American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 19
The Pruitt-Igoe myth

Katharine G. Bristol

Few architectural images are more powerful than the spectacle of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project crashing to the ground (Figure 19.1). Since the trial demolition of three of its buildings in 1972, Pruitt-Igoe has attained an iconic significance by virtue of its continuous use and reuse as a symbol within a series of debates in architecture. In these discussions there is virtual unanimity that the project’s demise demonstrated an architectural failure. When Charles Jencks announced in 1977 that the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe represented the death of modern architecture, he invoked an interpretation of the project that has today gained widespread acceptance. Anyone remotely familiar with the recent history of American architecture automatically associates Pruitt-Igoe with the failure of High Modernism, and with the inadequacy of efforts to provide livable environments for the poor.

This version of the Pruitt-Igoe story is a myth. At the core of the myth is the idea that architectural design was responsible for the demise of Pruitt-Igoe. In the first section of this essay I debunk the myth by offering a brief history of Pruitt-Igoe from the perspective of its place within a larger history of urban redevelopment and housing policy. This history engages the profoundly embedded economic and political conditions that shaped the construction and management of Pruitt-Igoe. I then consider how the Pruitt-Igoe myth came to be created and disseminated, both by the national press and by architects and architecture critics, and how each successive retelling of the Pruitt-Igoe story has added new dimensions to the myth. I want to focus particular attention on one of the most important aspects of the myth: the alleged connection between the project’s failure and the end of modern architecture. In the final section I argue for an interpretation of the Pruitt-Igoe myth as mystification. By placing the responsibility for the failure of public housing on designers, the myth shifts attention from the institutional or structural sources of public housing problems. Simultaneously it legitimates the architecture profession by implying that deeply embedded social problems are caused, and therefore solved, by architectural design.


THE PRUITT-IGOE STORY: PUBLIC HOUSING AND URBAN
DEVELOPMENT

Pruitt-Igoe was created under the United States Housing Act of 1949, which made funds directly available to cities for slum clearance, urban redevelopment, and public housing.

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