Dezeen Magazine

Pruitt-Igoe's demolition

"Reports of modernism's death turned out to be greatly exaggerated"

On the 50th anniversary of Pruitt-Igoe's demolition, it's clear that Charles Jencks declaration that modernism had died was a self-serving myth, writes Catherine Slessor.

This month sees the 50th anniversary of the "Death of Modern Architecture" as precisely calibrated to the day, hour and minute by Charles Jencks.

"Modern architecture died in St Louis Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32pm (or thereabouts)," claimed Jencks, "when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grace by dynamite".

The supposed moment of modernism's extinction, featuring an 11-storey slab block explosively disintegrating, was reproduced in The Language of Post Modern Architecture, setting the scene for a new architectural epoch.

As with Philip Larkin's assertion that "sexual intercourse began in 1963", Jencks' time-stamped hyperbole was the equivalent of a knowing wink and a morbid chuckle. After all, if you're going to bet the farm on a new architectural movement, you need to prove that its predecessor is a literal dead duck.

Pruitt-Igoe, with its existenzminimum arrangement of 33 high-rise, barrack-like blocks, which allegedly drove its residents to violent distraction, was an obvious target, and its destruction could be conveniently framed as marking the point of no return for the modernist project.

The choice image perpetuated a simplistic narrative of people made bad by modern architecture

However, compared with Larkin's poetic licence, Jencks took far greater liberties. His unedifying jig on modernism's grave condensed and debased a complex set of social, political and economic issues, the ramifications of which are still being felt in the current era's hollowing out of cities.

The choice of an image of a social housing project being ruthlessly extinguished perpetuated a simplistic narrative of people made bad and mad by modern architecture. Jencks effectively hijacked this sentiment to beget pomo and legitimise his conception of a supposedly more kindly and sunny architectural upland.

Yet it also came to form part of a wider backlash against modernism that inculcated racial and class prejudice, perpetuating notions of social malaise and a ghettoised underclass that could only be addressed through draconian planning and design policies.

As it turns out, Jencks' talismanic image of Pruitt-Igoe being blown up was actually a test demolition, carried out on 16 March 1972 (not 15 July), to ascertain whether detonation or a wrecking ball would be a more effective means of the estate's scheduled obliteration.

In fact, Pruitt-Igoe was not fully demolished until 1976. Meanwhile, critics focused blame on the "award-winning" design and the "radical", social reforming tendencies of its architects, which included a young Minoru Yamasaki, for the project's failure. In reality, Pruitt-Igoe never won any awards, but it became a generally accepted fiction that it did – peddled by both Jencks and Tom Wolfe in his book From Bauhaus to our House – thus making its fall from grace all the more culturally significant.

Pruitt-Igoe was caught in a series of powerful cross-currents that began to swirl ominously long before a brick was laid

When Pruitt-Igoe was completed in 1954, it was initially successful, representing an uplift in living conditions for many of its residents, but there was a subsequent decline in occupancy rates, driven by an unanticipated shift in the ambitions of its predominantly black target constituency, who preferred to live in inexpensive suburban dwellings rather than public housing.

Falling income from rents reduced the available funds for maintenance, and a spiral of decline ensued, accompanied by an increase in crime and vandalism. Pruitt-Igoe was therefore caught in a series of powerful cross-currents that began to swirl ominously long before a brick was laid, beginning with the political decision to socially cleanse the city centre of its growing slum settlements and redevelop downtown, selling the tracts of cleared land cheaply to private developers.

Choosing to ignore this blatant socio-political reshaping of the city, the response from the architectural and popular press was to advocate a new approach to design, ultimately ushering in the era of postmodernism with Jencks as its leading proponent.

The image of Pruit-Igoe's demolition became Modernism's indelible visual epitaph, cementing its failure in the minds of architects, critics and the wider public. Equally disturbingly, it directed attention away from the real reasons for the Pruitt-Igoe catastrophe, shifting the focus from institutional and structural factors to architecture and architects, implying that deeply embedded social problems are caused – and therefore solved – by design alone.

What began as a crude attempt to devalue and stigmatise the modernist social project came grimly full circle in London

This interpretation of Pruitt-Igoe's failure also helped give credibility to the theories of Oscar Newman, who featured it in Defensible Space, published in 1972, the same year as Pruitt-Igoe's trial demolition. Newman's thesis conjoined human behaviour with the physical environment, arguing that malfeasance can be designed out, or at least reduced, through a legible hierarchy of public and private space.

A grainy shot of New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger miming a mugging in a stair lobby at London's Robin Hood Gardens was also employed by Jencks in The Language of Post Modern Architecture, making a not too subtle point about the existential threat posed by modernist housing blocks.

Newman's theories were taken up in a UK context by geographer Alice Coleman, whose government-funded research exerted a baleful influence on wider policy debates about housing and urban design.

Over time, what began as a crude attempt to devalue and stigmatise the modernist social project came grimly full circle in London, with the eventual demolition of Robin Hood Gardens and the ongoing erasure of other modernist housing estates, especially in the city centre, and the displacement of communities.

It is now possible see beyond Charles Jencks' hubristic eulogy

Yet while Modernism might still be demonised and disdained in certain quarters, reports of its death turned out to be greatly exaggerated. In hindsight, the modernist period, with its ambitious social and civic programmes  – "nothing is too good for ordinary people", as Berthold Lubetkin once remarked – can seen be as an exemplar, in many respects, with beneficial lessons for our times.

Postmodernism, by contrast, has become something of a pitiful zombie, lurching and gurning in the margins, apparently immune to Jencksian-style valedictory pronouncements. "Post modernism is dead", wrote Elizabeth Farrelly in The Architectural Review, as early as 1986. "Some have known from the start that it was no more than a painted corpse."

As for Pruitt-Igoe, the intervening decades have seen an important and necessary rebalancing, through the work of scholars, activists, artists and filmmakers.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a 2011 documentary directed by Chad Freidrichs, gave a long-awaited voice to the estate's former inhabitants, subtly unpicking the hitherto accepted version of history and countering the cliched perception of modern architecture as a dystopian cypher for anomie and disenfranchisement.

Fifty years on, it is now possible see beyond Charles Jencks' hubristic eulogy to "modern architecture" – its self-serving myths finally exploded.

Pruitt-Igoe's demolition courtesy of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research.

Catherine Slessor is an architecture editor, writer and critic. She is the president of architectural charity the 20th Century Society and former editor of UK magazine The Architectural Review.