Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A design competition is underway to re-imagine America's most infamous public housing complex
When Pruitt-Igoe was constructed in the mid-1950s, it was hailed as a triumph over the American slum. But it became exactly that in a matter of years. The infamous St. Louis housing project succumbed to the wrecking ball only 16 years after its completion, its destruction a massive symbol of the death of urban renewal philosophies.
Forty years after its demolition, Pruitt-Igoe is still a dirty word among urbanists. So far, redevelopment has been limited to the site's far west corner, with the construction of a school in 1995. An unplanned urban forest covers the rest.
A new committee is trying to change that. The Pruitt-Igoe Now design competition, led by Michael Allen, director of the nonprofit Preservation Research Office, and Nora Wendl, assistant professor of design at Portland State’s Department of Architecture, is soliciting fresh ideas for the site from around the world.
Pruitt-Igoe, shortly after its completion (image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
The site in its current state (Image courtesy: Flickr/"Joguldi" under a Creative Commons license)
The contest benefits from good timing - the recently released The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History has generated a new wave of interest in the complex. The documentary tries to dispel the notion that Pruitt-Igoe failed because of its architecture and instead focus on the many social complexities that led to its demise.
Its premise may help contestants see beyond the development's well-documented aesthetic failures. That, at least, is Allen's hope. He says the film created "an intellectual foundation" for his project. The Pruitt-Igoe Now competition "deliberately answers the film's consideration of the site," he says.
But those looking to transform the space face a raft of challenges. There are years of unplanned vegetation and possible soil contamination (tests have never been conducted). Though the neighborhoods to the south have been largely rejuvenated, the area to the north is little more than a prototypical "urban prairie." Additionally, designers-to-be face competition from local developer Paul McKee Jr., who has included the Pruitt-Igoe site in his $8 billion Northside redevelopment proposal. McKee Jr. has requested a delay in Allen and Wendl’s competition, to no avail.
But Allen says none of these challenges have deterred designers—already, it has generated interest from around the world.
All submissions are due by March 16, 2012, exactly 40 years since the first day of demolition. Contest winners will be displayed on or near the Pruitt-Igoe site in an effort to encourage locals to think about what they would like to see on the site. "Visionary long range planning is something St. Louis seems to be incapable of doing," says Steve Patterson of Urban Review STL. "Typically the plan is do whatever a developer wants."
Allen says Pruitt-Igoe Now aims to change that. "St. Louis has been too traumatized by its urban renewal failures to want to face that scar," he says. "A new narrative would allow the site to be seen as either a natural or development asset whose future offers the chance for urban innovation."