Pruitt-Igoe in Koyaanisqatsi
A recent visit to St. Louis and
an architectural tour made me think about Pruitt-Igoe (P-I) again. I share
the view expressed in this node that the P-I sequence in Koyaanisqatsi
is one of the best, and I think it's worth adding something about
the significance of choosing P-I.
There are plenty of alternatives for those wanting to show footage of dynamiting urban blight (we even see some of it in Koyaanisqatsi), so it can't
simply be that Reggio chose P-I because there was a cannister of film showing its destruction lying around. I think it
plays into the fundamental themes of the movie as epitomized in one of the definitions
of koyaanisqatsi: "a state of life that calls for another way
of living." In a famous remark, architectural critic Charles
Jencks asserted that "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 coup de grâce
It is the end of modernism,
or rather, the visible collapse of the modernist project that makes the P-I
scenes so moving and significant. Other contributors to this node have noted
problems in P-I's quality, design, and construction, but the projects failed at a
deeper level. Modernism was many things, but if you try to think of just a
few words that best describe it you might come up with something like rational,
abstract, and intellectual.
In architecture those principles lead to crisp
formal geometries and simplicity--almost everyone will be able to conjure
up Julius Shulman's iconic photograph of Pierre Koenig's 1959
Case Study House number 22: a clean glass box perched above night-time Los Angeles,
a pool dimly visible in the foreground and happy people within, the lights of
Wilshire Boulevard running along far below in the distant background.
crisp, beautiful lines and slender joints in the glazing which nearly disappear
avoid all of the claptrap of previous architectural styles and the debatable
values those styles lug along with them--a new kind of human, free of the dead
hand of the past, was going to inhabit these structures. Those same crisp lines
(and ideas) can be found in Yamasaki's P-I. Geometry, order, and calculated
interplay of space and corridors were intended to create an environment which
would make people better.
"Pruitt-Igoe was constructed
according to the most progressive ideals of CIAM (the Congress of International
Modern Architects) and it had won an award from the American Institute of
Architects when it was designed in 1951. It consisted of elegant slab blocks
fourteen storeys high with rational 'streets in the air' (which were safe
from cars, but as it turned out, not safe from crime); 'sun, space, and greenery',
which Corbusier had called the 'three essential joys of urbanism' (instead
of conventional streets, gardens, and semi-private space, which he banished).
It had a separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the provision of
play space, and local amenities such as laundries, crèches, and gossip
centres--all rational substitutes for traditional patterns. Moreover, its
purist style, its clean, salubrious hospital metaphor, was meant to instil,
by good example, corresponding virtues in the inhabitants. Good form was to
lead to good content, or at least good conduct; the intelligent planning of
abstract space was to promote healthy behaviour."
There was a strong sense of calling
(perhaps evangelistic fervor is not a bad term) among the modernists. They
were going to make the world better through rational means, implemented through
architecture. The vastly influential Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whom Jencks
has already mentioned, wrote of housing properly done as a "machine for
living"--with only positive connotation of the word 'machine' intended.
If you're thinking that imposing
order and a better lifestyle on people through architecture is more than a little
arrogant, you're not alone. But when modernist fervor was wedded to government
spending, it was a disaster. Modern architecture looks simple, but its simple
lines require an antisepticky cleanliness and interesting materials (which are
usually expensive). Those stunning white and glass boxes look really bad once
they've got some dirt on them, or the landscaping is let go, or the materials
are not kept up. The government spending at P-I not only led to cuts in important
features like ground-level toilets and elevator stops at every other floor,
but there was no way it could keep up with wear and tear of living. The end
result was sabotage by the residents who, whether or not they understood that
they were subjects of social engineering, resented being kicked around, which
they could sense easily enough. The place was a total failure and it can't just
be attributed to deficient design.
building upon all of this unstated backstory, criticizes modernism and a way
of life that seeks to make people better by subjecting them to "machines
for living": itself a state of life that called for another way of living.
The dynamiting of Pruitt-Igoe becomes much more than the removal of ugly vandalized
buildings--it represents society's turning its back on what Pruitt-Igoe stood
for and acknowledging it as a failure, and that is why Jencks could plausibly
identify the end of Pruitt-Igoe with the end of the modern era. Put in different terms, Koyaanisqatsi exposes the arrogance of modern, technological man, and Pruitt-Igoe is an important brick in the structure of Reggio's argument. (You can easily see the same theme in an even more "overarching" way by considering the launching rocket footage in the beginning in conjunction with the destruction of that rocket in mid-career at the movie's end.) The movie can
crack you over the head with its message sometimes, but it can also be sublime.
Ada Louise Huxtable, Kicked a
Building Lately? (1976) pages 48-50.
Lesley Jackson, 'Contemporary'. Architecture and Interiors of the 1950s
Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (5th edition,
1987), from which I took the quotations above (page 9).
George Marcus, Le Corbusier: Inside the Machine for Living (2000).
George McCue and Frank Peters, A Guide to the Architecture of St. Louis
(1989) pages xxix-xxxi.