Death of modernism: the human story

pruitt-igoe-demolition-color1a2The Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis is identified (following Charles Jencks) as the moment when Modernism in architecture died.  Architects are the bad guys in this story.[ ]

And viewing the following sequence  of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition in the film Koyaanisqatsi it is not difficult to follow the popular sentiment.[ ] Music by Philip Glass.

However, the world we sometimes do acknowledge, is a complex place…

Christine Wonoseputro contextualises the ‘moment’ in theoretical terms within the history of architecture as art.

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Yet the memoirs of a medical student and his wife a nurse “in a 9 story large reddish-tan brick building in the Pruitt-Igoe city housing at 1300 S. 14th” presents quite another picture of the development as it was when first completed and occupied (and imagined). In Urban Design: a typology by Jon T Lang (2005) Pruitt-Igoe is described as the first racially integrated public housing development in St Louis. (p181)

Not the slum – it was to become  – usually associated with the legend.[ ]

It is said that the residential mix of the development “overwhelmingly welfare dependent single mothers” (p182) was not the household mix that had been expected when the complex was designed.

The couple in question occupied their flat for only a year. I assume this was the duration he was working at the St Louis hospital? From a landscape persepctive it is worth asking – what happened to the rivers of trees?

The architect is said to have lamented “I never thought people were that destructive.”

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13 thoughts on “Death of modernism: the human story

  1. Tom Turner

    The film clip is wonderful and somewhat reminiscent of John Martin’s paintings of the ends of civilizations

    On the subject of whether to blame architects for Pruitt-Igoe, there are indeed arguments on both sides. The defense team can argue, rightly, that the architects were not responsible for people being poor, for bad planning or for a bad ownership system. The prosecution can argue that architects should have appreciated that the places they were commissioned to design could not provide decent places to live – and therefore refused the commissions. But this is unrealistic!

    As discussed elsewhere it is often the socio-econcomic circumstances rather than the architecture which causes the problems. I also wonder if better landscape architecture (ie the design of useful, beautiful and defensible space at ground level) contributes to the success of some Corbusian layouts – and might just possibly have saved the likes of Pruitt-Igoe in London and elsewhere. On failed schemes, we should not exclude landscape architects from the blame game!

    The chief advocate of the opposite policy was of course Ebenezer Howard and Radio 4 recently broadcast a programme about him

  2. Jasmine

    Truly difficult to say who is guilty in this kind of project…But as I view the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe, I thought of a projet of rehabilitation of that kind of building that worked well here in Montreal: Benny farm houses. First built in 1946-47 for the war veterans, these 3 stories red-brick building were falling appart. The city decided to give a second life to that place and give this contract to the architects of the firm L’Oeuf. This is now a wonderful place to live, affordable and ecologic. To see :

  3. Tom Turner

    Thank you for an interesting example. In London, many architects have argued that if only the ‘blocks of flats’ had been supplied with concierges, as they are in France, the dread social problems would not have arisen. I think they are right. But judging from the photographs on the website I would rather live in a traditional London Alms House than in Benny Farm, partly because the open space outside the buildings is so much more attractive. I would also rather have it run by a charity, like the Drapers Company

  4. Christine

    This You Tube video on Benny farm seems quite nostalgic? [ ]

    Perhaps Benny Farm was a redundant building (ie. the original use – housing for veterans was no longer needed) rather than a failed building.

    Benny Farm was built in 1946-47 and redeveloped in 2005-07.
    Pruitt-Igoe was built in 1954-55 and demolished in 1972 [the 16th March at 3pm]

    The housing stock Pruitt-Igoe replaced were not particularly desirable.
    [ ] In the city of St Louis “…a 1947 official survey found out that 33 thousand homes had communal toilets.[7]”

    Pruitt-Igoe is significant as one of the first modernist buildings to be demolished less than 20 years after its construction.

    Benny Farm has been conceived of as affordable housing as part of a broader sustainability project. It will be interesting to review the success of the remodelled Benny Farm 20 years from now.

    Tom may be right about the management philosophy of Pruitt-Igoe (once its original middleclass demographic had shifted) as being key to its ultimate failure. Perhaps the change of intended use also demanded remodelling of the original development as built also?

  5. Tom Turner

    London has spent the last decade building apartment blocks instead of housing with gardens. I regret it, because they have not learned to make useful space at ground level, but there do not seem to be any social problems associated with them – because they are occupied by relatively affluent people who probably spend long hours at the office and much of their spare time away from home.

  6. Gordon Evans

    Germany has been building apartment blocks for decades and very many of them are charming and romantic places to live. My daughter lives in a newish one in Hamburg and she has a small, cheap, well-heated apartment close to the city centre that students in London could only inhabit in their fantasies. She looks out – like very many German apartment dwellers – into the branches of a beautiful Horse Chestnut that keeps her in touch with the seasons. Sophie has no useful space at ground level at all – save for the many Hamburg parks – but she really doesn’t need or want it. There is no concierge, there is a travelling janitor, the inhabitants of the apartments are a broad age and nationality range of low income people and I have never had to be worried at all about her safety, or about her quality of life. I don’t know what the chemistry is for getting apartments blocks right, but Germany certainly seems to have more of it than many other countries.

  7. Tom Turner

    About ten years ago I walked through a public space between social housing apartment blocks in, I think, Dusseldorf. The cars indicated that the people were not rich but everything was well cared for and respected. One of the British students looked in amazement at the lack of vandalism and remarked ‘You know: they are just better people than us’.
    Things have got better in London since they transferred the ownership from municipal authorities to housing associations but there are still serious problems when they put large concentrations of fragmented families living on welfare into isolated and poorly designed apartment blocks. This is not surprising – and it has little to do with architecture, landscape architecture or urban design.

  8. Christine

    Tom the ingredients of your sentence are interesting:

    Essentially the problem is about designing appropriately for ‘fragmented families’.

    These are procurement issues – about the building’s users

    1) large concentrations (what concentration is optimal?)
    2) living on welfare (with little choice of abode? limited outcome?)

    These are planning and design issues – about the siting and design of the building

    4) isolated (from transport and other infrastructure?)
    5) poorly designed (for the needs of the user?)

    This term is neutral is assume?

    6) apartment blocks

  9. Gordon Evans

    A further thought on Hamburg: The biggest building project there directly after the war – set in progress by the British Army – was a truly Corbussian estate composed of 12 apartment blocks, the “Grindelhochhaeuser”, a scaled down version of Pruitt-Igoe. The “Rivers of Trees” got planted too. At some point in the 70’s the apartments began to decay but instead of demolishing, the housing association owner invested 75 million Euro and the estate is again an extremely popular place to live, for singles and for families. Should anyone want to visit a living, vibrant example – 3,000 people live there – of the Corbussian dream, this is the place to go. Are there any others? Look at for photos, and 53°34’28.14″N/9°58’50.09″E in Google Earth. There is still a functioning paternoster in one of the buildings. The estate was listed in 1979.

  10. Tom Turner

    Re Grindelhochhaeuser, it is just what I think should be done for the Heygate Estate in London (see comment 3 on ) – unless it is very badly built (which is what I should have said instead poorly designed, above). Prosperous single people flourish in this kind of building – it is like being back at college. But if you have a lot of people under stress then I do not think they benefit by living near each other. I also think John F C Turner was right that if people are short of money it is better to give them money than to give them housing, especially if it is of a kind they would not choose for themselves. Another point is that if the ‘green space’ around the blocks is not going to serve any useful purpose then….

    PS: the juxtaposition of photos at the head of this blog post is brilliant

  11. Christine

    More to the story…

    What are the causes of population decline in cities? Perhaps the distribution of employment opportunities and the ability to achieve home ownership were factors in St Louis’ depopulation?

    In commissioning the design for Pruitt Igoe the civic authorities in St Louis where hoping to stem the population decline of the city which had begun in the 1930s. Regardless of the success or failure of the Pruitt Igroe housing project, this underlying objective proved to be a failure. As Alexander von Hoffman records in his paper ‘Why they Built the Pruitt-Igoe Project’ “from 1950 to 1970, the city’s population fell by 234,000 people, and its share of the St. Louis metropolitan area’s population plummeted from 51 percent to 26 percent.”

  12. Tom Turner

    In most countries the flight from rural areas to cities continues, because machines do the farmwork and salaries are higher in cities. But in the US, and in Europe to a lesser extent, people wanted to moved from the cramped conditions of inner cities to a car-based “better life” in suburbs – which Joel Garreau called Edge Cities. This pattern has begun to change in Europe with younger and older people finding that life is better in the cities than in the suburbs.

  13. Christine

    Incredibly the drive to suburbanisation in St Louis seems to have been based on the loan policies of The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC). Massey and Denton in ‘American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass’ say (p51);

    “Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government launched a series of programs designed to increase employment in the construction industry and make home ownership widely available to the American public….Passed in the depression year of 1933, it provided funds for refinancing urban mortgages in danger of default and granted low interest loans to former owners who had lost their homes through foreclosure to enable them to regain their properties. The HOLC was the first government sponsored program to introduce, on a mass scale, the use of long term self-amortizing mortgages with uniform payments.”

    With the loans was also introduced a practice of ‘redlining’ which rated loans according to the risks associated with four categories of neighbourhoods. The effect of this rating system was that the lowest two categories of neighbourhoods virtually never received loans.

    The two neighbourhoods which did receive loans were new neighbourhoods of “American business and professional men” and established areas which were still considered desirable places to live.


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