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 by dynamite."

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.

Those 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.

Jencks again:

"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.

Koyaanisqatsi, therefore, 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 (1994).
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.