Saving the village in order to destroy it

What happens when a dream goes wrong? Alexander von Hoffman of the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University described the various postmortems of something that was unquestionably dead: the Pruitt-Igoe Housing project. It was once regarded as the vanguard of public housing.  In two decades it would be the symbol of urban failure. It died, but like many things deceased, there was debate over why it expired.


St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project is arguably the most infamous public housing project ever built in the United States. A product of the postwar federal public-housing program, this mammoth high-rise development was completed in 1956.

Only a few years later, disrepair, vandalism, and crime plagued Pruitt-Igoe. The project’s recreational galleries and skip-stop elevators, once heralded as architectural innovations, had become nuisances and danger zones. Large numbers of vacancies indicated that even poor people preferred to live anywhere but Pruitt-Igoe. In 1972, after spending more than $5 million in vain to cure the problems at Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis Housing Authority, in a highly publicized event, demolished three of the high-rise buildings. A year later, in concert with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it declared Pruitt-Igoe unsalvageable and razed the remaining buildings.

Hoffman claims that nobody ever thought the project was a good idea in itself. Rather, this grandiose development was seen as a levee that would stop the tides which were slowly destroying the city of St. Louis. By building a glittering prestige project, the urban rot could be reversed and the city reinvigorated. With the confidence of those who believed that government money could make a losing proposition into a profitable one, Mayor Joseph Darst believed high quality, low-cost public housing was the answer and decided to build a “Manhattan by the Mississippi”, engaging an architect who was later to build the World Trade Center. So up went Pruitt-Igoe.


In 1951 Architectural Forum praised Yamasaki’s original proposal as “the best high apartment” of the year. … Architectural Forum praised the layout as “vertical neighborhoods for poor people” … Each row of buildings was supposed to be flanked by a “river of trees”. … “Skip-stop” elevators stopped only at the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors, forcing residents to use stairs in an attempt to lessen congestion. The same “anchor floors” were equipped with large communal corridors, laundry rooms, communal rooms and garbage chutes.

Being unable to live on its own merits, nothing worked out. The stairwells which were supposed to lessen congestion turned into places where muggers could lurk. The “community” whose lives were planned out according to the latest theories never attracted more than 60% occupancy. It became the victim of the “tragedy of the commons”. “When corridors were shared by 20 families and staircases by hundreds, public spaces immediately fell into disrepair. … I never thought people were that destructive.”

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By the late 1960s, the place had all but been abandoned. After it was demolished, the search for the cause of its demise went on. Was public housing itself bad? Surely not, for if so then a whole range of social remedies would by analogy prove ineffective. So the defect must have been in the kind of housing provided. It was badly designed. It must have been. According to some theories, the problem was that that Pruitt-Igoe was never nice enough for the poor. It was an insult to human dignity, a kind of animal warren whose density produced hostile behavior.


Put poor people who know they’re poor in cheap-ass-looking public housing and don’t even give them adequate space and for the love of Philip Johnson, you don’t even have the elevator stop on each floor…well, you’ve made it pretty clear that you don’t think very highly of these folks. And they will behave accordingly and treat their building that way.

It’s also a matter of scale. The psychological concept of crowding has shown in animal studies and to a less-controlled extent in people that if you put too many of any mammalian species in a given area, they react poorly and engage in destructive behaviors.

Build it better and it might succeed. Yet if public housing projects are a solution to anything, the evidence is far from encouraging. Too many of them are sinkholes of human misery. In part, the problem lies in that planners and bureaucrats see housing, not as the consequence of lifestyle, but a cause of it. The slums they so heartily disapprove of are often better suited to the survival of their residents. Slums are often the way they are because they evolved according to definite environmental pressures. The horrible characteristics of a slum are in many cases, a feature, not a bug.  Yet none of that will dampen the appetite for public dream-house.


No matter how often it is explained to urban planners the proposition that slums may actually be better than their dream housing, they can never believe it. After all, how could anyone possibly want to live like that, when planners who have so much more education than those poor ignorant slobs can readily see what improvements can be made with a little more taxpayer money? And so, with the ready assent of the construction business and politicians, the projects go up. And in a few decades, they go down.

The architectural terrain is a mere reflection of human terrain. Buildings are an expression of the economic, social and cultural conditions of the human beings they enclose.  They are like the Picture of Dorian Gray, they show the soul within the man. The place to start isn’t by giving a man a house; it is by giving him an opportunity.

But most governments are convinced that the soul can be altered by a change of clothes. After all, politicians do it all the time.  And public housing is popular with the construction industry and only costs the taxpayers a few dollars more.  Joseph Darst himself expressed the salvific nature of his housing project:

We must rebuild, open up and clean up the hearts of our cities. The fact that slums were created with all the intrinsic evils was everybody’s fault. Now it is everybody’s responsibility to repair the damage. — Joseph Darst, 1951

He died two years after it was built and never lived to see it condemned.  He probably meant well. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, liberally cemented together by a hopeful public policy.


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