What Should Be: Pruitt-Igoe as a Walkable, Mixed-Use Neighborhood

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Pruitt-Igoe can be a catalyst for redeveloping the near north side of St. Louis in a sensitive manner. Inspired by the beautiful brick neighborhoods that survive in various parts of the city, the design provides a home for people of various incomes, ages, and family sizes.

Small Aerial Perspective

This project originated from a desire to explore affordable mixed-income development, mixed-use urban infill, and the relationship between regional vernacular and classical architecture. Purpose-built affordable housing is a sensitive issue, with a history of many unsuccessful developments. This project, therefore, does not attempt to propose overarching solutions to the issues surrounding the housing of the poor, but instead suggests locally specific strategies for development. A design which sensitively gleans lessons from a place will usually be superior to one that imposes its will on its site. With that in mind, the design of this project grows out of an extensive study of the patterns engrained in some of the most diverse and enduring neighborhoods in St. Louis. The project attempts to demonstrate the merits of developing the former Pruitt-Igoe site as a walkable, connected, mixed-use, and mixed-income neighborhood center, composed of traditional St. Louis urban patterns and building types.

Small City Scale

The location of the project is a 33-acre brownfield site in the Desoto-Carr neighborhood on the northern edge of St. Louis’ downtown. The site is historically significant as it was a portion of the 57-acre Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1956, Pruitt-Igoe was initially hailed as a groundbreaking architectural solution to social housing, but quickly became characterized by violence, racial and economic segregation, destruction of property, rampant poverty, and gang activity. Nonetheless, it housed a tight-knit community. For a fascinating and well-constructed documentary on Pruitt-Igoe, I recommend The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011). It does not cover all of the points made in the 1991 paper of the same name by Katherine Bristol, but is a good overall picture of the Pruitt-Igoe community and notes some of the generally unmentioned reasons that the project failed, such as the suburban expansion of St. Louis.

The project, composed of 33 eleven-story towers surrounded by open grassy areas and parking, exemplified the disastrous state of modern public housing, standing only 16 years (1956 – 1972) before the first of its buildings was demolished. The incredible failure of Pruitt-Igoe had an intense effect on the architectural community, casting a stigma on Modernist architecture and, according to Charles Jencks, signaling its death (Jencks, 1984). While the degeneration of Pruitt-Igoe was the result of many factors, including government policy, racism, and a mono-culture of poverty, the architectural and urban design certainly had a role to play in at least enabling a negative environment. The elevators only stopped every three floors, forcing residents to navigate dangerous stair halls, where they could be robbed or assaulted (Ramroth, 2007). The street grid which used to permeate the site was replaced with a street network of incredibly limited permeability and interconnected parking lots, making it dangerous for police officers to patrol the site. Furthermore, the height of the buildings allowed them to become vertical fortresses (Bristol, 2004).

{USGS 1968}

The towers replaced a network of eight streets, forming a neighborhood of hundreds of townhouses and apartments, light industrial buildings, eight churches, one school, and one public bath house. The neighborhood was overcrowded, and some buildings had no indoor plumbing, but sensitive updating of buildings and laws limiting occupancy (which in hindsight may have been better solutions; several of the neighborhoods that were once slated for total demolition and urban renewal are now some of the most desirable) were left off the table in favor of a tabula rasa approach. Since the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972, the southern 24 acres have been used as athletic fields and the site for a new Elementary School, while the northern 33 acres have been left undeveloped. The new design is located on this undeveloped section, which is now overgrown (the new plan will conserve many of the trees that have grown there in the intervening years in the backyards of the new development, as street trees, and in the park and natural area). While 40 years have passed since the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, the site is still a very sensitive one, and any new project there must be considerate of former residents and must respect the city and its history.

22x30 History

I approached the project with the supposition that the site will be redeveloped in the near future. The 33-acre site is a prime candidate for redevelopment for several reasons. First, it is (for now) owned by one entity, the city of St. Louis, which makes the development of the whole site much easier. Second, it has a close proximity to downtown (it is ¾ mile from the Gateway Mall that extends west from Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, and less than two miles from the Arch itself). Third, its perimeter is served by public transportation, including three prominent bus routes. Fourth, several portions of the city near the site have been or are being restored or redeveloped as market rate or affordable housing or commercial development. The redevelopment of the Pruitt-Igoe site can be a catalyst for the continued reestablishment of the North Side, and conceivably inaugurate development patterns that promote developing the surrounding areas in a sensitive and locally specific manner. In studying existing St. Louis neighborhoods, I considered the near South side neighborhood of Soulard in particular. Soulard is very similar in character to the original Desoto–Carr neighborhood, pre Pruitt-Igoe, and has many of the qualities that a healthy neighborhood should have (walkable streets, a mix of building uses and income levels, and public parks, gardens, and other community spaces).

22x30 Precedents

The new master plan is a critique of both the original Desoto–Carr condition, as well as Pruitt-Igoe, in light of more ideal urban conditions found in other parts of St. Louis. The original layout of streets was not well connected to the surrounding streets, with many T intersections instead of four-way intersections. Pruitt-Igoe was even more isolated from the street network. The new plan pulls streets that currently terminate at the edge of the site into the center of the site, where they either shift their axes to accommodate the clashing of the two dissimilar street grids or lead directly to the most important public space (the market plaza).

22x30 Streets

Small Street Sections

Typical street widths are also consistently carried into the site. Two streets approach from the South, three from the West, four from the North, and two from the East. The site is organized into fi fteen blocks, two of which are occupied by a park, garden, and playground, and one of which is occupied by the Community Center / Market Hall and Market Plaza. Unlike Chicago, New York, or the French Quarter in New Orleans, St. Louis does not have a typical block size. St. Louis blocks do fall within a range of dimensions, however, and are generally 210’ – 360’ wide and 360’ – 560’ long. Blocks in Soulard are often 360’ by 360’, which is a very comfortable dimension for pedestrians. The master plan incorporates blocks that reflect many of the sizes found throughout St. Louis, and the short side of each block is generally perpendicular to the streets surrounding the site, making it more comfortable for pedestrians to enter the site.

The master plan is phased to be able to be constructed in its entirety at one time, or in stages over several years. The first phase to be developed is the closest to currently established areas, and includes a portion of the mixed-use district, as well as the Market Hall/Community Center. Each subsequent phase completes additional spaces such as streets, plazas, and parks, instead of blocks. In this way, half of a street or public space is never left undone. The master plan is composed of T4, T4.1, and T5 transects. The civic and commercial section of the site comprise the T5 part of the plan, while the primarily residential (with interspersed mixed-use) areas are T4 and T4.1.

22x30 Phasing Regulating

Based on historic St. Louis neighborhoods, the project is composed primarily of mixed-use buildings with no setbacks and residences without significant front yards. Private space is limited primarily to the rear of buildings. Because there are no large front yards, significant public space is provided in the form of a park and a plaza. The following is a list of primary public spaces and other public amenities provided for the good of the community:

A. Market Plaza
The heart of the development, this brick paved public space is surrounded by mixed-use buildings containing shops, restaurants, and apartments. The space can be used for many types of events, including concerts and festivals.

B. Community Center / Market Hall
This public building contains a ground fl oor Market Hall, which will be the weekday home for an expanded North City Farmer’s Market (Saturdays would continue to be held at Old North St. Louis). The upper floor serves as a Community Center, with exhibits on the history of Pruitt Igoe and the Near North Side, as well as spaces for after school programs and local meetings.

C. Park
A public park provides residents with centralized and defi ned open space for outdoor activities. This park is not specifically dedicated to athletics, as is the park to the South of the site, but is intended for general recreation.

D. Playground
Playgrounds are an essential feature in neighborhoods with children. This one is located in the center of the site, adjacent to the Plaza and Community Garden, so that parents using
these other amenities can visit the playground with their children (Figure 18).

E. Community Garden
The Community Garden gives residents the opportunity to grow their own food and meet their neighbors. Some of the food can be sold at the market, and some can be taken home by gardeners.

F. Constructed Wetland & Pond
A Constructed Wetland and Pond collect storm water, minimizing the strain on the sewer system, and provide residents with a beautiful place to enjoy native plants, birds, and butterflies (Figure 9).

G. Carriage House Park
This small park serves the residents living in Carriage Houses, providing them with dedicated outdoor space, in lieu of yards.

Small Master Plan (2) (6000x3691)

In addition to these new amenities, the three bus lines which run along the site’s perimeter provide a total of seven bus stops directly adjacent to the site. There are also five churches and two schools less than 1/8 mile from the site.

Vernacular St. Louis building types are explored as precedents and emulated in the buildings found in the new master plan. Utilizing local building types helps St. Louis to maintain its architectural identity, helps to encourage craftsmen and builders to learn vernacular building details and typologies, and helps to prevent the stigma which can become attached to affordable housing which is clearly differentiated from the rest of a neighborhood. The predominant exterior building material for the new buildings will be St. Louis Brick, which is prized for its quality (to the point where it has often been stolen from unoccupied buildings). Building types include: the Garage, Carriage House, Single Family Row House, Duplex, Triplex, Corner Store, Mixed-Use Commercial/Residential, Office, and Civic building.

Small Building Types

Each type is composed of pieces from a limited kit of parts containing windows, doors, or dormers. By maintaining a kit of parts from which to choose for each individual building within a building type, variety is added while keeping costs low. Nearly every building in the master plan is an attached building type, for four reasons (beyond the fact that many St. Louis buildings, especially in neighborhoods like Soulard, are attached). First, attached buildings conserve energy by sharing heating and cooling loads between party walls instead of expelling conditioned air entirely into the outdoors. Second, attaching naturally keeps the side elevations of most buildings from being exposed. This allows the side elevations to be constructed more economically, permitting more of the construction funds to be used to create higher quality front and rear elevations. Third, attached buildings create the most effective street wall for the containment of space, and can fit on narrow lots, increasing the unit density of a development. Lastly, attached buildings may more easily mask the difference between affordable and market rate units, enabling a smother incorporation of various income levels, which is an important goal of this project.

Small Large Axon (2) (6000x3682)
{an overall view of the neighborhood}

Small Little Axon
{a closer view of the Market Plaza, Market Hall/Community Center, and Playground}

Small Market Perspective 1
{looking towards the Market Hall/Community Center down James Cool Papa Bell Ave}

Small Market Perspective 2
{the Market Plaza during an outdoor market}

Small Market Perspective 3
{the Market Hall/Community Center from the North}

The redevelopment of the Pruitt-Igoe site can be a catalyst for rebuilding the North Side in a sensitive manner. Inspired by the beautiful brick neighborhoods found throughout St. Louis, the new design is rooted in the building culture that created the city, and works to create a home for people of various incomes and ages, and an active neighborhood center for cultural and commercial life.


Sam submitted this vision to the Pruitt-Igoe Now competition and posted it on his Composition & Character site in June, 2012. It came to my attention through a comment in the nextSTL Forum. I believe that it deserves a larger audience and hope this posting finds new readers. 2013 will be a big year for the Pruitt-Igoe site. Depending on the outcome of the lawsuit regarding the city's TIF for Paul McKee's NorthSide project, the long-vacant site may soon see a new development plan. While any development may seem welcome after this extended abandonment, what is built remains incredibly important to the city, its residents and its history. A significant public discussion is needed.   – Alex, Editor

Additional information:
Paul McKee gets $100K, 2yr Option on $1M Pruitt-Igoe Site

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  • JWN

    Can we please put arguments about form aside? This proposal could have easily been a study of modern architecture in St. Louis, and the forms developed for this master plan could have reflected that opposing study. However, it does not matter if this “project” materialized as traditional or modern. What is really important is content, which is why this proposal is very discomforting. The Pruitt Igoe site is sacred. Its boundaries elicit strong emotions for the people who once lived there and for people affected by their stories. The site deserves more than a complete obliteration of its past. We owe it to ourselves and our children. They will be the ones occupying a future development, and it makes me squirm to think that those living on the site in the future would have no understanding of the site’s complex history. It is this kind of discussion seems more enriching. How could a memorial be formalized? We don’t have to think of traditional memorials either. How could a residential or commercial or industrial development memorialize Pruitt Igoe? These kinds of questions are already being argued thanks to the people who orchestrated Pruitt Igoe Now.

    traditional, modern, postmodern, deconstructivist, blah, blah blaaaah. Let’s find a solution that is human

    • john w.

      Regarding discussion of form and/or architectural language, your dismissive tone unfortunately spoils what is otherwise a good point about remembrance and recognition. There is very little reason why this potentially powerful aspect of the redevelopment of this site wouldn’t be integral with the architecture that eventually emerges.

      • JWN

        i’m dismissive of form as the basis for the design in this very specific conditions. there is no architecture without form. take another read: “how could a memorial be formalized?”

        • john w.

          Good question. You start.

  • Alex Ihnen

    Having looked this over for a while, I have to say that I love the style. “Faux history” some scream. Whatever. If built as designed, this could be a unique and distinct neighborhood in the city, while connecting with the surrounding area. I don’t get the anti-history stuff. In general, I dislike the broadly American notion of historic preservation – that history shouldn’t be emulated or re-created, except in specific districts where nothing else should be tolerated. The neighborhoods I love are cohesive and have a defined style. St. Louis has (and had) a unique built environment identity, I’d love to see some of that built again. The plan reminded me of part of Boston – perhaps rowhouses exclusively aren’t perfect for a large STL development, but I’d still love to see this built.

    • Adam

      Agreed about the anti-historical nonsense. Some variety is nice, but classic, tried and true design doesn’t suddenly become aesthetically unpleasing. Yes, cheap substitute-materials lead to cheap-looking faux-historical crap, but authentic materials lead to quality, beautiful buildings. And frankly, I tend to agree with others that most modern construction has little to no character, consisting of flat, boring surfaces lacking the detail that makes pre-war architecture so beautiful and timeless.

      • john w.

        You’re making a statement of personal preference, and not one of epochal prevalence. There is a reason that traditional architecture endures, hence being described as traditional, but in your stated preference for “classic, tried-and-true design” you also largely dismiss “most modern architecture” as having little character. I’d submit to you that there is a brimming-over stew of varied character, and certainly non-boring surfaces and details in much of modern construction designed by those with talent, skill and care. Don’t conflate the lazy interpretation of modern architecture (whether roots are in International Style or MCM) usually seen in perfunctory corporate buildings with quality, modern design.

        • Adam

          Of course I’m making a statement of personal preference, as are those demanding all modern design. (Pretty sure I wasn’t trying to make any statement about prevalence.) Sure, there is good modern design, but IMO even the best modern design doesn’t compare with the best structures employing traditional materials and crafts. In any case, I DO want a mixture of traditional design and QUALITY modern design for the sake of variety; I just get sick of people arbitrarily opining that traditional design should be off the table.

  • onecity

    It’s a good plan, but let’s lose the historical style. It’s 2012, this should reflect that. Faux historical stuff almost always looks cheeseball.

  • Aaron

    Kind of looks like Wash U.

    • JL

      Washington is building some great new traditional architecture and their campus will be better for it in the long run, when buildings that are more tied to trends will have gone out of style.

      • All buildings are tied to trends. Collegiate Gothic was an American trend at fin de siecle, and its revival today is a trend driven by the same desire to expound an “academic” image. Art and architecture departments building postmodern resurrections of the International Style — another trend. Both of these trends can lead to good buildings, or very bad ones. At Washington University the results are neither, for the most part.

        However, all styles trend at various points, and no style is ahistoric. The high modernists tried to claim that their work was, but the cat was out of the bag once Mies unveiled the plan for Crown Hall (channeling the Altes Museum channeling the Parthenon). Architectural history shows that styles are historically interrelated, and acknowledging that and learning from those relationships can produce more thoughtful works.

        Also few of the Gothic buildings at Washington University are traditional, at least by the same standards that James P. Jamieson adhered to. The proportions, materials, windows and other details come from other styles, or the architect’s own mind. Jamieson was meticulous in his employment of elements and consideration of form and proportion. While I don’t privilege any styles as more or less correct for the campus, I would rather the university not place inferior examples of the style next to masterpieces by Jamieson. in the 21st century, architects should be able to best the older buildings. Why can’t they?

        • JL

          Great observations/thoughts! To your last question, I think contemporary architects can’t best older buildings (for the most part) because 99% of architecture schools don’t show students how to design a traditional building. You can’t improve on something you don’t understand.

          • john w.

            Nonsense. There is nothing to teach, as there is no ‘school’ of order any more rigid with traditional building as there is room for dreaming in the minds of ‘contemporary’ architects. To the contrary, I find traditional architecture to be invitingly simple, as innovation is set aside for iteration. As it is often said, some designers are innovators, and some (many, in case of traditional vernacular) are continuators. There is a reason why traditional vernacular endures, and there is no dearth of its practice in architecture, so I’m not sure why you’d believe that there is a dearth in understanding of the design of traditional buildings. Schools of architecture DO tend toward the progressive, as schools should, otherwise why the school? If your forte is traditional architecture, and you demonstrate skill and proficiency in the idiom, I’d like to hear of the school that would discourage you from your path. You mentioned a factor of 99%, and though I’ll agree that you’re hyperbolizing to make a point, I’d sitll ask you to name some institutions that would ‘teach’ contemporary architectural design versus traditional design, as architecture school is about the long journey of each naive student. Despite the many contemporary influences surrounding impressionable minds (i.e. trade magazines, etc), I’d say that schools don’t teach style or era-specific design approach at the expense of all of the other academic input valuable to an architectural educational degree. It’s all what is made of it by the student him or herself.

  • kuan

    This is a very well presented project. Hats off to the author / designer.

  • Presbyterian

    Love it! While my own aesthetic tends toward modern, good design knows no style. If I had the money, I’d cut a check to build this.

  • Arch City

    Jack is quite the optimist, isn’t he?

    As I see it, every development that is built, Jack, is a “project”. Has Park East Tower failed? Has The Private Residences @ Chase Park-Plaza failed? Has 4545 Lindell failed? There are many, many successful residential “projects” throughout the metro area – and many are public and mixed-income housing initiatives – some of which you would never think are so.

    Truth is, Jack, there’s always some challenges with public housing. We know this. However, my belief is that this particular “project” shouldn’t be a mixed-income or low-income community. Perhaps that is your underlying issue and if that is the case – then we agree.

    I know this is a hard pill for St. Louis to swallow because St. Louis is so used to large-scale developments that are catered to meeting the housing needs of low-and-modest income citizens, but St. Louis needs to break out of this habit so badly.

    While low-income and mixed-income housing are critical for social progress and economic diversity – every “project” in the city that involves producing large-scale housing development doesn’t have to cater to low-income and modest income residents.

    For me, the Pruitt-Igoe site should be a standard market rate community targeted to the middle-class – very much like Botanical Heights – but more urban in design. Better materials should be utilized as well. The P-I site is a clean slate so issues of displacement won’t be an issue.

    Those that can afford to move to the development – will. The site could be built in phases much like New Town St. Charles. Design should blend in with surrounding neighborhoods.

    If St. Louis wants to grow its population, economy, improve its schools, and increase employment within the city limits – there has to be more options to invite in the middle-class other than the Central West End/Central Corridor, Downtown, Lafayette Square and periphery neighborhoods.

    The political leadership has to be bold and think outside of the box.

  • John w.

    Did Duany Plater-Zyberk contribute to this? …joking, of course, but these watercolor renderings appear to be ripped directly from the pages of a CNU publication. Well massed and ordered, but also ad nauseum with the historicizing esthetic. I’d prefer that the form be mated with an architecture that moves forward, and not backward.

    • If the historicism were truly rooted in the St. Louis vernacular (for instance, had the designer attempted to copy an actual roof form found in the city), you might have a different opinion.

      • Samuel Lima

        Very true, the roofs of most buildings shown in the project are unique, and unlike the roofs of most historic buildings in the city. The decision to alter the historic mansard roof type was intentional; here are a few reasons:

        1. Flat roofs require more maintenance and are more expensive in the long run. Most buildings with mansard roofs in St. Louis just treat the mansard portion as part of the facade and have a flat roof behind. This condition also means that roof repairs involve two different roof systems, which I wanted to avoid.

        2. The condition that I chose to design creates more space in the 3rd level than the simpler gable roof type with dormers that is also typical of St. Louis. That type would work equally well on any of the lots in the site, but was not included because I chose to focus on the mansard type.

        3. While I don’t mind architecture that is only elaborated to serve the composition of the streetscape, such as the false mansards, I personally try not to be overtly disingenuous in my own designs, preferring the real thing.

      • john w.

        Why would I have a different opinion? There is little need drape our city over with replication of previously prevalent building methods or styles, whether well-executed or not, when presented with such a nearly unprecedented opportunity to build anew at such a large scale, and in such a large area of contiguous land. Why champion the replication of what we should simply be preserving, rather than avail ourselves of an occasion for St. Louis city to be something more than late 19th century postcards? I’m presuming that you, Michael, more than anyone else in this forum or perhaps even in our whole city, can appreciate that.

  • Jack

    The drawings look good, very much Old St. Louis look and feel. But those of us of a certain age know that beautiful drawings seldom resemble the finished product.

    Either the scale is wrong, or the materials cheesy, or the political dabblers stir the pot for what they can get out of it. And the economic mix always seems to include more people with problem households that close- proximity housing can tolerate. In other words — another new Laclede Town, Pruitt Igoe, etc. — just insert your favorite public housing failure here.

    Anything in this city that is by nature a “project”, always ends up being, in fact, another “failed project.” My favorite is King Louis Square; a hideous “planned” community that looks like what it is: cheesy public housing, a shambles in 10 years.

  • cortez

    I wish I had the money to build this!

  • 3 “Likes” and a “Love It”

  • ben


  • Very nice idea — well designed, planned and justified.

    I especially like the housing stock “package” idea. I’ve been considering a similar approach as a way to minimize costs without conceding quality. Though I was thinking more along the lines of the site owner (the City of St. Louis) drafting four to six different building designs and selling lots to private/public entities to build, strictly using these plans — with optional variants such as facade details and brick type/color.

    Yours is as good an idea as any and I hope the City or McKee or whoever takes the reins on Pruitt consults your idea as a guide, Samuel. If nothing else, the renewed streetscape and central market plaza should make the cut.

  • stlsig

    Thats a well thought out and researched design. Alex, how often do designs like this ever get seen by the city? Thanks for re-posting.