January 28, 2012

Maybe it wasn't all Le Corbu's fault?

Among many other writers on architecture, such as the witty Charles Jencks, Tom Wolfe gleefully celebrated the 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis as one in the eye for the modernist style of architecture that he disliked. But a New York Times critic notes that, hey, wait a minute, there are a lot of Le Corbusier-style apartment towers still around that aren't vertical hellholes. What gives?
Tower of Dreams: One Ended in Nightmare
Michael Kimmelman 
I went to Penn South this week, having seen “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,” Chad Freidrichs’s shattering documentary, now at the IFC Center. Pruitt-Igoe was the notorious St. Louis public-housing complex, demolished in 1972. Images of imploded Pruitt-Igoe buildings, broadcast worldwide, came to haunt the American consciousness. Critics of welfare, big government and modern architecture all used the project as a whipping boy. “The day that modern architecture died,” Charles Jencks, the architect and apostle of postmodernism, called the demolition. 
Penn South (started a half century ago by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union) is a cooperative in affluent, 21st-century Manhattan past which chic crowds hustle every day to and from nearby Chelsea’s art galleries, apparently oblivious to it. It thrives within a dense, diverse neighborhood of the sort that makes New York special. Pruitt-Igoe, segregated de facto, isolated and impoverished, collapsed along with the industrial city around it. 
But they’re both classic examples of modern architecture, the kind Mr. Jencks, among countless others, left for dead: superblocks of brick and concrete high rises scattered across grassy plots, so-called towers in the park, descended from Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City.” The words “housing project” instantly conjure them up. 
Alienating, penitential breeding grounds for vandalism and violence: that became the tower in the park’s epitaph. But Penn South, with its stolid redbrick, concrete-slab housing stock, is clearly a safe, successful place. In this case the architecture works. In St. Louis, where the architectural scheme was the same, what killed Pruitt-Igoe was not its bricks and mortar. (Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the World Trade Towers, was the architect.) 
The lesson these two sites share has to do with the limits of architecture, socially and economically, never mind what some architects and planners promise or boast. The two projects, aesthetic cousins, are reminders that no typology of design, no matter how passingly fashionable or reviled, guarantees success or failure: neither West Village-style brownstones nor towers in the park nor titanium-clad confections. This is not to say architecture is helpless, only that it is never destiny and that it is always hostage to larger forces.

iSteve readers won't have too much trouble figuring out why the same architectural style led to different fates in Pruitt-Igoe, which had been the boyhood home of two future heavyweight champs, Leon and Michael Spinks, and Penn South, a private co-op started by a heavily Jewish union for its members. I noticed about 1983 that the modernist high rise I was living in in Chicago was about the same style as the notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. 

Most of the comments sounded pretty clueless, but this one was pretty good:
Thank you for this. Too often, we are force-fed the notion that high-rise buildings for the poor and working class was a failed idea of the past that can never work. We are told the only solution to the nation's housing problems are "mixed-income" low-rise buildings. This has served as a cover for the demolition of thousands of units of affordable housing and subsequent dislocation of the poor (and Federal subsidiziation of middle class in the replacement houses). The replacement low-rise homes in places like Chicago or St. Louis might look better to suburban eyes, but in reality they are a massive waste of taxpayer money - often subsidized to the tune of 2-300k per unit. Properly maintaining the buildings, and making sure services, employment and management of the buildings are there, are much more efficient uses of taxpayer money.

In other words, the current orthodoxy that public housing projects for poor people should be low to the ground less reflects some design theory breakthrough than it does the covert realization that if you don't stack poor people up high, then you can't have as many around you. Most of them will have to go somewhere else, far away from you. So, of course, all sensitive, sophisticated Chicagoans now want a handful of handpicked poor people to enjoy lovely lowrise accommodations ... because that means that the rest of them have to go live in Champagne-Urbana or Round Lake Beach or somewhere else far away from Chicago. 

This is not to say that one need not be careful about the interaction of the types of buildings and the types of residents. For example, my experience at Rice U. was that it was a really bad idea to house 250 young men, especially young engineering majors, in the only high rise on campus.The urge to drop stuff from 14 floors up is a powerful one in the 19-year-old's mind, especially when all your rivals live in much lower dormitories over which you, possessing the high ground, can easily exert military dominance. It turns out that you can build a giant slingshot out of rubber surgical tubing and shoot water balloons about 300 yards with fair accuracy. You just have four guys stand on the edge of the balcony holding the ends of the surgical tubing, then have have a couple of pullers draw the slingshot back across the big lobby, then call the elevator and pull the water balloon all the way to the back of the elevator, from whence you let it fly. 

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have such regard for Rice alumni. In their honor, I've requested that Giger do a sculpture featuring them as subject components. I've envisioned it as a pyramid built in an interior courtyard of Rice U. Perhaps he could start on Baker 13 using your slingshot. After amassing as many bodies into the sculpture as he possibly can, I suggest a layer of bronze tint powdered with glitter then shellacked.

Hail said...

OT, but on a theme Steve has touched on hundreds of times in the past years:

Ron Paul blamed "affirmative action" for the Housing Bubble/Crash in the most recent debate.

Watch from 5.15 to 5.30 in that link.

Anonymous said...

Similar in the UK.
In the 1960s, 'Tower Blocks' were seen as the way foward, modern, futuristic, brutalist, Le Corbusier and all that, and governments of the time, both Labour and Tory were actually very keen to clear Victorian slum houses and house Britain's poorly acoomodated people (something which they now couldn't give a sh*t about).
Anyhow with 1960s efficeint tecnlogy and government grants, tower blocks were built all over the UK, particularly London.None were built after the oil shock of 1973 or the 'Ronan Point' disaster (a faulty gas cooker connection took out half the corner of a tower).Unfortuantely, a very big proportion of those housed in tower blocks were scummy chavvy types who soon made an utter nuisance of themselves, pissing in elevators (atavistic scent marking behavior, in fact), blocking rubbish chutes and spraying graffitti.By the mid 70s TV programs made by lefties, describing the tenants as prisoners in ivory towers, helped to turn public opinion and perception against tower blocks which intially seen as modern and space age became to seen as chav infested hell holes.
The irony is that a few council run tower blocks (notably the iconic Erno Goldfinger designed Trellick Tower in Kensington), which escaped chavvification have become desired yuppie residences.Similar for Wandworth Council's Falcon Estate, which was evacuated after asbestos was found.The chavs were cleared out, the tower sold to a private developer, the asbestos was ripped out and the estate was turned into gated yuppie flats and it's never looked back since.

dearieme said...

Yeah, the mistake in London (for example) was said to be to expect people to live happily in flats (in tower blocks). Meantime, most of Edinburgh lived happily in flats (in tenements) - especially in the 18th century "New Town". Golly, they provided a lovely urban way of life.

Jeff Burton said...

Sid Richardson College, Sid Richardson College, Sid Richardson College, Death From Above!

Anonymous said...

For example, my experience at Rice U. was that it was a really bad idea to 250 young men, especially young engineering majors, in the only high rise on campus.The urge to drop stuff from 14 floors up is a powerful one in the 19-year-old's mind, especially when all your rivals live in much lower dormitories over which you, possessing the high ground, can easily exert military dominance. It turns out that you can build a giant slingshot out of rubber surgical tubing and shoot water balloons about 300 yards with fair accuracy. You just have four guys stand on the edge of the balcony holding the ends of the surgical tubing, then have have a couple of pullers draw the slingshot back across the big lobby, then call the elevator and pull the water balloon all the way to the back of the elevator, from whence you let it fly.

As an undergraduate, we would put [almost golfball-sized] river pebbles in our slingshots and shoot them a couple of hundred yards [sailing over the famous campus landmark] at our rival dormitory.

In retrospect, if any of those had actually hit someone [particularly in the head], then they might have been killed.

Then in graduate school [completely different university, almost 500 miles away], our college had steaming hot water in the pipes, and we'd get these massive over-sized balloons and fill them up with [almost boiling] hot water and then [VERY GENTLY!] ease the beach-ball sized balloons out our window on the top floor.

When they hit they ground, they'd explode and send steaming hot mud all over the chicks who were sitting on the wall looking out at the volley ball court and the golf course.

Oh man.

Good times.

Really seriously good times.

Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I think I've noted before in ypur comments that some London high-rise flats, dangerous and vandalised when inhabited by council tenants, became desirable properties when sold off and occupied by young urban professionals.

Laban

Some one said...

Maybe Le Corbusier didn't have in mind that his architectural style would be synonymous with ethnic under-class ghettoes.

Spreading the poor people is a better idea anyway, so they can't organise themselves for crime, riots and so on...

Let's! said...

"...the covert realization that if you don't stack poor people up high, then you can't have as many around you."

This is counter-intuitive. I understand the Cabrini Green was near some nice real estate, but in general it would seem that NAM population density is directly proportional to the availability of suitable Affordable Family Formation land.

Anonymous said...

"The urge to drop stuff from 14 floors up is a powerful one in the 19-year-old's mind, especially when all your rivals live in much lower dormitories over which you, possessing the high ground, can easily exert military dominance."

Boys will be boys.

Anonymous said...

If blacks do something wrong, the fault is with the building, the school, with white people, with anything but blacks.
If a black person spills milk, 'milk spilled from him' than 'he spilled the milk'. It's the milk's fault, and we need to figure out how to bio-engineer cows that will produce 'non-racist' milk that will NOT spill from black people's hands.

White people think this way out of guilt, condescension, and fear. Guilt because the assumption is that many blacks are messed up because of history of oppression. Condescension because the unspoken assumption is that too many blacks are too stupid to be treated like most people. Fear because if you criticize blacks, the likes of Al Sharpton and Eric Holder(and NAACP)will come after you in full force.

Anonymous said...

I used to live in a housing project for a few yrs in my childhood. It was like the UN. Poor and working class whites, immigrants of all color, blacks, Hispanics, etc. Most people got along, and the place had a vibrancy about it. And most people minded their own business. Most of the problems that did exist were caused by blacks. Typical incident. A black guy enters the elevator and starts banging the soft ball all around, smashing the numbers in glass showing what floor the elevator is on. Another time, a kid goes trick or treating in the building and a bunch of blacks beats her up for the hell of it. The building wasn't pretty but it was livable(except for the damn roaches). The problem was with the blacks.

Zazooza said...

We also have another generation of low-income public housing to learn from.

After the Pruit-Igoe era towers fell into ruin, cities moved the vibrant residents into "scattered site" housing where there would be "eyes on the streets" which would generate social miracles.

But, alas, after 30 years, the scattered site housing is burned out and boarded up. Drive along Cicero Avenue in Chicago to see what happened to the wave of public housing after Cabrini Green.

Svigor said...

Lol, we did the giant slingshot thing in my neighborhood growing up. We used telephone poles on either side of the street. I don't know how far they flew, but 300 yards is definitely in the ballpark.

veracitor said...

Towers unavoidably generate one problem when filled with undesirables: stinking, broken elevators and dark stairwells filled with broken glass, discarded needles, infectious filth, and muggers.

Low-rise housing may use land inefficiently but at least residents can get in and out of their units without funneling through the gantlet of an elevator/stairwell complex.

ATBOTL said...

Le Corbusier has long been unfairly maligned by American right wingers. You'd have a hard time finding an important European intellectual of the 20th Century whose political beliefs were closer to American conservatives than he.

People should keep in mind than many high rise housing projects replaced substandard housing that included features like shared bathrooms. In the NYC area, there are many Le Corbusier style buildings that are privately owned and occupied by middle class to wealthy people.

SFG said...

You know, MIT's famously creative engineering hacks always seemed to aim more towards irony (cop cars on top of buildings with doughnut boxes inside, turning the top of the Great Dome into the One Ring). Does this reflect the difference between Massachusetts and Texas, or am I reading tea leaves here?

Chicago said...

Using the term "the poor" in these discussions of social policy is misleading as it's a catch-all term to describe those whose known incomes are considered to be low. Thus someone out of work with a serious, expensive health condition is in the same category as a young, burly ex-con just recently paroled. They are both "poor". It's an emotive word bringing up an image of suffering, and we know all those who suffer are noble. There's been barriers to breaking the category down into deserving and undeserving "poor".
When they talk about redistributing the poor they are actually talking about spreading out the worthless. That way they might not gang up so much and hopefully, just through some form of osmosis, take on a middle class outlook. Doesn't happen, though. We need new categories to clarify what we're talking about, maybe like this: elderly on fixed income and those unable to earn much due to disabilities; those who have too many instabilities to hold jobs for long; the worthless.

Anonymous said...

When I lived at Sid Rich (the Rice high-rise to which Steve is referring), the rule was that the only thing that could be dropped from the balconies was "free-flowing water." But the giant slingshot stories were legendary.

Sid Richardson College earned its "Death from Above" ("Mors de Super") motto.

David said...

Architecture can fix homo sapiens about as well as alchemy can.

The number one problem of people was and remains people, in all their variety.

No lipstick will turn a pig into a beauty queen.

Mr. Anon said...

Pruitt-Igoe did at least inspire that thrilling piece of music that Phillip Glass wrote for the remarkable film "Koyaanisqatsi" (and which was later used in that vile piece of trash called "The Matrix").

Thrasymachus said...

http://deconstructingleftism.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/the-green-city-a-world-without-blacks/

Reg C├Žsar said...

While researching Yamasaki, I learned that his original plan for Pruitt-Igoe was a mix of low-rise and high-rise. But the St. Louis housing authority nixed that-- the all-high-rise which was built was evidently more "cost-effective".

Yamasaki has been accused of being arrogant, but in truth I think he was more wishy-washy than the average architect, often acceding to the wishes-- even stupid wishes-- of his clients.

(Incidentally, while the rest of his family in Seattle was interned, he was off in the U.S. Army designing bunkers. That's one way to stay free! [Actually, he had already moved to the Midwest before the war started.])

So yes, the demographics was hopeless to begin with, but the criticisms of the architecture are still valid, no matter who lives there. That the Chinese can thrive in places equally ugly and inhuman says something about them, too.

Ray Sawhill said...

Skipping over the "what to do about public housing for the poor" issue for a sec ...

The main case against Corbu-style skyscraper-in-a-park-style development isn't that it NEVER works, it's that its batting average is so incredibly low. Kimmelman doesn't want to deal with this because (like many arts journalists, especially of the type you're likely to run into in the pages of the NYTimes), he's deeply committed to the idea of modernism, which in his mind represents progressivism, rationalism, the idea that enlightened elites can design benevolent and successful top-down structures that the rest of us will flourish in (and be grateful for). Why? Well, because he's an arts intellectual and that's what they believe.

In actual and practical fact, there really are modes of building and developing that have had better and worse batting averages, and the tower-in-the-park one has had one of the worst batting averages ever. It's probably the worst disaster in the history of architecture.

Anyone who wants to explore some of these ideas and some of this history might enjoy Christopher Alexander's "Timeless Way of Building" and "A Pattern Language," David Sucher's "City Comforts," Sarah Susanka's books, "Patterns of Home" by a bunch of authors, and the (much more theoretical and abstract) work of Nikos Salingaros.

Forgive the self-promotion, but I did a q&a with Nikos at my old blog. He's great. Get to all five parts of the interview from here:

LINK

Anonymous said...

Pruitt-Igoe's architect, Yamasaki, later remarked: “I never thought people were that destructive.”

The aerial photos of Pruitt right after it was completed are kind of bizarre. It's row after row of perfect looking, regimented white high rises contained in a neat square and surrounded by a sprawl of 19th century brown brick buildings. It looks as if alien invaders had leveled several dozen blocks and then rebuilt in their own style.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but the difference between Pruitt-Igoe and Penn South is rental vs. owner-occupied, so all the writer has demonstrated is that owners take care off their property. As if often said, no one washes the rental car before returning it...
Forbes

Anonymous said...

Jane Jacobs, Jane Jacobs, Jane Jacobs.

Eh, why bother, who listens.

Anonymous said...

Yet again, you start with conclusions and twist the facts to meet your conclusions.

Contrary to popular belief, the Cabrini Green housing projects did NOT have high residential density. They had a mere *50* housing units/acre, owing to the acres and acres of greenspace surrounding them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUvR9QNAzvc

"In other words, the current orthodoxy that public housing projects for poor people should be low to the ground less reflects some design theory breakthrough than it does the covert realization that if you don't stack poor people up high, then you can't have as many around you."

Perhaps this is true in some parallel alternate universe, but not in this one.

Darfur Miller said...

So, of course, all sensitive, sophisticated Chicagoans now want a handful of handpicked poor people to enjoy lovely lowrise accommodations ... because that means that the rest of them have to go live in Champagne-Urbana or Round Lake Beach or somewhere else far away from Chicago.

If Revilo P. Oliver wasn't rolling over in his grave already, he will be now!

Anonymous said...

"Does this reflect the difference between Massachusetts and Texas, or am I reading tea leaves here?"

It does reflect a difference in people though I'm pretty sure it can't be attributed to socialization. How quaint your believing that Rice U is filled to the brim with the high IQ offspring of Texas ranchers.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:42 PM:

Contrary to popular belief, the Cabrini Green housing projects did NOT have high residential density. They had a mere *50* housing units/acre, owing to the acres and acres of greenspace surrounding them.

Anonymous 2:13 PM:

Jane Jacobs, Jane Jacobs, Jane Jacobs.

Eh, why bother, who listens.

Bingo.

Urbanists like Jacobs have long pointed out that Corbu-style Towers in the Park[ing lot] had the same or lower densities than the main-street walk-ups they typically replaced.

But you have to distinguish between different kinds of density.

And, of course, between different kinds of population. No doubt a population of lumpenproletarians will trash any neighbourhood. Equally, a wealthy, educated population will always be well behaved.

This doesn't mean that urban form has no effect whatsoever. Consider a scruffy but viable working-class/immigrant neighbour somewhere, one that could go up or down. There, the glaring design flaws of the Corbu model can do real damage: vast areas of unsupervised semi-public space, large numbers of units on the same entrances, etc. And the pro-social features that Jacobs identified in the trad model can really do good: eyes on the street, etc.

Cennbeorc

Svigor said...

I don't mind somebody like Wolfe cheering, because you know there's a "Mwahahaha" in there somewhere. It's the people who lack the introspection to even understand that they're chasing away the Blacks who you want to grab by the neck and rub their faces in what they've actually done.

TGGP said...

The theory they're mocking is "architectural determinism".

Regarding renting vs owning, it sounded plausible to me, but as Steve (and others) have pointed out, Compton actually had a pretty high home ownership rate.

DCThrowback said...

1.) @Hail:

Here's a couple of quotes from the very odious Adam Serwer on Paul's thoughts on affirmative action's role in the housing crisis:

1

and

2

Paul is on to something if it moves Serwer to move into reflexive "racism!!1!(!*!" mode.

2.) I was once given a $50 fine/10 hours of community service as a freshman at my undergraduate institution for throwing snow balls off the roof of our 6 floor dorm's ceiling at 2am. Incredibly, alcohol not involved.

FredR said...

I enjoyed Anthony Daniels' article about Le Corbusier, which begins: "Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform," so much that I can't now go ahead and stop blaming him for everything.

Loose Age said...

While in my second yr. at Univ. of Science Music and Culture (USMC)RVN campus, we'd lob 81mm mortars over the wire at short brown people! Improved the gene pool...you're welcome Pussies.

Anonymous said...

Dearime - I see what you are getting at, but a high rise with 100s of families within is not quite the same as a tenement with maybe only 6. Defensible space and all that.

Anonymous said...

Seem to be quite a few Rice alum reading iSteve. When I was at Rice (Brown College) throwing stuff off the roof was all the rage. IIRC, they even had a Friday afternoon "study break" (i.e., kegger) sanctioned by the university that involved throwing stuff off the roof.

Another time, some guys in the dorm had an old couch they felt like destroying and threw it right onto the main walkway into the building without doing due diligence on what was going on below. There was a guy walking toward the entrance who heard a strange flapping noise and looked up and stopped just in time to avoid being brained by it. Some of the shit I did in school was kind of stupid, but that was ridiculous.

Doing Baker 13 once was one of the most fun things I've ever done. Good idea for a statue in the main quad.

Anonymous said...

You can also gzilch from the ground and take out a 4th floor sid rich window...

Weiss '79

Dahinda said...

"because that means that the rest of them have to go live in Champagne-Urbana or Round Lake Beach or somewhere else far away from Chicago."

Actually the cities that the former residents of the Chicago housing projects are moving to are cities that aren't upscale college towns like Urbana but industrial cities that are run down like Galesburg. The black population in Chicago in general has gone down by over 200000 in the last 10 years. That is around a 20% drop. Many, if not most, of these are the people who lived in the public housing high rises.

Anonymous Rice Alum #4 said...

Anonymous 1/29/12 5:00 PM, I remember the couch at Brown as well. I was class of '93, lived on the west side of third floor my junior and senior years.

Oh, before I forget:

Sid Rich sucks! Death from behind!
BSWB

Steve Sailer said...

"You can also gzilch from the ground and take out a 4th floor sid rich window...

"Weiss '79"

A mere tactical setback that couldn't undermine Sid Rich's strategic dominance from on high.

Anonymous 1/29/12 5:00 PM said...

Anonymous Rice Alum #4,

Small world, I guess. I lived pretty close to you for one of those years, but that's about all I'll say, this being iSteve and all.

I've always wondered if anyone else I know reads iSteve. So now I guess the answer is 'yes', assuming that we interacted at some point.