Demolition of first tower, Pruitt-Igoe public housing project, St louis, 1972

This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the opening in 1954 of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in inner city St Louis, MO. It was (in)famously demolished only 22 years after it was built (see exhibit).

Pruitt-Igoe is now arguably best known as a symbol of the failure of modernist architecture and, in particular, of the irrelevance of the rationalist ideas of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and CIAM (Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne).

Established in a post-war atmosphere of confidence and affluence, Pruitt-Igoe’s 33 eleven storey towers provided housing for 15,000 tenants at higher density than the “slums” they replaced.

Despite intense cost pressures, the architects introduced a number of design innovations.

For example, so-called ‘skip-stop’ elevators in each tower stopped only at the first (ground), fourth, seventh and tenth floors and opened onto glazed internal galleries. This design was intended to promote social interaction between residents in the stairwells and in the ‘streets in the sky’.

The 2011 film, The Pruett-Igoe myth, shows that residents were initially enthusiastic about their new accommodation. One woman speaks of her family of 12 living in a small house and her mother sleeping on a roll-up bed in the kitchen; on moving to Pruitt-Igoe her mother had her own bedroom. (1)

But that keenness evaporated over time as conditions deteriorated and Pruitt-Igoe turned into a nightmarish environment of drugs, vandalism and crime.

The gallery windows and communal hallways turned into gauntlets residents had to run to get into their houses. The skip-stop elevators turned into a curse, as residents had to walk down stairwells infested with criminals to get back to their homes. The triumph of design had turned into a failure of epic proportions.

The story of how Pruitt-Igoe came to symbolise the failings of modernist architecture is told by University of California doctoral student, Katherine G Bristol, in a paper published in 1991, also titled The Pruett-Igoe myth.

She explains that while the project was widely praised by the architectural press when it opened, critics were quick to blame architectural modernism following demolition of all 33 towers between 1972 and 76.

The Architectural Record described it in 1972 as “the modern movement’s most grandiloquent failure”. In his influential 1978 book, The language of post-modern architecture, critic Charles Jencks argued that the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe represented the death of modern architecture.

Pruett-Igoe was also attacked in 1972 by Oscar Newman, the author of another influential book in the then-emerging field of environment and behaviour, Defensible Space. According to Bristol, he argued that the widespread vandalism and violence at Pruitt-Igoe resulted from the presence of excessive “indefensible” public space.

Corridors were too long and not visible from the apartments. The residents did not feel that these spaces “belonged” to them and so made no effort to maintain or police them. The entryways, located in large, unprotected open plazas, did not allow tenants any control over who entered the buildings.

Bristol largely rejects this interpretation. Her thesis is that Pruitt-Igoe did not fail at the level of design; its problems weren’t the result of architectural failure. Rather, they were the result of wider structural changes.

A key issue was Pruitt-Igoe’s occupancy rate peaked at 91% three years after opening, but thereafter declined precipitously and was down to two thirds of capacity by 1960.

It was conceived on a massive scale (2,700 apartments) to accommodate expected high population growth in the central city, but that failed to materialise due to a combination of factors, including ‘white flight’ to the suburbs, the slowing down of the war economy, decentralisation of low wage jobs, and less competition in the inner city private housing market.

It was originally intended to be a racially segregated development with Pruett for blacks and Igoe for whites. A Supreme Court decision during construction (Brown v Board of Education) enforced desegregation; rather than live in a racially mixed development, whites subsequently abandoned the project in favour of other places, especially the suburbs.

With the decline in the economic prospects in central St Louis, tenants increasingly were drawn from the poorest segment of the black population who had the least capacity to pay rent. However operating costs, including maintenance and security, had to be funded entirely from rental income. The combination of declining occupancy and poor and demoralised tenants inevitably resulting in deteriorating conditions.

The financial problems of the project were further exacerbated in 1969 when the remaining tenants went on a five month rent strike along with the residents of two other St Louis public housing projects.

Severe budget constraints during construction also contributed to the problems experienced at Pruitt-Igoe. Basic amenities such as children’s play areas, landscaping, and public toilets at ground level were eliminated to reduce costs. The quality of fittings like door knobs, locks, window frames and kitchen cabinets was very poor.

Political and social ambivalence to public housing had resulted in a token housing program burdened by impossible fiscal management constraints. The federal Public Housing Administration also impeded public housing efforts by insisting on unrealistically low construction costs.

The Pruitt-Igoe myth emphasises that deeper structural forces are much more important in explaining behaviour than physical design. The architects of Pruett-Igoe (who ironically also designed the World Trade Centre in Manhattan) were not responsible for the deterioration of the project much less its ultimate demolition.

In the mid-1960s sociologist Lee Rainwater undertook a study of residents of Pruitt-Igoe. Bristol summarises his conclusion that the violence and vandalism was a response by its residents to poverty and racial discrimination:

Architectural design was neither the cause nor the cure for these problems. Improved housing conditions and other efforts directed at changing the behaviour of the poor were…useless if not accompanied by efforts to raise their income level.

But Bristol doesn’t let architects off scot-free; she thinks the myth that design – specifically modernism – was the key problem with Pruitt-Igoe serves the interests of the profession.

By continuing to promote architectural solutions to what are fundamentally problems of class and race, the myth conceals the complete inadequacy of contemporary public housing policy. It has quite usefully shifted the blame from the sources of housing policy and placed it on the design professions. By furthering this misconception, the myth disguises the causes of the failure of public housing, and also ensures the continued participation of the architecture profession in token and palliative efforts to address the problem of poverty in America.

The myth is a mystification, she says, that benefits everyone involved, except those to whom public housing programs are supposedly directed.


  1. This brilliant film focusses primarily on making the case that the problems of Pruitt-Igoe weren’t due to some innate failing of public housing tenants or of blacks but due to the same structural factors that Bristol identifies.