“Framing a Modern Mess” Offers a Re-Imagined Pruitt-Igoe as Historic Cultural, Ecological Site

The Pruitt-Igoe site in North St. Louis has been the subject of Melissa Elliott's Masters in Landscape Architecture studio at the University of Virginia, where she completed her studies in May 2011. Melissa previously wrote here about her experience visiting the Pruitt-Igoe site and attending the Open/Closed vacant land conference in St. Louis and Turning Urban at UVA in quick succession. This is her final design proposal, including notes on the design not chosen. This article should provide an excellent jumping off point for exploring the recently announced Pruitt-Igoe Now design competition. Melissa's site detailing the proccess of this project is Framing a Modern Mess.

As the city seeks to re-frame its “modern masterpiece”–the Gateway Arch–through an international competition (Framing a Modern Masterpiece), what is the status of its famous modern disaster–Pruitt-Igoe–and what role could this site play in the city’s future? This project seeks to situate both the Arch and Pruitt-Igoe within the historical narrative of urban renewal in St. Louis. The competition branded the Arch a “modern masterpiece” while failing to fully acknowledge its lineage as an urban renewal project.

Similarly, architecture critics have characterized Pruitt-Igoe as a failure of modern architecture while failing to contextualize it as a high-density, low income housing project constructed during urban renewal. This narrative has received very able treatment in the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. My project sought to re-contextualize the Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Monument as one successful project in a city where urban renewal policy also proved disastrous. I also position Pruitt-Igoe as an alternative to the Gateway Arch: an alternative history of St. Louis, as well as an alternative ecology. This final design proposal re-imagines Pruitt-Igoe as a site of urban memory: both cultural and ecological.

As a forest in the middle of St. Louis, Pruitt-Igoe is simultaneously visible and invisible. It does not match our expectations of a historic site’s appearance, yet it is also incongruous with its surroundings. The design and research are framed around these central questions: 1) How can history be represented in a city continually transformed by the processes of urban renewal and vacancy? 2) Can these sites be understood as culturally and ecologically fallow? 3) How can landscape architecture establish a connection between the concepts of ecological memory and cultural memory?

The proposed design seeks to reveal Pruitt-Igoe as a historic site by marking the building footprints, to demonstrate the process of urban succession by exaggerating site conditions and maintenance regimes, and to connect Pruitt-Igoe to the city by creating new thresholds into the site.

The Jefferson Avenue streetscape retains the existing Catalpa Trees and Trumpet Creeper. One lane of Jefferson Avenue is converted into a bike lane and planting strip: the lane is jack-hammered to increase permeability, and spontaneous vegetation begins to sprout. Saw-cut channels in the sidewalk allow storm water from Jefferson Avenue to reach the Pruitt-Igoe forest rather than flow into the city’s sewer system.

A corten steel gateway provides site history and provides entry via a pathway winding through the rubble that marks that former Dickson Street. Visitors are aligned with the historic view of St Stanislaus, and can explore the ongoing processes of urban succession. The existing forest is preserved on the Jefferson Avenue frontage; this and area on the east side of the site serve as seed banks for areas of the site that is cleared: further away from the street controlled-burn maintenance regime helps establish meadows, savannahs, and young forests, proving a dynamic setting for markers that identify the Pruitt-Igoe building footprints.

The building footprints are marked by gabion plinths made of concrete rubble. These plinths represent the ecological history of re-forestation over rubble, and allow former residents to locate the buildings they once lived in. Surrounded by a gravel firebreak, the forests emerging on these gabions will continue to grow as the area around them is burned to establish meadows. As the forests grow up, they begin to represent the scale of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings.

The picnic area east of Gateway School is enlarged to serve as an area for large gatherings, such as Pruitt-Igoe reunions. A new bosque of trees, established over the former football field, provides an abstract representation of the Pruitt-Igoe forest. Species existing in the site, such as cottonwood, mulberry and catalpa, are combined with ornamental species such as red bud and little-leaf linden. These trees range in size and form, but all feature heart-shaped leaves. This area is intended to provide an “acclimation zone” that allows visitors to begin to contemplate the dissonant beauty of the Pruitt-Igoe landscape.

At DeSoto Park, a narrow strip of concrete is added to the Pruitt-Igoe era sidewalk. Lined with trees extending from the bosque, this pathway establishes a connection between the community that uses the soccer fields every weekend and the site’s larger cultural and ecological history.

I have focused on developing an approach to the Pruitt-Igoe site that deals not only with program – but that reveals site history: Pruitt-Igoe, demolition, revegetation. In the process of developing the final proposed design described above, I considered four strategies:

Option 1: the museum. This option delineated the existing patches and sought, through a dynamic maintenance regime, to preserve the site in its current state. The problem: this is not necessarily a moment in history that needs to be preserved forever. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see the site grow and develop and change over time?

Option 2: the forest. Introduce new species to the site (in a grid or other form to show human hand). Allow succession to continue. The problem: this is exciting from a spontaneous-vegetation experiment point of view, but doesn’t speak very much to site history. How is this site set apart from vacant land throughout the city?

{the forest}

Option 3: alter ground conditions at building foot-prints, changing hydrology, soil, etc. New plants in the building footprint (intentional or volunteer) respond to unique characteristics of site. The problem: is this clear-cut?

{altered ground conditions}

Option 4: This further develops the idea represented in option 3. Seed banks are retained at the east and west edges of the site (which currently host different species of plants, suggesting different hydrologies). The areas between building footprints are allowed to revegetate but are subject to a different maintenance regime than the building foot prints.

{sculpted maintenance}

This model explores the treatment of the building footprints. Bales of rubble could represent the building footprints. The fences provide habitat for plants; based on historic aerial imagery, the areas adjacent to chain link were some of the first to revegetate following demolition. The revegetation of the baled rubble re-presents the site history: the process of vegetation colonizing rubble could represent the ecological restoration of the site (and slower social restoration). The ecological complexities of the site are perhaps in some way representative of the social complexities.

The baling of the rubble, and its separation from the ground plane, suggest that the site has been remade; that these are not exactly the rubble from demolition but a representation of it. The site is “tidied up” in the interest of making it more accessible to more people.

Ultimately, modernism was less than rational, logical, even, or perfect in its application, and the stories of Pruitt-Igoe and JNEM exemplify this tension between the ideal and the reality. Where JNEM, the Modern Masterpiece, is stable, fixed, and constructed; Pruitt-Igoe, the Modern Mess, is unpredictable, dynamic, and slowly developed and spontaneously vegetated. The project thus functions as a critique of modernism, preservation, and monumentality. It rejects the singular, dominant narrative of Pruitt-Igoe that ends in demolition to engage with the complexities of the site’s history — as a crumbling housing project that offered a much-needed alternative to the surrounding tenements and as a vacant lot so weighted with history that it has been largely untouched for 35 years.

Mid-century urban renewal projects across the country are reaching the end of their lifespans and being redeveloped. New York’s Lincoln Center, recently re-worked by Diller Scofidio Renfro and Chicago’s Cabrini Green, recently demolished to make way for a mixed-use development, are two examples of such redevelopment – which may respond to design problems stemming from urban renewal but do not directly respond to or represent the history of urban renewal. This project offers, potentially, an “indicator species” or community for urban renewal sites: a mix of urban plants that represent the low levels of care and valuation the site may have received over a number of years.

More broadly, this project proposes a new framework for reading “post-industrial woodlands” and urban-rewilding as distinctly cultural sites and processes. In its combination of “cultural landscape” and “novel ecosystem” theories, this project argues that spontaneous vegetation is an indirect cultural product, rather than a “natural” or “wild” layer applied to a cultural site. The plant communities are understood as a direct result and representation of site conditions reflecting site history.