Monday, January 30, 2012

The Pruitt-Igoe Reality

Brutalism is a style of architecture distinguished by its huge blocky shapes, typically utilizing concrete or roughened stone. In the mid Twentieth Century, it was commonly employed for government structures, most definitely including housing projects. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing development would be a perfect example, had it not been imploded by the St. Louis Housing Authority in 1972. Chad Freidrichs seeks to rehabilitate the project’s image, and by extension that of government social engineering efforts in general, with the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (trailer here), which is now playing in New York at the IFC Center.

It opened in 1954 with high hopes. For a time, hard working former residents of St. Louis’s slums enjoyed clean modern living conditions there. Over time, maintenance deteriorated, rents went up, crime precipitously increased, and tenants steadily moved out, culminating in the spectacular televised destruction of the buildings.

Freidrichs and his commentators argue what happened was not the fault of the Pruitt-Igoe complex per se, but of wider macro factors. However, the case they make rather supports the opposite conclusion. First we hear the Pruitt-Igoe was the victim of a fatal misconception, because the city planners were projecting stable population growth when St. Louis population actually contracted substantially over the life of the complex. While true enough, it clearly calls into question the wisdom of activist government planning in general, particularly that which gave rise to Pruitt-Igoe. We also learn many of the city’s housing programs were used to maintain a de-facto segregation, which again demonstrates the frequently perverse unintended consequences of government regulations and spending.

Perhaps most damning is the revelation Pruitt-Igoe management actively banned men from the buildings, often forcing away would-be male heads of large households for the sake of an affordable apartment for their families. Yet, Myth resists fully exploring the implications of this policy, lest it be accused of revisiting the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown controversy.

The over-riding point of the film is that the Pruitt-Igoe project was a victim of wider urban pathologies, such as unemployment. Yet, it steadfastly ignores questions like which party controlled the mayor’s office since 1949 or what barriers to blue collar employment might have been posed by closed shop unionization.

Perhaps most disappointingly, Freidrichs seems completely disinterested in Pruitt-Igoe from an architectural point of view. The fact the imploded buildings were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, is an eerie historical footnote he skips over. However, the very nature of Brutalist architecture deserves some analysis in a film like this. In his own documentary, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster (also distributed by First Run Features), Norman Foster unequivocally criticizes concrete as a medium of construction, describing it as an ugly magnet for graffiti. The Pruitt-Igoe experience seems to bear out his aesthetic convictions.

Freidrichs makes a convincing case the Pruitt-Igoe houses were profoundly misconceived and mismanaged. Just how exactly their status as a poster child for government failure supposedly constitutes a “myth” will baffle viewers, based on the very evidence presented in his film. Ultimately, Pruitt-Igoe Myth has to be considered a failure as well, considering it largely proves the opposite of its thesis. An odd polemical misfire, it is now playing in New York at the IFC Center.