metaphysical & metaphorical musings : art, architecture, and arithmetic

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Walk through Pruitt-Igoe

St. Louis was under siege from itself.  Decentralization, the flight of city dwellers to the suburbs, caused an expansion of the city’s slums that officials feared would engulf the entire city.  The solution was urban renewal in the image of the major metropolis.

Le Corbusier’s highrise design synergized with federal housing guidelines that only allowed for high-rises to be built.  Yamasaki’s intention was to maximize the efficiency of the space.  But these innovations that were initially praised became the sources of Pruitt-Igoes problems.  Skip-stop elevators began to break down, and the deferred traffic led to the congestion and deterioration of the stairways.  Common recreational areas, called galleries, became known as gauntlets where residents dodged hoodlums and criminals.  The projects’ reputation was so bad that messengers and delivery workers refused to enter the buildings.

Storage rooms were burglarized.  Halls and stairwells were vandalized—but that’s all right, since paint in the common areas was one of the ‘luxuries’ that budgetary constraints eliminated.  Others included landscaping (outdoor common areas became wastelands of trash), insulation on exposed pipes (in common areas where children played), screens on windows (at least two girls fell from upper-level windows), and ground-floor public toilets (coupled with skip-stop elevators, an utter nightmare).

Pruitt-Igoe was an exercise in utility.  Modernist architectural principles eliminated, or at least minimized, secondary and superfluous features at the same time that it maximized occupant capacity.  The projects’ refusal of excess returns as its nemesis—the projects were a complete waste.  They never reached full capacity, and were completely demolished after an astronomical expenditure over a relatively brief period of time.

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