In the 39 years since it was demolished, Pruitt-Igoe has acted as a kind of Rorschach inkblot test for the opinions of theorists, pundits and politicians. The doomed housing project has been reduced to one iconic photo of a building in the moment of implosion. In that photo, people have seen the terror of large government projects, the problem with the welfare state, or the moral bankruptcy of poor black people. In 1984, Charles Jencks said he could pinpoint the moment that modernist architecture died: 3pm, 16 March 1972, conveniently captured on film and televised nationwide.
The status of the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St Louis, Missouri, as a symbol of everything wrong with modernist building practices graduated very quickly from analysis to aphorism. As a fable, it’s a transparent oversimplification. Enter The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, if not to rehabilitate, at least to complicate the narratives that surround the housing project.
The heart of the movie is a set of interviews with former residents of the estate’s 33 buildings. Almost immediately, the conversations take an unexpected turn. The place described doesn’t sound like a failure at all. One resident describes her unit as a poor man’s penthouse. Another talks about how, when she drives past the site today, she has to park and look because of all the wonderful memories.
“I know a lot of bad things came out of Pruitt-Igoe,” she says, “I know they did, but I don’t think they outweigh the good.”
It doesn’t take long to get back to the litany of horrors. Urine-soaked elevators that frequently broke down, incinerators overfilled with trash spilling on to the floor, broken lights and windows, bursting pipes, and non-functional heat. If the buildings were machines for living, they were machines that were never properly maintained.
The documentary finds fault with misguided laws and demographic trends. There was federal funding for construction but none for maintenance, meaning that upkeep had to be funded by rent. This would have been fine if occupancy had been high but Pruitt-Igoe was built to alleviate a crowding crisis that never came. Instead, the population of St Louis dropped as people moved to the suburbs. Meanwhile, welfare recipients were saddled with rules that prevented able-bodied men from living with their families and strictly controlled what they could buy. Telephones were forbidden. Underlying all of this was the baseline of 1960s racism.
For fans of modernism, there is little solace to be found beyond the fact that the documentary is almost totally uninterested in the architecture. There are hints of a hypothesis in the speed with which the project succumbed to entropy but overall the film seeks neither to redeem nor condemn the design of the buildings (which was by World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki). It is too concerned with the other forces at play. Far from Jencks’ clear moment of death, the implicit message is that maybe the architecture didn’t matter much at all, one way or another.
The film resists drawing lessons, preferring to point to a wide network of causes and problems. It entreats us to remember Pruitt-Igoe, warning that while history doesn’t repeat, it does have patterns. What these patterns are, the film does not say. Ninety minutes in, Pruitt-Igoe has barely shifted from cautionary symbol with particular meanings to cautionary tale of indeterminate import. It feels open, waiting for a synthesis that is yet to come.
You may find this ending unsatisfying, and I would not blame you. But you have a heart of stone if you are not moved by the former residents tearfully describing what it was like on the day when what was left of their homes was destroyed.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. Directed by Chad Freidrichs. www.pruitt-igoe.com
State Historical Society of Missouri