by Michael R. Allen
The twists and turns of mid-century modern preservation in the last three weeks have been heartening. Let’s recap: since the end of June we have witnessed St. Louis University chipping away at Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum’s IBM Building (1959) at 3800 Lindell, developers trying to green-light demolition of the old Schwarz & Van Hoefen-designed Phillips 66 gas station at 212 S. Grand (1967) and CVS quickly and almost quietly testing the waters of demolishing the W.A. Sarmiento-designed AAA Building (1977) at 3925 Lindell. The last two have generated a lot of public protest as well as the open concern of Mayor Francis Slay.
Many preservationists have expressed some version of “they can’t do this” or “how could they even think about it”. Fortunately mid-century modernism has reached a level of wide acceptability that, even if the three aforementioned buildings fall, will save dozens in the long term. Yet things have not always been this way for modern architecture here, and St. Louis retains the burden of having one of its most indelible recent-past architectural events being the destruction of innovative modern architecture.
Whoa — this writer just heard the mad dash of his readers! Of course, the phrase “Pruitt Igoe” is not one that enters into the mid-century modern dialogue alongside mentions of pleasant-named ranch house subdivisions and Jetson-modern round commercial buildings. Hyphenated public housing names are more likely to be denigrated in preservationists’ discussions of postwar urban renewal policy. The homes, offices, gas stations and diners of the middle and upper classes get the praise, the scholarship and the activist defense that modernist dwellings for the poor may never get.
For shame, because despite Pruitt-Igoe’s shortcomings, its construction represented a pinnacle in American public housing development’s relationship with modernist practice. Architect Minoru Yamasaki worked under the strictures of the Public Housing Administration and the St. Louis Housing Authority, whose task was not to allow the architect’s free hand to wander but to provide decent low-cost housing for St. Louis’ poor and working classes. The architectural judgment against Pruitt-Igoe is one that ignores how client demand shapes every building, that public housing had political and budgetary constraints in part because of the (classical) liberalism that drove suburban construction and that modernism was not employed only in the design of unproblematic buildings.
Rather than blaming the design of Pruitt-Igoe and relegating it out of modernism worthy of our attention, we ought to squarely face the reality that some architecture gets the good life, just as some classes get the good life. The modernist legacy includes slab construction, skip-stop elevators and minimalist high-rise forms that are successful, especially in Colombia and Brazil (and, yes, even in fetishized Brasilia). Political economy has more to do with Pruitt-Igoe’s failure — and the enduring success of suburban developments like Ladue Estates and Craigwoods — than anything else. Our valorization of some modernism is concurrent with detrimental mythologizing of public housing reflects the current American hostility toward the public good.
The legacy of Pruitt-Igoe and its peer high-rise housing projects is being reconsidered through film, lectures, writing and a design competition for the Pruitt-Igoe site. That reconsideration might seem unrelated to “Save Del Taco,” but it comes at the same moment. To illustrate why these endeavors are related, consider the link between the IBM Building and Pruitt-Igoe: architect Gyo Obata, project manager for Pruitt-Igoe for Hellmuth, Yamasaki & Leinweber, and one of designers of the IBM Building a few years later at his own Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Can Obata’s career be fully studied by omitting either of these works?
Rather than degrade the recent past based on personal experience and lack of understanding, we should recognize that its layer on our built environment is an indelible part of what St. Louis is. That layer once included Pruitt-Igoe’s 33 towers, and their loss diminished that layer as much as the losses of the AAA Building and the Council Plaza Phillips 66 station could. In fact, Council Plaza’s own development is rooted in federal housing funding, and its architecture reflects a modular concrete slab system not far removed from those used at Pruitt-Igoe or Cochran Gardens. Of course, the impulse toward destruction remains similar: If public housing towers were an inherently flawed part of the urban landscape, then surely a gas station-turned-drive-through also could be seen as a mistake in need of clearance. Of course, that is not true — in either case.