It’s almost a truism in the art and architectural world that the detonation of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis was the moment that Modernism ended.

The movie poster.

It was a theory first propelled into the limelight by the postmodernist theorist Charles Jencks, who wrote in his 1977 book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, that the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe was “the day Modern architecture died.”

The idea was parroted by others, like Robert Hughes, who included it in his popular art and architectural history, Shock of the New (video segment), as a convenient way to mark the end of something that they wanted to paint as a failure. The problem is that the fixation on the architecture of Pruitt-Igoe has blinded us to the real problems that led to the decay and eventual demise of the community that once called the complex home. Enter The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a documentary which “seeks to set the historical record straight. To examine the interests involved in Pruitt-Igoe’s creation. To re-evaluate the rumors and the stigma. To implode the myth.”

During an interview with Rust Wire, the film’s director explained what myth he is referring to in the title of his documentary:

When we are discussing the Pruit-Igoe Myth, what we’re referring to is the idea –number one- that the architecture was to blame for what happened at Pruitt-Igoe, or that –there’s several here- or that the federal government was to blame, because this was a federal project, therefor Pruitt-Igoe declined so precipitously, or that it’s the residents. You often hear this in conversation, that the residents simply tore up something that was gifted to them back in the 50s, and 20 years later, because the resident population, because they were poor, because they were rural, or whatever, they didn’t know how to maintain this building. So that’s really kind of the myth that we’re addressing here.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History – Film Trailer from the Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Vimeo.

This film looks like a must-see. Also, if you have some extra time, take look at this short YouTube video that combines footage of Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction with music by Erik Satie. A surprisingly poetic combination.

Hat tip @starwarsmodern

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

10 replies on “Why is Modern Architecture to Blame? The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”

  1. Its a bit inaccurate to describe the ‘myth’ as that specifically of the medium of architecture. The promise of modernism here was that an imposition of the ‘modern’ order would bring about an eradication of undesired values within that culture (poverty, for example), that eventually through this systemic microcosm, a new model for transformative civil(ized) work was possible empirically. In this sense it failed. Culture won.

    1. I think that’s a great point but I think Pruitt-Igoe has — in the popular imagination — really become a symbol of modern architecture’s failure. I think it’s great this documentary is looking beyond that to reveal the bigger issues that we always seem to forget when discussing this housing complex and the role of modern architecture (and perhaps our own naivety about it) in the era.

  2. Yes, from the trailer, it does seem like the documentary (thankfully) goes beyond the “one-liner” aspect re:the death of modern architecture. I’ll be interested to check it out for sure.

  3. It does look like an interesting documentary, and I’ll reserve judgement until I see it, but from my own experience of similar places it’s not modern architecture in it’s totality that is a problem, but rather the more extreme brutal end of it’s spectrum, when manifested in poorly constructed and maintained soviet style blocks.

    I’ve seen some beautiful modern architecture that I’d love to live in, but this particular example looks like a prison complex, and I think it would be difficult for anyone not to feel alienated to some degree in that kind of environment, regardless of the surrounding context.

    1. Considering the classical architectural style of the other intended targets on that day, and also that Bin Laden’s family, (and by extension him) made their fortune out of what were often modernist construction projects, I’d say modernism would have been unlikely to be a motivating factor

      Although this article does suggests that he might not have liked that Islamic influences were used in the WTC design… http://www.slate.com/id/2060207/

  4. Hrag, I didn’t realize that coincidence.

    Fascinating article, Wat, and it appears to contradicts your comment. Last graf:

    “Having rejected modernism and the Saudi royal family, it’s no surprise that Bin Laden would turn against Yamasaki’s work in particular. He must have seen how Yamasaki had clothed the World Trade Center, a monument of Western capitalism, in the raiment of Islamic spirituality. Such mixing of the sacred and the profane is old hat to us—after all, Cass Gilbert’s classic Woolworth Building, dubbed the Cathedral to Commerce, is decked out in extravagant Gothic regalia. But to someone who wants to purify Islam from commercialism, Yamasaki’s implicit Mosque to Commerce would be anathema. To Bin Laden, the World Trade Center was probably not only an international landmark but also a false idol.”

    It’s a psychological cliche of generational wealth that Bin Laden, as archetypal rich kid, would naturally rebel against whatever made his family fortune.

  5. That’s why I gave the link, to provide balance. But there’s no real evidence provided in the article that he did indeed reject modernism, or that he had a problem with the architect or design of the WTC. It’s all speculation.

  6. I have always found Jenck’s criticism of Pruitt-Igoe’s Modernism totally off base – it makes a complex social issue a simple mater of formal aesthetic: If only Pruitt-Igoe had been built to look like a country manor or dressed in some other retardare familiarity all would have been well. The Great Society was under funded at the top, and undermined on the local level.

    In Chicago, where I grew up, Federally funded housing projects like Igoe were isolated geographically – put on the wrong sides of highways and far removed from subways – and then used as dumping grounds for unwanted populations – poor blacks who were moving north in the post war years. No architecture of any sort could have absorbed that combination of political benigne neglect and ill-will.

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