SN: the following is most likely a textbook example of misguided ‘master planning’ and urban densification for students of architecture, urban planning, and public policy. I find it to be an amazing history of how the best of intentions for public housing became the nightmare of impoverished project dwellings of our recent past in the US. I was previously unaware of the following history of St. Louis and it is definitely a cautionary tale worth sharing…

Pruitt-Igoe: the troubled high-rise that came to define urban America

If you propose a high-rise public housing project in America, your opponents will almost certainly use Pruitt-Igoe as a rhetorical weapon against you – and defeat you with it. The Captain WO Pruitt Homes and William L Igoe Apartments, a racially segregated, middle-class complex of 33 11-storey towers, opened to great fanfare on the north side of St Louis between 1954 and 1956. But within a decade, it would become a decrepit warehouse exclusively inhabited by poor, black residents. Within two decades, it would undergo complete demolition.

Whether you call Pruitt-Igoe’s short, troubled existence a failure of architecture, a failure of policy, or a failure of society, its fate remains bound up with, and reflective of, the fate of many American cities in the mid-20th century.

Even before the dust settled from the infamous, widely televised 1972 implosion of one of Pruitt-Igoe’s buildings (the last of which wouldn’t fall until 1976), the argument that the design had doomed it gained serious traction. Architectural historian Charles Jencks cites that much-seen dynamiting as the moment “modern architecture died”.

Those inclined to read the story of Pruitt-Igoe as a morality play of 20th-century architectural hubris tend to describe the design, laughingly, as “award-winning” when in fact it won no such thing. Architectural Forum did praise his original proposal as 1951’s “best high apartment”, citing its spatial efficiency, allowance for plenty of outdoor green space and innovations such as limited-stop elevators. But in 1965, the magazine re-examined the reality of the project and declared it a failure.

Pruitt-Igoe became a byword for the kind of dysfunctional urban abyss that, during the decades of “white flight” after the second world war, Americans who had the means believed they were escaping by moving out of cities. From the safety of their new, suburban communities, they looked upon central cities as too dirty, too crowded, too criminal – and, in many regions of the country, too black.

Not even Pruitt-Igoe’s heartiest apologists would call it a success. Its 2,870 units reached a peak of 91% occupancy in 1957, a figure that would plummet below 35% by 1971, when just 600 people remained in the 17 of the complex’s buildings that were not yet boarded up. Reports proliferated of property crime, gang activity, drug dealing, prostitution and murder. Heaters, toilets, garbage incinerators and electricity all malfunctioned, and at one point the faulty plumbing let loose floods of raw sewage through the hallways.

Even today, when our eyes have supposedly grown accustomed to all manner of developments meant to shock us with their sheer incongruity, aerial photographs of the Pruitt-Igoe complex give you pause. There it stands, like a poor man’s Ville Radieuse, on 23 freshly cleared hectares of St Louis’s existing urban fabric, looking utterly alien to the miles of low-rise 19th and early 20th-century brick structures surrounding it.

But these images of Pruitt-Igoe have a much less firm a place in the culture than those of Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction, an event that – though commentators have used it in the service of a variety of political points – on balance reinforced the American fear of the type of tall, high-density housing that is so common today in the rich cities of east Asia.