The Age reprinted an opinion piece this week by Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky arguing the Grenfell Tower fire showed tall buildings aren’t suitable for public housing.

Bershidsky’s argument is more plausible than the one put by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, which I discussed on Monday, in that Bershidsky confines his contention to public housing:

“The 1965 (UK) Housing Subsidy Act spawned 4,500 tower blocks by 1979. It wasn’t a great idea for many social reasons. By the end of the 1970s, a growing body of research showed that the social alienation of living in a high-rise increased psychological stress…and widespread crime and disaffection was linked to the faulty urban planning.”

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This dystopian stereotype of public housing is remarkably common, as is the blame put on all those high-rise towers. The classic example is the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project constructed in inner city St Louis, Missouri, in 1954 and famously demolished only 22 years after it was built. It’s universally portrayed as evidence of how the physical environment — and particularly modernist architecture’s fascination with the idea of the “tower in a park” — can cause deep social problems. I discussed Pruitt-Igoe back in September 2014 on the 50th anniversary of its construction and I think it’s timely in the light of the current debate around residential towers to reprise some of that earlier discussion.

Established in a post-war atmosphere of confidence and affluence, Pruitt-Igoe’s 33 eleven-storey towers provided housing for 15,000 tenants at higher density than the “slums” they replaced. The 2011 film, The Pruitt-Igoe myth, shows that residents were initially enthusiastic about their new accommodation. One woman speaks of her family of 12 living in a small house and her mother sleeping on a roll-up bed in the kitchen; on moving to Pruitt-Igoe her mother had her own bedroom. But that keenness evaporated over time as conditions deteriorated and the new development turned into a nightmarish environment of drugs, vandalism and crime.

“The gallery windows and communal hallways turned into gauntlets residents had to run to get into their houses. The skip-stop elevators turned into a curse, as residents had to walk down stairwells infested with criminals to get back to their homes. The triumph of design had turned into a failure of epic proportions.”

University of California doctoral student Katherine G Bristol tells the story of how Pruitt-Igoe came to symbolise the failings of modernist architecture in a paper published in 1991, also titled The Pruitt-Igoe myth. She explains that while the project was widely praised by the architectural press when it opened, critics were quick to blame architectural modernism following demolition of all 33 towers between 1972 and ’76.

[Does the Grenfell Tower fire mean we should stop building residential towers?]

The Architectural Record described it in 1972 as “the modern movement’s most grandiloquent failure”. In his influential 1978 book, The language of post-modern architecture, critic Charles Jencks argued that the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe represented the death of modern architecture. Pruitt-Igoe was also attacked in 1972 by Oscar Newman, the author of another influential book in the then-emerging field of environment and behaviour, Defensible Space.

According to Bristol, Newman argued that the widespread vandalism and violence at Pruitt-Igoe resulted from the presence of excessive “indefensible” public space.

“Corridors were too long and not visible from the apartments. The residents did not feel that these spaces “belonged” to them and so made no effort to maintain or police them. The entryways, located in large, unprotected open plazas, did not allow tenants any control over who entered the buildings.

Bristol largely rejects this interpretation. Her thesis is that Pruitt-Igoe did not fail at the level of design; its problems weren’t the result of architectural failure. Rather, they were the result of wider structural changes.

A key issue was Pruitt-Igoe’s occupancy rate peaked at 91% three years after opening but thereafter declined precipitously and was down to two-thirds of capacity by 1960. It was conceived on a massive scale (2700 apartments) to accommodate expected high population growth in the central city, but that failed to materialise due to a combination of factors, including “white flight” to the suburbs, the slowing-down of the war economy, decentralisation of low wage jobs, and less competition in the inner-city private housing market.

It was originally intended to be a racially segregated development, with Pruitt for blacks and Igoe for whites. A Supreme Court decision during construction (Brown v Board of Education) enforced desegregation; rather than live in a racially mixed development, whites subsequently abandoned the project in favour of other places, especially the suburbs.

With the decline in the economic prospects in central St Louis, tenants increasingly were drawn from the poorest segment of the black population who had the least capacity to pay rent. However, operating costs, including maintenance and security, had to be funded entirely from rental income. The combination of declining occupancy and poor and demoralised tenants inevitably resulting in deteriorating conditions.

The financial problems of the project were further exacerbated in 1969 when the remaining tenants went on a five-month rent strike along with the residents of two other St Louis public housing projects. Severe budget constraints during construction also contributed to the problems experienced at Pruitt-Igoe. Basic amenities such as children’s play areas, landscaping, and public toilets at ground level were eliminated to reduce costs. The quality of fittings like door knobs, locks, window frames and kitchen cabinets was very poor.

“Political and social ambivalence to public housing had resulted in a token housing program burdened by impossible fiscal management constraints. The federal Public Housing Administration also impeded public housing efforts by insisting on unrealistically low construction costs.”


The Pruitt-Igoe myth emphasises that deeper structural forces are much more important in explaining behaviour than physical design. The architects of Pruitt-Igoe (who also designed the World Trade Centre in Manhattan) were not responsible for the deterioration of the project much less its ultimate demolition.

[Rundle: anguish turns to anger as London burns]

In the mid-1960s, sociologist Lee Rainwater studied residents of Pruitt-Igoe. Bristol summarises his conclusion that the violence and vandalism were a response by its residents to poverty and racial discrimination:

“Architectural design was neither the cause nor the cure for these problems. Improved housing conditions and other efforts directed at changing the behaviour of the poor were … useless if not accompanied by efforts to raise their income level.”

But Bristol doesn’t let architects off scot-free; she thinks the myth that design — specifically modernism — was the key problem with Pruitt-Igoe serves the interests of the profession.

“By continuing to promote architectural solutions to what are fundamentally problems of class and race, the myth conceals the complete inadequacy of contemporary public housing policy. It has quite usefully shifted the blame from the sources of housing policy and placed it on the design professions. By furthering this misconception, the myth disguises the causes of the failure of public housing, and ensures the continued participation of the architecture profession in token and palliative efforts to address the problem of poverty in America.”

The myth is a mystification, she says, that benefits everyone involved, except those to whom public housing programs are supposedly directed.


The finger still gets pointed at the old towers though. It’s not that architecture has no effect; it’s that other than in extreme cases its effect is almost always minor compared to social and economic factors:

“Many issues which appear to be problems of planning, design, maintenance or administration are directly attributable to the lack of resources of the tenants. Poor people are concentrated in specific locations through the process of urban development, the effect of social choices, and their own lack of power to find alternatives.”

Of course most public housing in the UK and Australia is nothing like Pruitt-Igoe and towers don’t tend to be built much anymore. The old high-rise blocks don’t make sense for all public housing tenants and some are undoubtedly unsafe, but they’re not the social dystopia critics contend. Former UK high-rise public housing resident Basia Cummings argues they are “thriving communities, symbols of diversity, resilience and empathy. They have a right to be taken seriously, to be made safe, and to be cherished”.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Urbanist