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Exhibit examines origins of infamous housing project

St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project was a massive high-rise development born in 1956 out of the post-World War II federal public-housing program. Originally hailed for its architectural innovations, it was razed in the 1970s following years of disrepair, vandalism and crime, and is now considered one of the most disastrous public housing projects ever built.

A new exhibition offers a close look at the history of the complex. "Vertical City: The Life and Design of Pruitt-Igoe" is on view in the Wolk Gallery (Room 7-338) through Jan. 28.

The exhibit explores the impact of architectural design through photographs, maps, prints, plans and film and traces the history of efforts to improve the project. Central to the story are narratives from architects and planners, social workers, housing officials, civic and religious organizations, and the tenants themselves.

Part of a massive urban reconstruction program, Pruitt-Igoe was one of the largest housing projects in the United States. Its 33 buildings rose 11 stories to tower over 57 acres of the city. At its peak, it housed some 12,000 people in 2,870 apartments. It was designed by the same architect who designed New York's World Trade Center towers--Minoru Yamasaki of Hellmuth, Yamasaki and Leinweber.

The Pruitt-Igoe plan called for a Corbusien "ville radiuse" of high-rise edifices interspersed with garden apartments, all surrounded by an expanse of tree-lined plazas. Federal cost-cutting measures, however, eliminated many of the best features of Yamasaki's design, and forced contractors to cut corners in the construction of the project. Still, it was hailed in the national press as an innovative application of modernist design principles to the problem of chronic urban housing shortages.

Most families that settled the project regarded their move into Pruitt-Igoe as an improvement in their housing conditions. They worked to establish a playground, recreation center, public library branch, Boy Scout Troop, day-care center and health clinic. Over time, however, the project fell into decline, and in 1972 the housing authority made the historic decision to tear it down. Today, the reasons for the project's decline continue to be debated, and Pruitt-Igoe has become a symbol of policy and design failure.

The exhibition is curated by Joseph Heathcott, assistant professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University, along with graduate students in the American City Studio. Artifacts and images are drawn from the collections of the Mercantile Library, the Missouri Historical Society, the St. Louis Post Dispatch Archives, St. Louis Public Library General Records, Washington University Special Collections, Western History Manuscript Collection, Saint Louis University Archives and private collections.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 12, 2005 (download PDF).

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