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Modeling the Contemporary Context: Pruitt-Igoe as Historical Figure

Pruitt-Igoe on the Beach, Part 4- Modeling the Contemporary Context: Pruitt-Igoe as Historical Figure

When architecture critics latched onto the failure of Pruitt-Igoe to deliver a revolution in social housing in the 1970s, they vested the project with significance that created a historical figure bridging between Modernist precedents and possible future trajectories. This figure was concisely articulated by Charles Jencks:

Modern Architecture died in St Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. (Jencks 1981, 9)

This figuration of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition necessitates a single, static frame. Even though the demolition was a series of events on a variety of sites at different times, in the figure a single event in a particular space synecdochically acts as a guiding concept for evaluating decades of architectural work.

The Pruitt-Igoe figure sums up an entire stretch of architectural history with a void, an empty site within which nothing has been placed. Immediately after declaring the ruins left by the demolition to be a “great architectural symbol,” Jencks recommends that the rubble should remain on the site, “preserved as a warning” (ibid). Jencks was astute enough in forming his case for “The Death of Modernism” to reveal his conscious deployment of the Pruitt-Igoe figure as a didactic tool charged only with the obscurity of polemic pleasure, having little to do with substantive or logical discussion:

Rather than a deep extended attack on modern architecture, showing how its ills relate very closely to the prevailing philosophies of the modern age, I will attempt a caricature, a polemic. . . . to cut through the large generalities with a certain abandon and enjoyment, overlooking all the exceptions and subtleties of the argument. Caricature is of course not the whole truth. Daumier’s drawings didn’t really show what nineteenth-century poverty was about, but rather gave a highly selective view of some truths. Let us then romp through the desolation of modern architecture, and the destruction of our cities . . . bemused by the sad but instructive mistakes of a former architectural civilisation. After all, since it is fairly dead, we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse. (Jencks 1981, 10)

Jencks admits that the only way to kill Modernism is to oversimplify it, to reduce it to figures for the sake of clarity. Caricatures are used to fight caricatures; figures are fought with figures in the irrational shadow-boxing ring that is the crucible of value formation. If we add the Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe / Death of Modernism figure to Giedion’s set of three historic space-time figures, we can adapt our discussion of a synthetic frame for comprehending urban space-time to the contemporary practice of architecture and urbanism after the fall of Modernism. Le Corbusier’s choices in graphic representation for the content of the Pavillon de L’Esprit Nouveau exhibit show that this polemical characterization of the city (Jenks’s architectural civilization) is not a new rhetorical strategy for inciting a reconfiguration of architectural thinking, where the viewer is a receiver of messages conveyed by seductive drawings and models, with the architect/planner playing the role of the agent of technocratic power. But again, the spatial format of Le Corbusier's Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau tells a different, more nuanced and contradictory story than the graphic materials presented inside, where the spatial ensemble charged the viewer with an agency of navigation and recognition. The Pavillon placed the viewer in a role similar to that of Michel de Certeau’s productive consumer of media, a role that combines the passivity of consumption with the dangerous and unpredictable energy of creative, inventive production (Certeau 2002).

If the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe killed the abstract presentation of Le Corbusier’s modernism, it left another tradition with many of the same precedents unscathed. Linking the failures of Pruitt-Igoe to a larger failure of modernism parallels the causal linkage of architectural and social form that was one of modernism’s most frequently criticized assumptions. The massive failures of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis and other iconic post-war public housing projects like Cabrini Green in Chicago and Schuylkill Falls in Philadelphia, can just as easily be linked to a complex web of issues: bureaucratic incompetence, contractor profiteering, political feuds, and spiraling construction costs (Euchner & McGovern 2003), as they can to architectural modernism’s “purist language”, “rational ‘streets in the air’”, and “separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic” or various “rational substitutes for traditional patterns” (Jencks 1981, 9, 10). Le Corbusier’s built works, paintings, and publications indicate the use of a synthetic framework that mixes scales, media, and discursive formats to induce a rethinking of architecture, urbanity, and the human condition in general. That this content has been rendered obscure by the expectations fostered by minds conditioned to the static conceptual frame is of little concern if we want to find what survives in the void in architectural discourse indexed by the trope of Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition.

Moving Beyond the Modern: Jencks and the Unités

In Jencks’s version of the contemporary architectural milieu, Le Corbusier’s later works, especially the Unités and the Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp, fill the void left open within the Pruitt-Igoe figure. Jencks uses these works to bridge the ideological gap produced in architectural discourse by Pruitt-Igoe's spectacular failure to solve the problems of the urban working classes. Jencks fills in the Pruitt-Igoe figure by identifying the fully logical, static and totalized ideality of Pruitt-Igoe as an urban proposal, a condition he identifies as a univalent form, and by contrasting it with a condition of ambivalence (Jencks 1981). His definition of a Post-Modern building is one that:

speaks on at least two levels at once: to other architects and a concerned minority who care about specifically architectural meanings, and to the public at large, or the local inhabitants, who care about other issues concerned with comfort, traditional building and a way of life. (ibid, 6)

This contrasts with modernist space which, “[b]esides being isotropic, it can be characterised as abstract, limited by boundaries or edges, and rational or logically inferable from part to whole, or whole to part” (ibid, 118).

Jencks’s definition of Post-modernism in architecture has a tantalizing anachronistic quality. Highly abstract, early modernist works like Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche exhibit several Post-Modern themes, like backlighting, punched-out screen spaces and implied extension created by overlapping planes (ibid). Particularly pertinent to our discussion of space-time figures, Jencks specifies that “[i]f Le Corbusier’s space is the equivalent of a Cubist collage, then Post-Modern space is as dense and rich as a Schwitters Merz” (ibid). It seems that the problem of positioning an architecture of the present in relation to modernism has more to do with language and conceptual methodology than with any aspect of architectural precedents. What Jencks identifies as a double-coded ambivalence at the root of post-modernism does not lead to an adequate differentiation between modern and post-modern architecture. So, what Jencks calls double-coded ambivalence, I propose we call dynamic framing.

Dynamic framing was a constituent component of modernism, as indicated by Giedion’s desire for the synthetic frame to attain an understanding of industrial space-time. Jencks’s basis of ambivalence in architectural Post-modernism on the language of the Unités and Ronchamp would lead him to analyze Le Corbusier’s career as a series of six successive revolutions, articulating the heroic modernist as transitional figure who “strode across categories, often ushering them in” (Jencks 2000, 10). Le Corbusier has a strange way of both epitomizing and defying architectural concepts and categories, his work always uncanny in its symptomatic expression of the most prominent courses emerging and ending in dynamic milieu of practice. Just as Le Corbusier’s projects in the 1920s served Giedion in the construction of new theories of structure and development of historical periods in art and architecture applicable to the emergence of modernism, a generation later, Corbu’s work served Jencks as inspiration to embark on a career in architecture and to theorize the structure and development of an emergent post-modern condition (ibid, 9). Evaluating Le Corbusier’s oeuvre was fundamental for establishing a contemporary position for architectural practice for Jencks in the 1980s. Given the still expanding list of scholarly works devoted to Le Corbusier each year (the present text included), we may suppose that his position as a touchstone for contemporary value formation in architecture continues today.

The short-term effects of circulation of the Pruitt-Igoe Figure: 5th figure- Whites vs. Grays

In the U.S., the language of architectural modernism was largely bleached of the socialist and utopian goals that fueled its development by the European avant-garde. Colin Rowe’s introduction to Five Architects, the 1972 publication that documented the work of the New York architects represented in Arthur Drexler’s 1969 CASE exhibit at the MoMA, confirms that the conceits of the architects therein existed in a formal realm held separate from prevailing ideologies and theories (Rowe 1975, 4). The New York Five expressed a new-found freedom to pillage the formal language of modernism, Le Corbusier in particular. This opportunity was gained only after the collective conclusion of modernism’s death and subsequent cultural irrelevance.

Using the terminology thus far deployed, Pruitt-Igoe as the Death of Modernism became a trope grounding a new genre of discourse in architecture: the battle of the Whites vs. the Grays. Robert Stern concisely described this figure and its role in the foundation of a post-modern architectural position in the 1970s:

This debate [the quarrel between the “Whites” and the “Grays”] begun at the Californian School of Architecture in Los Angeles in May 1974, has become a permanent dialogue between two groups of architects who try to define and clarify, through their projects and their theoretical research, the direction which Architecture could take since the Modern Movement has ended. (Stern 1976, all quotations from this source are the present author’s translation)

For Stern, modernism in architecture was indeed dead in 1976, and contemporary practitioners had the same relationship with modernism as they would have with the Beaux Arts academicism of the nineteenth century: a set of values and methods from a moment in history not supported by continued cultural practice (ibid). To believe in the terms of a White vs. Gray debate, one would also need to believe wholeheartedly in our fourth figure—the void of architectural practice as played out in the ritualized destruction of Pruitt-Igoe.

Within the White/Gray Figure, modernism is no longer valid cultural material. Establishing a Post-modernism was an attempt “to escape from the impasse of orthodox modernism currently lacking any significance” (ibid). In Stern’s understanding, the “Whites” were content with continuing to explore amongst the materials of orthodox modernism while deliberately taking advantage of the materials’ lack of cultural relevance. The work of the “Grays” was distinguished from that of the “Whites” by certain characteristic strategies: the use of ornament for the sole sake of decoration; formal manipulation indicating explicit historical references; use of orthodox modernist strategies as well as an eclectic selection of pre-modern strategies; stress on voluntarily deformed, non-platonic geometries; use of rich colors and materials to create an architecture of perception and image, specifically contrasted to brutalism and its stress on the material expression of technology; stress on intermediary spaces and poché; configuration of spaces via lighting and view rather than use/function; use of images to convey ideas in buildings (ibid). These eight “Gray” strategies can easily be read as a laundry-list of grievances with orthodox modernism as received by Stern, who sums up the common point of contrast at the heart of a “Gray” Post-modernism:

At the root of the Grays’ position one finds the rejection of the anti-symbolic, anti-historic, hermetic and highly abstract architecture of the modern orthodoxy. The ‘Grays’ accept diversity, they prefer hybrid forms over pure forms, and they encourage the diversification and simultaneity of language to enlarge expressive content. (ibid)

The myopic character of this vision of modernism that typifies the milieu at the birth of Post-modernism is evidenced by the presence within orthodox modernism of diversity, hybridity, and simultaneity, citing the dynamic strain of Le Corbusier’s urbanisms analyzed earlier as a case in point.

Several years after Stern’s establishment of White vs. Gray as the terms for the contemporary debate on the direction for architectural practice, the inaugural editorial of the Harvard Architectural Review, “Beyond the Modern Movement” (1980), continued to add to the reified weight of Stern’s figure. If orthodox modernism had long since become “disconnected from recollections and memories grown stale and unhelpful (ibid, 5), a figure that posited a new position by contrast with a perceived modernist orthodoxy still had palpable relevance. The Harvard editorial identified five areas of concern, “each in contradistinction to Modernism”, each featuring a vision of modernism that can only be described as symptomatic. The five contrasts were: emphasis on relevance of history vs. Modernism’s severance of ties with its forebears; cultural allusionism that uses existing systems of expressive forms vs. Modernism’s use of mills and factories to shock audiences into revolutionary endeavors; a gradual erosion of utopia to work with “what is” rather than “what should be”, contrasted with Modernism’s blatant utopianism; utilization of the traditional city as a starting-point for theorizing about the city vs. Modernism’s “image of the new city”; and the rejection of formal restrictions, contrasted with Modernism’s rejection of traditional formal languages (ibid, 5-7). Again, we can cite Le Corbusier’s Modern urbanisms as “contradistinctions” to this vision of “Modernism”, indicating that these distinctions are symptomatic an overly reductive value system. The post-modern position in architecture is based in large part on a modernism in architecture that never existed, requiring a streak of inventive revision in the latter half of the twentieth century that is remarkably similar to the inventions birthed by the avant-gardes and modernists in the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s.


< Part 3 Part 5 >


  • “Beyond the Modern Movement.” 1980. Editorial. Harvard Architectural Review, vol. 1, Spring.

  • Certeau, M. de 2002. The Practice of Everyday Life. Steven Randall, trans. University of California Press, Berkeley.

  • Euchner, C. & S. McGovern. 2003. Urban Policy Reconsidered: Dialogues on the Problems and Prospects of American Cities. Routledge: New York.

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

  • Jencks, C. 2000. Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture. The Monacelli Press: New York.

  • Rowe, C. 1975. Five Architects: Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey, Hejduk, Meier. Oxford University Press: New York.

  • Stern, R. 1976. “Gray Architecture: Quelques variations post-modernistes autour de l’orthodoxie.” L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, Vol. 186 (August-September).

#pruittigoe #charlesjencks #deathofmodernism #historicalfigure #dynamicframing #postmodernism #lecorbusier

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