Life in Pruitt-Igoe

Pruitt-Igoe as lived experiences - Image by Michael R. Allen on Flikr, CC-license

16th of March, 1972 at 3.00pm precisely. That is when Charles Jencks proclaimed ‘the death of modenism’, as the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St. Louis was razed to the ground. Many commentators of architecture and city living in general claimed it was the representative ‘end’ of the Cities of the Future which were based on the Le Courbusierian ‘Machines for Living’ – the modernist utopian dream lay in ruins on the Missourian soil. It was with its iconic (dis)appearance is the beautifully esoteric film Koyaanisqatsi (1982), that the Pruitt-Igoe complex symbolised more than simply a disastrous 1950s housing policy, but a retraction of an entire philosophy for life. The Sassurian structuralist mode of thought that had influenced the modernist agenda of architecture and urban planning had given way to the heterogeneity of urban life, the ebb and flow of a Lefebvrian rhythm which was essentially un-containable by these ‘streets in the sky’. Pruitt-Igoe as the symbol of the beginning of ‘post-modernism’ is now well versed, and is part of cultural geography modules up and down the land (including, I hasten to add, my own).

Now though, 40 years since it’s demolition, a new film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2012) proclaims that the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe was part of a wider social upheaval in the American fabric of life that included deeper and more complex social issues of poverty, race, politics and urban change. I have seen only the trailer (and I suspect that is all I’ll see as art house cinemas are chronically lacking in our towns and cities – but that’s a different argument altogether), but nonetheless, it seems that the arguments made about Pruitt-Igoe suggests that maybe the tale of it’s abolition as the onset of post-modernism is slightly apocryphal. Or at least, part of wider multiplicity of social issues that cannot be distilled into one specific moment or ’cause’. This seems fairly obvious at first, how can an entire movement be predicated in one moment? But World War One is often attributer to the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand getting assassinated, and more recently, the Arab Springs are believed to have been started by Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-conflagration. History is littered with attempts to explain huge events from a single spark.

This post has partly been inspired by the fact that I have been revisiting the ‘Philosophies of Geography’ module content which goes from the Empiricism of Locke to Thrift’s Non-representational theory, and it is often the case that in order to explain and contextualise ‘paradigm shifts’, we need to distill it to a singular point in time. This unilateralism, I have outlined before, can be detrimental to governmentality, and when it comes to our cities, is counter-productive. Pruitt-Igoe’s demise did not herald the start of post-modernism – there is no simple cause and effect here. What it did do, and this is what I hope the film discusses, is raise awareness of the need to consider practice (in the post-structural Lefebvrian sense) in urban design and not rely on unilateral binaries that take function first and foremost and defenestrate heterogeneity. And if this is maintained then places like Priutt-Igoe (or the equally as stunning, but Grade II listed, Alton West Estate in Roehampton, South London) may still have life in them yet.

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