Tower of Dreams: One Ended in Nightmare
I went to Penn South this week, having seen “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Chad Freidrichs’s shattering documentary, now at the IFC Center. Pruitt-Igoe was the notorious St. Louis public-housing complex, demolished in 1972. Images of imploded Pruitt-Igoe buildings, broadcast worldwide, came to haunt the American consciousness. Critics of welfare, big government and modern architecture all used the project as a whipping boy. “The day that modern architecture died,” Charles Jencks, the architect and apostle of postmodernism, called the demolition.
Penn South (started a half century ago by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union) is a cooperative in affluent, 21st-century Manhattan past which chic crowds hustle every day to and from nearby Chelsea’s art galleries, apparently oblivious to it. It thrives within a dense, diverse neighborhood of the sort that makes New York special. Pruitt-Igoe, segregated de facto, isolated and impoverished, collapsed along with the industrial city around it.
But they’re both classic examples of modern architecture, the kind Mr. Jencks, among countless others, left for dead: superblocks of brick and concrete high rises scattered across grassy plots, so-called towers in the park, descended from Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City.” The words “housing project” instantly conjure them up.
Alienating, penitential breeding grounds for vandalism and violence: that became the tower in the park’s epitaph. But Penn South, with its stolid redbrick, concrete-slab housing stock, is clearly a safe, successful place. In this case the architecture works. In St. Louis, where the architectural scheme was the same, what killed Pruitt-Igoe was not its bricks and mortar. (Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the World Trade Towers, was the architect.)
The lesson these two sites share has to do with the limits of architecture, socially and economically, never mind what some architects and planners promise or boast. The two projects, aesthetic cousins, are reminders that no typology of design, no matter how passingly fashionable or reviled, guarantees success or failure: neither West Village-style brownstones nor towers in the park nor titanium-clad confections. This is not to say architecture is helpless, only that it is never destiny and that it is always hostage to larger forces.
Thank you for this. Too often, we are force-fed the notion that high-rise buildings for the poor and working class was a failed idea of the past that can never work. We are told the only solution to the nation's housing problems are "mixed-income" low-rise buildings. This has served as a cover for the demolition of thousands of units of affordable housing and subsequent dislocation of the poor (and Federal subsidiziation of middle class in the replacement houses). The replacement low-rise homes in places like Chicago or St. Louis might look better to suburban eyes, but in reality they are a massive waste of taxpayer money - often subsidized to the tune of 2-300k per unit. Properly maintaining the buildings, and making sure services, employment and management of the buildings are there, are much more efficient uses of taxpayer money.