Designed by modernist architect Minoru Yamasaki, the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing project was erected in St. Louis, Missouri in the early 1950s and widely heralded as a model for urban renewal. The project consisted of 33 buildings, each 11 stories tall. By 1972, the project was in the midst of being demolished.
The highly publicized demolition of Pruitt-Igoe left a scar in the public imagination that remains to this day. Perhaps the most poignant example of this can be seen in the appropriation of Pruitt-Igoe as a symbol for the death of modernism in the landmark film Koyaanisqatsi. The film takes its name from a Hopi word meaning: crazy life, life in turmoil, life disintegrating, life out of balance, or a state of life that calls for another way of living. In the film, the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe is set to the score of a minimalist composition by Philip Glass (entitled Pruitt-Igoe) and it plays into a larger theme of humankind's failure to overcome the forces of nature.*
However, as potent as this symbolism may be, it entirely neglects essential facts. The true story of Pruitt-Igoe centers on changes in the larger economic context of the time, coupled with a lack of political will. Pruitt-Igoe was constructed just as St. Louis’ industrial economy began to contract. Without jobs, the residents of Pruitt-Igoe were unable to pay the rents that the project depended upon for operating costs. Absent the political will to provide additional funding for the project’s upkeep, which was compounded by the racism of the wider community, Pruitt-Igoe fell into disrepair and never recovered. The 2011 documentary film, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, offers a powerful antidote to the dominant narrative on Pruitt-Igoe. NLIHC featured a screening of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth at its 2013 Housing Policy Conference.
NLIHC will mark its 40th anniversary throughout 2014, culminating in a commemorative event on Monday, November 17 in Washington, DC. Please save the date.