New Documentary Recounts Rise and Fall of an Architectural Myth

BY Saskia De Melker  May 3, 2011 at 2:28 PM EST

In St. Louis in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe was touted as the definitive model for public housing projects in the modern era. It would be the “poor man’s penthouse,” ending the poverty of the slums, and contribute to the development of the city. Instead, plagued by vandalism, violence, segregation and disrepair, Pruitt-Igoe became an infamous example of the demise of midcentury modernism.

The 33 high-rise structures designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed the World Trade Center) were among the biggest residential towers ever attempted at that time, and it was this design that is often cited for the project’s failure. Less than 20 years after its construction, the buildings of Pruitt-Igoe were torn down beginning in 1972.

The new documentary, ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,’ widens the blame. Director Chad Freidrichs explores the multitude of social, economic and political forces that contributed to the project’s failure. He places Pruit-Igoe’s rise and fall into the broader narrative of the city of St. Louis, whose population peaked in the early 1950s and saw large numbers of people with means move out into the suburbs. Left behind were citizens with little opportunity but plenty of economic troubles festering in the projects.

Art Beat recently talked to Freidrichs at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C.: