Friday, June 5, 2009

Pruitt-Igoe and the failure of the modern housing projects

Gather round, my children, and I'll tell you the story of Pruitt-Igoe, a housing project that was meant to be the post-war hope of the future and ended up being a sorry mess.

The Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese architect who followed the International Style (what most of us think of as "modern"), for the city of St. Louis. Post-WWII, St. Louis the city had been deserted by anyone with any money for the suburbs. The city decided to demolish a large swath of dilapidated houses and small, run-down apartment complexes and put up instead Le Corbusier's wet dream.

The complex was designed in the early 1950s, and after a round or two of value engineering (where you change the design in order to decrease the cost of a project), construction was completed in 1955. Over 50 acres were cleared for the 33 buildings of the complex. The buildings were originally separated into two groups, the Pruitt complex and the Igoe complex; one would hold blacks and any other minorities, and the other would hold whites. The complexes were integrated in the late 1950s. Upon its completion, the world's architecture journals praised it as a beautiful example of International Style housing, which many architects of the time believed was just the way to alleviate and even end poverty and to cure society's ills. Some residents, upon first moving in, said it looked like a dream come true.

But it wasn't long until the complex looked like this:

Remember that value engineering I mentioned earlier? First of all, Yamasaki's firm proposed a mix of varying heights and densities of buildings--low rise, high rise, and walk-ups (not more than three stories)--but that plan was nixed and all buildings were set at eleven stories each in order to economize each building's construction. Some politicians attributed the high cost estimates to having to pay union wages to the construction crews. Regardless, money had to be saved somehow, and changing the size and shape of the buildings wasn't the only way. In order to get more people into smaller building footprints, the units were way too small and had inadequate kitchens and plumbing fixtures. Even worse were that the elevators only stopped on three of the eleven floors--it costs a lot of money to stop an elevator on a floor, so by stopping it on the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth, you save a lot of cash, right?

What they saved in up-front construction cost, they lost in the long run. Too many people from different neighborhoods in substandard conditions made for a lot of tension amongst the residents. Thugs and thieves waited in the stairwells for people returning from their jobs with paychecks and the mailboxes with their monthly assistance checks as they climbed up to their floors where the elevators didn't stop.

By the late 1960s, only one of the buildings had any residents in it at all. Estimates vary on maximum occupancy, but they range from 33% to 60% full at its fullest. The first of the buildings was imploded in 1972, and the last imploded in 1976. In 21 years, the critically-acclaimed housing complex was no more.

So what happened? I don't think the fact that it was a "modern" building was the problem. My research on designing homeless shelters (that was my thesis, bitches) as well as my experience in healthcare architecture has shown me that if you don't give people nice things, they don't care about what's around them and won't take care of it. Put poor people who know they're poor in cheap-ass-looking public housing and don't even give them adequate space and for the love of Philip Johnson, you don't even have the elevator stop on each floor...well, you've made it pretty clear that you don't think very highly of these folks. And they will behave accordingly and treat their building that way.

It's also a matter of scale. The psychological concept of crowding has shown in animal studies and to a less-controlled extent in people that if you put too many of any mammalian species in a given area, they react poorly and engage in destructive behaviors. Furthermore, it's worth noting that a nearby public housing complex that had fewer units per building had much less vandalism, and its residents were much more careful about taking care of their gronds and keeping them clean. Studies have shown (and of course I can't put my hands on them right now, but I distinctly recall this) that people are more likely to help out when there's fewer of them present. One study on this concept found that if there are ten people in a room, and they hear someone fall in the next room and cry out, the "oh help!" person is not very likely to get help from any of those people, but they're much more likely to get help if there are only one or two people in that other room. So, with Pruitt-Igoe, if you put 20 units on a floor, they tend not to take care of their public areas (halls, courtyards, etc.) as much as they would if there were three or four units on that floor. In my eyes and experience, the failure of Pruitt-Igoe was less of an architectural aesthetic failure and more of a planning, policy, and psychology/sociology failure.

By the way, Pruitt-Igoe was not the only notable piece of architecture that Minoru Yamasaki designed. Know what else he did?

I bet you do know.

Edited 12/9/2011: I appreciate the continued feedback on this post, and I'm aware that evidence regarding the architectural intentions of Pruitt-Igoe's architect and the planners have recently been made clearer in a variety of books and articles in the past several years. More recently, a documentary title The Pruitt-Igoe Myth sought not only to delve into the socioeconomic issues involved in Pruitt-Igoe's creation and demise but also to understand the architectural and planning issues and decisions made regarding the project. As better information and research on this topic is produced by others who have the time and ability to do so, I urge readers to seek out those resources and will close this particular post for receiving comments. Glad to know that this topic still provides lively discussion in the public sphere, and hopefully it will continue to do so in the spirit of improving the public realm's aesthetic as well as how we care for those less fortunate than us.