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«Nelson 1 Garrett Dash Nelson Comparative Literature 273 Professor Svetlana Boym 5 January 2009 PRUITT–IGOE Facts and Memories of an American Ruin ...»

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Nelson 1

Garrett Dash Nelson

Comparative Literature 273

Professor Svetlana Boym

5 January 2009


Facts and Memories of an American Ruin

Georg Simmel, writing on ruins, grants nature a monopoly on the business of

ruination. He pits the constructive spirit of the human will against the “brute, downwarddragging, corroding, crumbling power of nature,”1 locating the ruin at the equilibriumpoint where “what was raised by the spirit becomes the object of the same forces which form the contour of the mountain and the banks of the river.”2 While nature is no doubt history’s most prolific ruiner, Simmel forgets the human spirit’s reflexive role in destroying its own work. Sometimes a ruin is not a standoff between man and nature but between man and man, a conflict of spirit against spirit, and a staging point for competition over the material and semiotic domination of an environment. Because of this, it is possible to speak not only of the aesthetics of a ruin but of its epistemologies and politics as well.

Such ruins challenge the unitary notion of a constructivist urge in mankind; they exhibit the perpetual dialectic between thesis and antithesis which drives human life forwards.

One such ruin which figures heavily in the American imagination of modernity, urbanity, and community is the vanished housing project Pruitt-Igoe, built in St. Louis in the early 1950s and now no more than a messy plot of trees with an electrical substation.

Pruitt-Igoe was a fairly standard product of the postwar period of American social planning and urban renewal, designed in a High Modernist style and one of hundreds of redevelopments across the country aimed at counteracting the emptying-out and immiseration of city centers. Before long, though, Pruitt-Igoe became a living ruin, turned rotten and desperate due to the decay and hopelessness of the society inhabiting it. As occupancy plummeted and the buildings developed the scars of underclass anger and Nelson 2 racist neglect, the project became an icon of the physical and moral blight of the American metropolis. Pruitt-Igoe’s ruination was carried to its endpoint by the city itself in the early 1970s, when the housing authorities chose to raze their own project rather than pursue a fruitless rehabilitation. In a stunning act of destructive power, the towers were imploded less than two decades after they were built. That shocking image became the material for an ideological battle waged over the function of public architecture and the utility of expert rationality amongst the texture of urban experience. Thus, through all its phases of ruination, Pruitt-Igoe has been a kind of document, first in bricks and blueprints, then in graffiti lines and trash heaps, and finally in films and essays, of the different ways of imagining, executing, and then remembering Modernist ideals. It calls out through history to signify “the past that could have been and the future that never took place.”3 It is an archetypal American ruin.

The etymology of the English ‘ruin’ lies in the Latin ruere, meaning to fall. Every building in existence is in the slow process of falling, only some perform their falls more obviously. We may thus say that ‘ruin’ is not a classificatory state but a dimensional quantity: it is not that some buildings are ruins and other buildings are not, but rather that all buildings display their ruination in different degrees. Falling, of course, is a motion which is bound together with the language of failure. Make falling proper-definite and it becomes The Fall, when man turned away from innocence and discovered sin; use falling in history and it becomes the demise of empires and ideas, the fall of Rome or the fall of feudalism. The ruined building is thus the evidence of a failure—sometimes a failure of pylons or of a concrete mixture, but just as often a failure of ideology or a drying-up of human vitality. Then again, we also fall in love. So too are ruins an object of beauty and passion, surrounded by a “holy charmed circle,” in Simmel’s words.4 We apprehend ruins with a feeling that is “not merely intellectual but also sensual.”5 And,

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place where ideological polemics can be played out—pageants of nostalgic obsession or disgust.

In 1947, Le Corbusier published The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning, the now-famous explanation of his plans for a rationalized urban scheme with high-rise housing units scattered amongst vast green areas. In the story of Pruitt-Igoe, Le Corbusier’s ideas, along with those of other members of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne, play the role of the ‘upward spirit.’ These ideas constitute the raw stock of spiritual will which compelled 33 slab towers to materialize and rise above the slums just outside of downtown St. Louis. Thinkers and artists of Le Corbusier’s school believed that by simplifying and systematizing the physical layout of cities, their social and community layouts could also be rationalized and improved. It was a movement not so much about rectilinear, functional buildings as it was about the rectilinear, functional societies that would be produced by them—societies where the new man of the millenium would live healthily and decenctly. The utopian world proffered by the Modernist ideal was charged with imaginative potential, and those who partook in its secular apostolicism became convinced that they could rebuild cities in the form of a wellcalibrated but humane machine.

Before the upward spirit of Modernism could reify itself in pavement and concrete, though, it had to legitimate itself as a viable ideal. Beginning in the 1940s, the United States underwent two crucial developments that laid the groundwork for urban rationalizing projects. First, the demographic oscillations caused by the end of the Second World War, the opening up of new suburban developments and highways, and AfricanAmerican in-migration saddled most of the nation’s cities with major cases of urban decay. As middle-class whites fled the inner city and the prewar housing stock fell into disrepair and uninhabitability, impoverished ghettoes began to appear and then grow. At

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on an increasingly racial dimension. Before long, the physical shattering of the city led to an even more important spiritual shattering: those who lived in cities no longer cared for them, and those who lived elsewhere feared and detested them.

Second, the increasing power of administrative apparatuses developed during the New Deal meant that social scientists, urban planners, and other design professionals began to occupy a new role as technocratic guardians of the public good. A technocracy, in which experts with privileged access to scientific information about society, is in many ways the iconic power structure of the first half of the twentieth century. Max Weber famously suggested that bureaucracy was the axiomatic consequence of modernization.6 It was one of a few points where Communist, socialist, and capitalist ideologies came into convergence; each group agreed that expert knowledge and rational planning was a necessary fuel for the generation of “progress.” Whether they took the form of French administrative officers in North Africa or Soviet production commissars, technocratic operations were always chained to aspirational values of social harmony and improvement. By 1945, the United States had a Social Security Board, an Agricultural Adjustment Authority, and Federal Housing Administration, and other bureaucratic organs dedicated to improving and streamlining society. The nation’s political faith in the gospel of technocracy was at its high-water mark.

This combination was fertile ground for the ideology of the Modernist movement.

The desperation of the cities perfectly mirrored in negative the transformative promises of rational administration. Thus, when the city of St. Louis received money from the 1949 Housing Act to improve living conditions in their blighted downtown by building 5800 public housing units, they embraced the Modernist vocabulary of urban improvement almost without question. Joseph Darst, elected mayor in 1949, was a member of the “new breed of big-city mayors” who believed city centers demanded immediate and massive

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the city’s urban renewal bureaucracy, the Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority.

The existing urban environment, which had grown organically and idiosyncratically since the rise of industrialization around the Civil War, was so utterly rotten, and, more importantly, so utterly out of line with ideas about progressive rationality, that messy communities had to be cleared and then redeveloped from scratch. The name indicates not only the physical clearing which was approved on a vast scale by urban authorities, but also the cathartic epistemological clearing which it enabled. With an infusion of new money, new buildings, and, crucially, a new spirit, the city could perform a phoenix-like sleight-of-hand. It could eviscerate and thus forget its blighted past at the same time that it constructed its future.

The St. Louis Housing Authority decided to allocate 2700 of the public housing units from the federal grant package to a 57-acre site located at the center of the black ghetto on the city’s north side. An officer from the federal Public Housing Authority decided that the project would consist of 33 eleven-story buildings occupying a superblock carved from the structure of the existing neighborhood.8 The entire redevelopment, named after the black fighter pilot Wendell Pruitt and Congressman William Igoe, was to be executed in the perfect Modernist mode: new, clean, and massproduced housing blocks set within open space would liberate the poor from the mean, decrepit life endemic to the broken-down slum neighborhoods.

There is no evidence to indict the architecture team, led by Minoru Yamasaki, of any malfeasance in the project. Quite the opposite: by every indication, the architects produced a design which combined the contemporary innovations of the design community with creative applications individualized to the site. The budget for the project was quite tight, and so the designers were forced to compromise on a number of issues—a reminder that every built structure, especially public ones, is a bricolage of the various

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mitigate the budgetary concessions with new techniques for fabricating urban community.

Skip-stop elevators combined with galleries were intended to create a sense of neighborhood in the large, undifferentiated complex. The 1956 review of Pruitt-Igoe in Architectural Record commended the design for its focus on “communities with individual scale and character which would avoid the ‘project’ atmosphere so often criticized.”9 One has only to look at the cheerleading publications produced by the city to comprehend the humanistic—and indeed artistic—spirit under which they articulated this rationality. The annual reports of the St. Louis Housing Authority are beautifully rendered documents, full of photographs of families at play and work, colorful illustrations of utopian cities, and lusty quotes set in Modernist sans-serif typefaces. They are textual memorials to the kind of aspirational vitality which invigorated (and also indoctrinated) the agents of urban change at midcentury. In the 1959 report, a full spread under the title “Oliver Wendell Pruitt Homes: Community Activities” shows photos of children milling about a playground, three girls sewing in a classroom, and a troop of Boy Scouts on parade, all framed by the crisp rectilinear austerity of the towers. Elsewhere, a line drawing of the wind blowing factory smoke away from a blooming sunflower appears between two photographs of Pruitt-Igoe.10 The back cover of the 1963 report bears a photograph of an integrated youth baseball team with the banner “progress means happiness for the citizens of the community.” Inside, the report details the transformation of St. Louis from ramshackle slums to “pleasant, well tended homes and safe play grounds” through the simultaneous deployment of Modernist redevelopment and intense social-service programs.11 Still, there was no getting around the fact that Pruitt-Igoe was communal housing, and cheaply-produced communal housing at that. Here the building—along with the

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communal apartment can be called a “a metaphor of the distinctive Soviet mentality,”12 it is possible to say that the ranch home or the suburban cul-de-sac is a metaphor of the distinctive American one. Americans have long been under the sway of an overriding mythological attachment to the single-family home and its attendant ideal of property ownership. Partly this is due to the cultural belief that Americans are a frontier people and partly it is due to economic, social, and political conditions which have long encouraged detached homeownership. But it was not just a material reality. The concept of owning a home on its own piece of land took on an aspirational and ideational supersignificance in the values of postwar American life. American Modernists and social reformers could not overcome the perception that public housing was a kind of “microcosm of the socialist city,” as indeed it was in Russia.13 At a time when socialism and its entire orbit of aesthetic figurations served as a public hate object in American life, it was doubly difficult to wedge public housing into the system of American values.

It was not long after Pruitt-Igoe was completed that its ruination began. When Pruitt-Igoe was first planned and built, experts agreed that St. Louis badly needed more housing to rejuvenate its economy. By 1960, however, so many middle-class whites had left the city that there was now a large surplus of housing, creating a demand gap which led to “deterioration, devaluation, red-lining, speculation, and finally demolition” all throughout the city.14 The original scheme to house blacks in Pruitt and whites in Igoe was soon overturned by a desegregation order, and, instead of integrating, the whites simply left, leaving the entire complex a racially-homogenous ghetto. Economic forces that extended beyond Pruitt-Igoe’s boundaries and indeed far beyond St. Louis pinioned the housing development at the center of a reflexive cycle of impoverishment and ill-use.

Before long, the complex became “the dumping ground for all the people nobody wanted

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