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Pruitt-Igoe as Historical Figure

Pruitt-Igoe on the Beach: The Long Moment of Modernism’s Birth, Part 1- Pruitt-Igoe as Historical Figure

In 1971, Reyner Banham wrote: “[t]he failure rate of town planning is so high throughout the world that one can only marvel that the profession has not long since given up trying; the history of the art of planning is a giant waste bin of sumptuously forgotten paper projects.” This quote comes from Banham’s book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, wherein he sought to re-imagine the conceptual structure for understanding urbanity (Banham 1971). The 1970s and ‘80s were times when thinking of urbanism as a field of study meant to invent a conceptual framework to model the object of study, and thus a new way to understand the city. Alternative conceptual frameworks from this time period abound: Rowe and Koetter’s Collage City (Rowe & Koetter 1983), Venturi and Scott Brown’s studies of signage and parking in Las Vegas (Venturi, Scott Brown & Izenour 1972) and Pop-culture in sprawling American suburbs (Scott Brown 1971), Banham’s ecologies, Richard Sennett’s class sociology (Sennet 1970), and linguistics (Gandolsonas 1973). All the new directions share modern urbanism as an initial point of departure, as embodied in the propositions of CIAM and the Athens Charter in 1938. In 1972, one year after Banham’s prognostication of crisis in urbanism, the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri was demolished. This event will serve as our moment of departure.

The conversion of Pruitt-Igoe from a material demolition project into a narrated event that gained symbolic importance in architectural criticism in the 1970s ultimately created an avatar for the “death of modernism”, anchoring projective movement toward something beyond modern. A process of reification transcribed Pruitt-Igoe from the external physical world of things, where the housing project was a complex of buildings, to the discursive realm of representation where signifiers take on the material presence of buildings, and finally deposited with renewed ideological weight as components of idea formation and communication. This movement played out explicitly in the ‘70s and ‘80s in the works of Charles Jencks (Jencks 1981) and Colin Rowe (Rowe 1999), and was referenced indirectly in the writings of a generation of architects and critics, becoming a trope in the formation of post-modernism.

The long moment of post-modernism’s birth can be examined synchronically, with the transformation of Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition from material to ideological substance found as a common element in contemporaneous intellectual movements attempting to establish a coherent modern orthodoxy. The similarities in attempts at various architects’ differentiation from modernism, when presented in a synchronic format, appear as convoluted repetitions, where relative positions are traceable only through vague contingencies of value and meaning. The architectural milieu in the 70s and 80s left textual traces of these contingent values in the form of figures, or repeating configurations of historical material. This repetitive format finds complicit support in the composition of and treatment of historical figures in Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach. This analogical inspiration likens the reader-historian of post-modernism’s formation to Glass and Wilson’s listener/viewer, where major aesthetic and intellectual content is conveyed through formal repetition that induces fevered pleasure while eschewing traditional narrative content. We can use Einstein on the Beach as a crutch to reassure us that such repetition can be constructive, evocative, and ultimately fruitful.

Einstein on the Beach: Working with Historical Figures

Work began on Einstein on the Beach in the spring of 1974 in a series of exploratory meetings between Philip Glass and the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson (Glass 1987, 28-9). Both men were interested in making works centered on historical figures; after considering Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, and Gandhi, they decided to focus their efforts on Einstein. The content of their theatrical Gesamtkunstwerk is a series of figures that the two men began forming by mutual agreement in these early meetings: the Train, the Trial, and the Field/Spaceship (ibid, 30). These figures were used to construct a portrait of Einstein that replaced the plot, narrative, and development of conventional theater (ibid, 32). While facts and chronology were included in the final product, “[c]onveying that kind of information, though, was certainly not the point of the work.” (ibid, 32)

Using the three figures to construct an expressive four-and-a-half hour event led to an absence of direct connotative meaning in Einstein that requires the spectator to provide meaning from their own experiences through an affective relation with the material presented. Thus, a performance of Einstein on the Beach does not provide the emotional roadmap that is the mode of expression for traditional narrative:

[A] classical or traditional play is a machine built in a specific way to make the emotional peak always happen in the places the author intended. Various productions, which include the visual elements of sets and costumes as well as acting styles of different schools, are designed to make the machine function precisely. This legacy of Western theater goes back to the Greeks: you can read about precisely this in Aristotle’s Poetics. (ibid, 36)

The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe and the evocation of the death of Modernism, as repeating configurations of historical material, are affective historical figures. These figures are used to structure discursive material for purposes of persuasion. Our goal in this essay will be to identify historical figures relevant to the development of architectural modernism and place them in a field condition open to the affective manipulations of the audience. The text will become a sort of performance or recreation of the figures, as well as a catalogue of their existence and hypotheses about their construction and function.

New questions for an ulterior modernism

Pruitt-Igoe, one of many slum-clearance and redevelopment projects supported by Harry Truman’s Housing Act of 1949, was lauded in the architectural press before its completion in the 1950s. But by the time of its demolition it had become an avatar of the death of modernism, a potent exemplar of the utopian projects mentioned by Banham that appear so “sumptuous” on paper but result in disaster when built. Some early foundations for the critical turn away from large-scale utilization of modernist urbanism were provided by early backlashes to slum-clearance and increased interest in the functioning of traditional urban neighborhoods, like Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs 1961), and Team X’s defection from modernism, leading to CIAM’s dissolution in 1959, both more than a decade before Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition, our point of departure.

The outcomes of this way-laying of modernism in urban planning have been varied. The proliferation of new conceptual frameworks for treating the city since the widespread disenchantment with modernism in the 1970s has conferred richness on the study of our built environment. The irony is that, despite this variety, most of the commonly examined problems of our built environment were problems for which the Modernists sought solutions in the early twentieth century, things like wasteful sprawl, pollution, high construction costs, and inefficient use of resources, all contributing to disparities in the quality of housing available to the public. Le Corbusier’s urban proposals, including linchpins in the canon of utopian modernist planning like the Plan Voisin or the Ville Radieuse, were meant to provide solutions for these continuing problems. However, because of the fall from grace of modernism in urban planning research, the inventive work of creating new conceptual frameworks for understanding the city is rarely used to turn an analytical eye toward modernist precedents from the early twentieth century. Such analysis can unveil diverse modern urban methodologies, which may be more useful than grand narratives of modernism that result in its death. In the next section, we will pull an experimental analysis of the contemporary urban condition from CIAM’s first secretary-general, the historian Sigfried Giedion, and demonstrate that it is an applicable framework for articulating concepts of urban space in early modernism to make them applicable to planning problems today.


Part 2 >


  • Banham, R. 1971. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Harper & Row: New York.

  • Gandelsonas, M. 1973. “Linguistics in Architecture.” Casabella, Vol. 374 (February).

  • Glass, P. 1987. Music by Philip Glass. Dunvagen Music Publishers, Inc: New York.

  • Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House: New York.

  • Jencks, C. 1981. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc: New York.

  • Rowe, C. 1999. “The Present Urban Predicament: Some Observations.” In, As I Was Saying: Recollections and Miscellaneous Essays vol. 3. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.

  • Rowe, C, & F. Koetter. 1983. Collage City. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.

  • Scott Brown, D. 1971. “Learning from Pop.” Casabella, Vol. 359-60 (December).

  • Sennett, R. 1970. The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life. Knopf: New York.

  • Venturi, R., D. Scott Brown, & S. Izenour. 1972. Learning from Las Vegas. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.

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