Return to Recent Articles menu

Film Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011) dir. Chad Freidrichs

Reviewed by Gerry Fitzpatrick

05 January 2013

This documentary has been shown at film festivals throughout the world and was also shown at the 2012 (West) Belfast film festival. It has received praise and won awards.  The film is about one of the most notorious failures of post-war planning, the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing complex in St Louis Missouri USA. Completed in the early 1950s and demolished in 1972, it was one of many such mass housing complexes that were erected by city authorities throughout the world.  They were originally constructed to address issues of substandard housing available to migrant workers and the need for social housing for a growing working class.    

The documentary is a Revisionist academic work, it rejects outright the explanation that bad planning and design were the main causes of why this (and many other) mass urban projects failed. Instead the young academics who made this film blame the Welfare State and its welfare policies. Their explanation is therefore social. However, it is so in a way that most liberal arts explanations of bourgeois disasters are social - as moral disapproval of the disaster long after the struggles and battles that produced it have taken place. This is also indicated by their title The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. That, as I have been arguing with the makers and supporters of the film, is a disingenuous way of presenting and explaining the disaster. 

The failure of Pruitt-Igoe in the film is therefore never seen in terms of its design, rather the contrary it is the design by Yamasaki that is seen as praiseworthy. This is not surprising since the director of the film is Chad Freidrichs – an enthusiast for modernist architecture who has stated that his interest was aroused in Pruitt-Igoe because it had become a symbol of the failure of modernist architecture (he at that point was re-styling his own home in 1950s modernist style).

The Wow Factor

In interview Freidrichs attempted to give some details on how he explained the design of Puritt-Igoe as blameless: 

“It [Puritt-Igoe] kept on coming up as the “failure of modern architecture”. And I was like Wow! – that’s really interesting! It was always posed as um something where the design ultimately determined the behavior of the residents; that the residents were reacting and responding to the architectural design and therefore there was a fundamental flaw with modern architecture [that] modern architecture leads to this kind of behavior. And so that was really intriguing to me that, like Wow! – I have never really considered that. So I started doing some research, found out that Puritt-Igoe was just in my back yard like two hours away from where I live. So I was like WOW! – this would be a really a cool documentary. Initially it was how I got into it from an architectural standpoint. But gradually that changed. We did a lot more academic research on Puritt-Igoe’s relationship to the city and gradually the architecture kind of melted away.” 

Fredrichs ends his interview (actually a mission statement) by saying the film had two objectives: to stop the “scapegoating” of the residents and the architecture and to present the documentary to as many people as possible as a general story of “our cities, inner cities urban decline”. 
To this false hip gaucherie we must add a corrective: The first aim above of stopping the scapegoating was attempted as far as the resident’s experience of Puritt-Igoe was concerned. On the scapegoated of the architecture and the design of Puritt-Igoe – there is almost nothing, no counter narrative of the general effectiveness of the project. All that is presented about Puritt-Igoe as architecture are a few general observations and basic facts about the project’s realization, location, construction and destruction with some general reference to media coverage. So in effect the architecture did “melt away” as Mr Frederich’s puts it – but not quite. 

The film opens with an attack on the symbolic role that the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe played in architectural criticism (at one point the chapter heading and text from Charles Jencks’, ‘On The Death of Modern Architecture’ is reproduced, which sights the 1972 demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the moment when ‘modernism in architecture died’ but Jencks’ argument is not elaborated on). Several network newscast reports of the demolition are shown the commentary stating that here can be seen, “the Pruitt-Igoe Myth emerging”.

How the shown news reports of the demolition can be described as mythological is an attempt at grandeur and should not be taken seriously. The “myth” or why the demolition became symbolic is never explained. The title of the film and its makers approach to their subject were inspired by an academic article by Katharine Bristol, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, that was published by the University of California in 1991. In the article Katharine Bristol comes out strongly against the critics of Pruitt-Igoe and by extension those who criticized modernist mass housing – particularly attacking libertarian and radicals like Colin Rowe and Charles Jencks. 

We should also be clear here as far as ideology is concerned. For what is at stake here is the Le Corbusierian myth of modernism as the house style of the liberal and reactionary bourgeoisie. Something they understood as their reforming and improving gift to the world that will provide clean and efficient environments. What the makers of the film wish to show us was that the poor and the working class who were presented with that environment did accept that solution – the modernist solution – at least initially. 

The Tenants’ Response 

Many of the tenants faced with the situation that their housing complex is failing understand that failure in terms of people blaming the tenants themselves; it is therefore completely understandable that tenants groups can be defensive of their tenancies and how they have used them. It is also understandable that the tenants would initially welcome the basic amenities that a modern flat would provide, warmth (when the heating was working), proper sanitary conditions (when the toilets were not blocked or pipes frozen) and having safety and security (before they were regularly broken into and before the playground and nursery were closed). The makers of the Pruitt-Igoe Myth take the initial positive reactions of the tenants they interview about the modern amenities of the flats and the community struggles to defend them – as an endorsement of Purrit-Igoe’s design. And that does not follow. For start it does not explain why so many people left the development before crime levels rocketed (one tenant characterizes life in the development as, “hell on earth”) or why tenants in similar developments after living in a mass high density block for many years still wanted re-housed and the housing complexes demolished.

In presenting the tenants as willing participants in the modernist experience, Frederich’s and his crew commit a procedural error. For in the attempt to reject architectural determinism – that modernist architecture, “leads to this” or that “kind of behavior”, the tenant’s initial acceptance of the amenities at Puritt-Igoe cannot be admitted as evidence, as the architecture is also clearly causing that behavior. Later when everything that should have worked at Puritt-Igoe starts to fail the architecture then understandably ceases to be a cause and becomes simply a void that tragically consumes its tenants. This is reinforced by the filmmaker’s unwillingness to consider seriously those campaigners who wanted the site re-modeled. 

Similarly, if the causes of the Puritt-Igoe disaster should only be laid at the policy makers door and not show how urban plans like these evolved as design solutions to public housing – without the public – then the directors claim to wider social relevancy is compromised. For example there is no indication that the filmmakers even considered that the whole approach to post war urbanism was actually driven by a problematic modernist urbanism – an urbanism where the car and not communities would reign. Modernist urbanism is not just housing it also an environment a “total” planning solution - a total plan where all notions of tradition and established past culture must be abandoned. To infer, as the filmmakers do, that the exclusion of the working class from their own city was not part of modernist design and that the zoning and the monotony of modernist monoculture at Purrit-Igoe were not part of the problem of its design – is more than a mere lapse, it is to miss the very essence of the problem at Puitt-Igoe as a design solution to human urbanity. 

And let’s be clear about the lessons to be learnt. The damage that was done to cities as livable cities by modernist urbanism was recorded well before the demolition of Puritt-Igoe in 1972. For example in the work of Jane Jacobs In The Death and Life of American Cities (1961) the urban alienation that Modernist urbanism brought was already described, which belies the filmmakers concern to counteract the supposed myth of Puritt-Igoe’s failure. 

A critical evaluation of the Pruitt-Igoe disaster would, (be to be worth its salt) have to ask the following questions: was what was built durable livable space for human habitation? And then ask if it was (as the film makers assume) how its tenants were expected to survive the “harsh environment” that had been designed for them? Also needed is an objective evaluation of the tenant’s campaign against the housing authorities. The filmmakers only consider the early campaigns against the dwindling services and maintenance regimes; they do not consider other tenants who campaigned for tenants to be re-housed. This is in keeping with the melancholic approach of the filmmakers who wish to present the tenants loss of Pruitt-Igoe as a modern urban tragedy and not as a struggle that could have ended differently. The filmmakers like most defenders of modernism make the mistake of assuming that Pruitt-Igoe could not be superseded that modernism is an “end of history”. If the makers of the film were truly interested in the poor and their struggles why do they not ask the next basic political question – what is to be done? That’s why you come away from the film with no answers, as the film simply presents the tenants as victims of the welfare and federal authorities.

The judgment of Catherine Bristol (see note and link below) the writer who set out the original revisionist case against the radical account of Pruitt-Igoe by Charles Jencks is not as clear cut as the pro-modernist lobby assume when she writes, "The architects also incorrectly assumed that the [Puritt-Igoe] galleries would help promote community interaction in what was bound to be a harsh environment", Ms Bristol here condemns the design before it was even built and she accuses radicals like Colin Rowe and Charles Jencks as wrong to criticize modernist anti-humanism? 

The work of Jane Jacobs, Charles Jencks, Colin Rowe and important individual studies such as The Modernist City by James Holsten have made that same point. But for direct access to the truth a TV documentary film was needed.  Robert Hughes effectively did that job in 1980 in the documentary Trouble in Utopia. In his conclusion to the history of modernism in architecture and on Puritt-Igoe he distilled the problem down to one sentence, "you can't purify human needs without taking away human freedom". 

Over the years we have seen (and been involved in) in Ireland a number of different housing struggles against discrimination and failed housing developments. Several housing development struggles here could serve as Ireland’s own Pruitt-Igoe – Divis flats in Belfast being once such complex which was demolished after it was initially praised by its tenants. Ballymun in Dublin also has a similar history – a large complex of buildings, (named after war heroes) isolated from the city proper. But it is one aspect of Ballymun that is more wholly relevant here and that is the reactions of the tenants and how they saw their struggles in relation to the public discourse about the problems of their housing. In that much of their efforts appeared to be in defence of their tenancies when they were also campaigning for Ballymun to be remodeled. 

Part of the challenge of the work of critics such as Rowe, Jencks and Hughes is that they showed the reality of the great dream of a Purist-Le Corbusian aesthetic (the tower or groundscaper in the desolate park) was inherently one of tragedy, austerity and brutality (Robert Hughes on Le Corbusier’s Indian city of Chandigarh is even more apposite on this in his film Trouble in Utopia). These writers and filmmakers were dissenters from the post-war consensus - that modernism is good for you – especially if you are poor. They were right to put the case for the opposition and they formed a new consensus outside the academy for a while - now the academy is fighting back.

This writer has tried to show that modernist architecture – particularly on a large mass housing developments are inherently inhuman, involving a negation of traditional urban fabric of city life – to the point were traditional human living is not possible – it is a case that is difficult to make as it involves moving the discussion on to the level that links architecture, social behavior and culture. This is something that the working poor don’t normally have time for, unless someone is able to reach them directly in their homes to explain why they find where they live desolate and alienating. 

Something can and should be done with the large lot or “park” (a rubbish dump with trees) that is now on the St Louis site where Pruitt-Igoe housing complex stood. I know that given that land community groups here would be hot for its reuse and proper development. The makers of the film give no indication of what to do next.  But the one thing they can be certain of is that another Pruitt-Igoe will not be built there. 


Trailer for The Pruitt-Igoe Myth:

Robert Hughes on Pruitt-Igoe:

Catherine Bristol The Pruitt-Igoe Myth – article that inspired the film:

NB. One of the main pegs that Catherine Bristol uses to hang her argument on is her claim that critics of modernist architecture and of Pruitt-Igoe is that they all incorrectly state that Pruitt-Igoe was “award winning”. She claims this “lapse” was “extremely significant” (it isn’t either way), but if the Hughes’ link above is examined an “Honour Award” plaque can be clearly seen attached to the front of the main Pruitt-Igoe building.


Return to top of page