David Birchall. 'Sound Drawing'

Public opinion, civic uses of land tied to social systems, changing land use definitions as demographics and social attitudes change:

Nora Wendl. ' Pruitt-Igoe, Tomorrow'

Heather Dunbar and Xiaowei Wang. 'Pruitt-Igoe Now'

Dustin Valen. 'On the Merits of Bad Behaviour in Public Parks'

Mapping and being: why are some places beautiful, what do we think about them as we draw them, photograph them and document their ephemerality and their sometimes difficult histories:

Novka Cosovic. 'Ometepe Island, Lago de Nicaragua'Graham Hooper. 'Castles of sand, fall in the sea, eventually'

The vast spaces of deserts, military sites, and national parks.  Are these spaces any less complex than our busy urban landscapes?

Desirée Valadares. 'Dispossessing the Wildernes, conservation issues in national parks'

Matt Neville. 'Our National Landscape; romanticising the Canadian hinterland'

Sara Jacobs. 'Ghosts, Tooele County, Utah'

Lindsey Nette. 'Lost in the Empty; Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan'

Dillon Marsh. 'Assimilation; Kalahari Desert, South Africa'

The remediated landscapes of mining, war and detente – each has left a damaged land which, through sheer necessity, is reclaimed, reforested and brought into the present with great love and hope:

 Leanna Lalonde. 'Under Cover of Green; the re-greening of Sudbury'

David Fortin. 'Watching Sudbury; gazing at a re-greened landscape'

Ruth Oldham. 'Holes and Heaps; terrils as cultural artefacts in le Bassin Mineur, France'

Xiaoxuan Lu. 'Landscape Noir; Laos'

Mike Taylor. 'Form on the Frontier; an architecture for the DMZ'

Protective infrastructure: it’s a dangerous place out there.  How do we make nature palatable, less threatening, less likely to crash down on our heads:

Dominique Cheng. 'Planespotting; the Kai Tak Project'Michael J Leeb. 'Flood mitigation: Akamina Parkway, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta'

Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter. 'Trollstigen Visitor Centre, Romsdalen-Geiranger fjord, Norway'

Stephanie White. 'Listening to Landscapes'

Landscapes understood by the foot, which walks them, and by the hand, which draws them:

Michael J Leeb. 'Oil City, 1901' Alec Spangler. 'Walking and Narrative'

Troels Steenholdt Heiredal. 'The Aarhus Drawing'


Nora Wendl: Pruitt Igoe, Tomorrow

In an essay entitled 'The Temporality of the Landscape', philosopher Tim Ingold writes, “Let me begin by explaining what landscape is not. It is not ‘land,’ it is not ‘nature,’ and it is not ‘space’.”1 In this simple sentence, Ingold acknowledges that landscapes do not abstractly contain the records of the deliberate interventions and events that transpire upon them—they are the record. From the perspective of the archaeologist and the native dweller, he writes, the landscape is itself the story. For those theorists, historians and designers who would seek to write Pruitt Igoe’s story, it is difficult, if not impossible, to read the site in its present state as a record of its past—to see in this lush, forested landscape the 33 11-story buildings that once towered over it, or the houses that preceded them. It is perhaps easier to read the site cinematically, through a string of iconic images—as a moment that was the symbolic birth of the post-modern architectural movement. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe housing tower. Source: United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Public domain
“Happily,” wrote Charles Jencks, “it is possible to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time…Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously it had been vandalised, mutilated and defaced by its inhabitants and although millions of dollars were pumped back, trying to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.”2 Jencks’ blindness toward Pruitt-Igoe as a federally programmed failure—not one that was hastened to its end by the residents—is evidence of what Pruitt-Igoe has become: a symbol of failure used by theorists to advance specific agendas. Oscar Newman used images of Pruitt-Igoe in its most vandalised, pre-demolition state to argue that its architectural design was the culprit for its failure as it lacked the physical characteristics that would allow the inhabitants to ensure their own security—his theory of defensible space. Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter used Pruitt-Igoe in their polemic on postmodern architecture as evidence that the modern architectural movement failed because of its impulses toward social engineering. Charles Jencks used a photograph of the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe building C-15 to dramatically announce the demise of modern architecture and the beginning of the post-modern era.3 But only Jencks had a vision for the site’s future: “Without doubt, the ruins should be kept, the remains should have a preservation order slapped on them, so that we keep a live memory of this failure in planning and architecture.”4

Though Jencks did not know it, even as he wrote this, the site was a live memory of the towers. When the first edition of The Language of Postmodern Architecture was published in 1977, the demolition of these buildings would have just been complete, with local wrecking companies Cleveland and Aalco destroyed the remaining 31 towers by wrecking ball between January 1976 and the spring of 1977. Today, the former towers are still present on the site: under thousands of pounds of fill are fragments of the broken foundations, reinforced concrete and stock brick. More prominently, the electric substation is announced by a high-voltage sign and surrounded by barbed wire warning curious visitors to stay out.

And yet another live memory, or inadvertent result, of Pruitt-Igoe is Ferguson, Missouri, and the event which gained international attention in the summer of 2014: unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson. Upon the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe towers from 1972-1977, former residents of the project fled north, to suburbs of St. Louis County including Spanish Lake and Ferguson, as white suburbs blocked the construction of multi-family housing.5 Though architectural history would reduce the memory of the Pruitt-Igoe site to one iconic photograph of a tower being brought down by sticks of dynamite embedded in its foundation, the “live memory of this failure in planning and architecture,” in Jencks’ own words, is quite well. And those living it are subject to the same cycles of poverty and violence to which the towers bore witness.

If the deliberate interventions and events that transpired upon the site of Pruitt-Igoe in the past would have consequences far beyond the perimeter of the lot on which the buildings were located and far beyond the lifespan of the buildings, it is tempting to imagine what might shape its future might take—and indeed, how that in turn might shape the future of St. Louis. The site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing complex is located a mere two miles northwest of Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, bounded by Cass Avenue, N. 20th Street, Carr Avenue, and N. Jefferson Avenue. Private developer Paul McKee is currently proposing what he terms his 'Northside Regeneration plan' for the site, which would place the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency—the eyes and ears of the United States Department of Defense—squarely at the centre of what was once the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. 1,500 acres of residential, commercial, and office spaces, a school, and 50 acres of parks and trails complete the proposal. While this is not the first proposal for the site—previous proposals have included a golf course, a shopping mall, and for a time, a flirtation with industrial storage—it is a serious one. Mayor Francis Slay is pushing steadily for its inclusion on this site, and architectural studios at Washington University have already explored this notion.

While the site awaits its future, it looks largely the same as it did in the summer of 2011, when I formed a non-profit organisation with Michael R. Allen, director of the St. Louis-based Preservation Research Office. Together, we launched the Pruitt Igoe Now ideas competition: if prompted, how would contemporary architects, designers, urban designers, writers, artists and university students visualise the future life of the former Pruitt-Igoe site? Out of 348 total submissions collected between June 2011 and March 16, 2012, seven jurors—Teddy Cruz (University of California San Diego), Sergio Palleroni (Portland State University, BASIC Initiative), Theaster Gates, Jr. (University of Chicago and Founder, Rebuild Foundation), Diana Lind (Next American City), Bob Hansman (Washington University), Joseph Heathcott (New School), and Sarah Kanouse (University of Iowa)—selected 31 finalists and three winning entries: first place, St. Louis Ecological Assembly Line: Pruitt-Igoe as Productive Landscape, Heather Dunbar and Xiaowei R. Wang; second place, Recipe Landscape, Aroussiak Gabrielian and Alison Hirsch; and third place, The Fantastic Pruitt-Igoe!, by Social Agency Lab.

If these proposals for the site of Pruitt-Igoe are any indication, the Pruitt-Igoe of tomorrow is not architectural—it is agricultural, a nod to the verdant land available on site, and the dearth of fresh market groceries to serve the northside neighbourhoods. In the designs of 20 of the 31 selected finalists, agriculture or recreational gardening were proposed as a means of phyto-remediation—removing toxins that are the byproduct of construction and other forms of intervention from the land—as well as the design of programs that would enable the site to be a catalyst for growth in local infrastructure or entertainment—a brick factory, and the construction of an artificial moon, respectively (Fig. 2 and 3).

 Fig. 2 Carr Square Brick Yard, by Sina Zekavat, proposes to intervene in the cycle of brick theft from vulnerable northside buildings by imagining a brickyard that accommodates both storage for salvaged bricks and facilities for the production of new brick.Fig. 3 Double Moon, by Clouds Architecture Office, proposes one novel structure, an illuminated, artificial moon that hovers over the site, beckoning St. Louisans who might otherwise ignore the site.

In a majority of the Pruitt Igoe Now finalist proposals, architecture is negated in favour of utopian systems of agriculture, food production, and distribution—utopias closer to Thomas More’s vision (social, organised, productive), than the formal modern utopian proposals from which Pruitt-Igoe descended. In Recipe Landscape, Gabrielian and Hirsch recreate the site on domestic and ritualistic systems—animal husbandry and apiculture lend the primary ingredients for the '31 flavors of Pruitt-Igoe', produced by re-using the Pruitt School as both a dairy and a creamery, and distributed to stores city wide. (Fig. 4) Similarly, Dunbar and Wang imagine a St. Louis Ecological Assembly Line: Pruitt-Igoe as Productive Landscape, in which the site is the epicentre of an 'ecological assembly line', full of tree and plant nurseries that capitalise on the growing conditions of St. Louis, and provide vegetation to over 13,000 acres of St. Louis parks. (Fig. 5) The Fantastic Pruitt Igoe! by Social Agency Lab proposes a world in which St. Louis schoolchildren would invent programmatic and physical features for the site, working collaboratively with an advisory board of adults to envision the structures, programming and activities that would comprise this new and decidedly un-bureaucratic life for the site.

Fig. 4 Recipe Landscape, by Aroussiak Gabrielian and Alison Hirsch of Foreground Design Agency. The architecture of the site is re-used in the production of “the 31 flavors of Pruitt-Igoe,” a solution for growing ingredients for ice cream on the site, and creating a city-wide distribution network for the unique product.Fig. 5 St. Louis Ecological Assembly Line: Pruitt-Igoe as Productive Landscape, by Heather Dunbar and Xiaowei R. Wang imagines the site as a producer of trees for parks throughout St. Louis.
When we first proposed this ideas competition to city officials, they balked. If people knew the site was still empty, they argued, it would be bad publicity—it would make it look as if St. Louis had never 'solved' the problem of Pruitt-Igoe. Today, the Mayor’s support of the solution proposed by Paul McKee is evidence of a desire to make the site productive in the most literal sense—to put 3,200 Department of Defense jobs at its centre to catalyse new economic growth in the area. But if this is Pruitt-Igoe tomorrow, what of its unintended consequences? Are these jobs for the residents of this community, or are they jobs for educated white men? Will the tall fences topped with concertina wire be removed from the edges of the site, or will this boundary be reified in a new way, by security clearances, economic, racial and social differences? Instead of containing and isolating poverty, as the site did while Pruitt-Igoe stood, will it secure and protect affluence?

Ultimately, when we assured the city officials that what we were running was merely an ideas competition, they agreed that ideas were harmless. It was the American Institute of Architects St. Louis chapter that hounded us: 'what about jobs?' they asked, concerned that by producing and exhibiting a proliferation of ideas, somehow the possibility of real action on the site would be forever stalled, and architects of St. Louis never invited to take action.

The site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing complex lives still in a liminal space between the idea of action and the enacting of it. (Fig. 6) Minoru Yamasaki’s original proposal, after all, was a series of low-density garden apartments. Its reality, 33 11-story towers, was pushed forward at the behest of the political administrators of the site, and forced through Yamasaki’s hand. Perhaps the best inadvertent result that could transpire from Pruitt-Igoe—and indeed, we are still awaiting one—would not be a formal composition of land, or nature, or space, but instead a professional commitment to build a world in which the unintended consequences of architecture’s physical, social, and cultural intervention will not be merely the perpetuation of cycles of poverty and violence that architecture alone cannot solve.

Fig. 6 In Pruitt-Igoe: The Forest of Floating Minds, by Clouds Architecture Office, the 33 footprints of the original Pruitt Igoe towers are elevated on concrete structures and covered in vegetation, intended to foster the collective memory of the site.

My deepest thanks to Michael R. Allen, Director of Preservation Research Office and co-organiser of Pruitt-Igoe Now, the competition jurors, our advisory committee, and those who entered the competition. I also thank Stephanie White, editor of On Site review, for the opportunity to reflect on the contemporary condition of the site and its imminent future.

1 Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape,” in The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (New York: Routledge, 2000), 190.

2 Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-modernism, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 9.

3 Though Jencks dates the destruction of the towers to July 15, 1972, Pruitt-Igoe tower C-15 was cinematically demolished on April 21, 1972 in a “trial demolition.”

4 Charles Jencks, The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-modernism, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 9.

5 http://www.citylab.com/housing/2014/08/a-failed-public-housing-project-could-be-a-key-to-st-louis-future/379078/

Nora Wendl questions the composition of architecture--seeking to expand the perception of what the discipline’s built forms and histories are (and could be). She is Assistant Professor of Architecture at Portland State University. www.norawendl.com

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>