I recently had an opportunity to view the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which I touched upon earlier in this blog. In this film, many residents of the infamous public housing development reflect upon the time they lived there, the community that existed, and it's ultimate undoing.
The residents interviewed for the film, some who had lived in the development since the beginning, others who moved in during its period of decline, all noted that throughout the lifetime of Pruitt-Igoe, a strong community developed, first based on the joy and pride that came from living in such a new, modern place, and later as a counter to the decline of the complex and its neglect by local, state, and federal housing officials.
The documentary notes that what caused the ultimate undoing of the development, a post-industrial city with a declining population, miscalculations of growth, and policy, both formal and informal that maintained the racial segregation of St. Louis's housing stock, keeping African Americans from entry-level jobs, had little to do with the modernist movement, architectural features of the buildings (or lack thereof), or the quality of the community created within them.
Jane Jacobs, in her landmark Death and Life of Great American Cities notes that housing developments such as these will inherently fail due to their architectural characteristics, such as massive scale, large open spaces with little use, and lack of economic diversity or mixed uses. However, from this documentary it is apparent that such a community did develop, and that, for a time, it was able to benefit and look after the residents of Pruitt Igoe.
Ultimately, the downfall of this community, and the housing complex, was caused by insufficient maintenance, a shrinking population, and a bureaucracy that ultimately was apathetic to such problems as they affected many similar public housing units around the country. In other words, the massive resources that a public housing development of this scale needed to succeed were not available.
In this sense, the point Jacobs makes is that development or refurbishment is most efficient and useful if it occurs in forms already recognized in the neighborhood it is located in, as this development can be supported by existing infrastructure, with existing means. In order to work properly, modernist public housing on a large scale would require massive amounts of continued funding, which would likely be unsustainable.
Jacobs notes this, and tells the reader that when the word “project” is used to describe such a development, it conjures very specific things, namely that the development, and those who live in it, are fundamentally different than their surroundings. Death and Life of Great American Cities describes in detail how cities can be revitalized by using their intrinsic characteristics, a much less intrusive practice than the modernist approach, and one that is ultimately more sustainable.
In this way, the film's claim that Pruitt Igoe should not be used as an example of modernist failings is somewhat inaccurate. Pruitt Igoe demonstrated that the modernist approach would work as long as large sums of money were provided over the lifespan of modernist developments. The political reality prevented (and continues to prevent) such sums of money being spent on public housing, necessitating a more efficient approach.
It can be argued that Jacobs approach to housing is more practical because it uses the intrinsic features of an urban environment to promote social and economic growth. This prevents unnecessary sums of money being spent on imposing “order” on an “chaotic mess”to use descriptions common amongst modern architects and correcting what is actually a non-problem.
This is the core reason that large scale public housing complexes such as Pruitt-Igoe should not be repeated, they are the hallmark of construction for construction's sake, and only work if continuously supplied with funding.