site ratio. The form of the buldings was based on profit returns, rather than the psycho-social theories that rationalized similar projects in Europe - for example, Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation.
Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseille, France.
So, up went the towers, from Chicago to St. Louis -- no rapidly de-industrializing city was left un-high-rised. The narrative was one of savior and victim, an ideology hardly foreign to anyone familiar with previous colonial impositions on perceived "helpless" populations. In fact, the same basic dynamic still exists today in the housing debate -- it can be seen in New Orleans, for example, where many Katrina-survivors are adamantly opposed to having modernism heaped upon them like a gift.
This was how the American contingent of a global phenomenon became a class-war between the poor and the federal government, as opposed to the culture-war between l'espirit nouveau (headed up by Le Corbusier and co) and arriere-garde of Europe.
Pruitt-Igoe was demolished in the 1970s in a move the press trumpeted as the "death of modern architecture." But we know of plenty of European (and even a few American) models that stood the test of time, mainly due to heavy tenant-involvement. The distinction between government-run service and repair systems and tenant-run ones seems to be absolutely crucial: it upsets the narrative of victim and savior by giving tenants their autonomy back. Anyways, this new film is a rare depiction of the psychological impact on the tenants themselves, and a document about urban blight in America that hits particularly close to home today.
Image (c) Architizer.
Like Slavoj Žižek (and Hegel before him) say, historical cycles come in twos -- the "first as tragedy, then as farce" model. Presuming this to be true, the tragedy of the Pruitt-Igoe model still has legs, at least as a utopian bent, in today's recession-plagued world. In that sense, the Pruitt-Igoe Myth is an important film, especially for architects and urban planners - since being educated about historical 'truths' from the people who lived them is the first defense against repeating a historical trope. The film will premiere soon, so check back here for updates, and be sure to check out the preview on the film's website.
The film will screen at two festivals in the coming weeks:
At the Oxford Film Festival in Oxford, Mississippi:
Friday, February 11th – 4:00PM (Malco Oxford Studio Cinema)
Saturday, February 12th – 12:45PM (Malco Oxford Studio Cinema)
and at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana:
Saturday, February 12th – 4:00PM (Wilma Theater)