Pruitt-Igoe which later played important part. Missouri law, at

Pruitt-Igoe stands
as a synonym of a failed attempt of public housing project in the American
metropolis. St. Louis was, like many other cities in the post war period,
experiencing the shift of population. White middle-class was leaving towards
the suburbs, while city slums in the city center were growing. In 1954
Pruitt-Igoe was built to counteract the emptying-out and decay of city center.
It was designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki in a High Modernist style, as
one of hundreds of redevelopments across the country. Series of events that
followed from its completion, made the situation unbearable to the point the
housing authorities chose to erase their own project rather than pursue a
rehabilitation that kept producing negative results. The towers were demolished
less than two decades after they were built. “…today the site hosts a vast
tangle of plants, a literal urban jungle where entropy finally exercises its
untrammeled chaos.” (Dash Nelson G., 2009).

I will present
the series of events, actions of the housing authorities and people that lived
in Pruitt-Igoe and the profoundly embedded economic and political situation at
that time, that tell the story behind the Pruitt-Igoe. These events together
formed the reason the project failed.

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Pruitt- Igoe was
built on a 57-acre site on the north side of the city, the center of the black
ghetto community. It consisted of thirty-three high-rise housing blocks that
together provided 2700 public housing units. The structure was different than
existing neighborhoods and aimed to provide the poor with clean, open space,
that would liberate them form overcrowded conditions, they experienced while
they lived in ghettos. The architects led by Minoru Yamasaki produced design
modernist style that included contemporary innovations, but because of the
tight budget they had to compromise on a number of issues, which later played
important part.

Missouri law, at
the time the design was produced, mandated that public buildings must be
segregated. Originally Pruit part of the complex was intended for poor black
people and Igoe part for white people. This changed in 1954 with the
desegregation act but instead of integration all white inhabitants abandoned
Pruitt- Igoe, making it exclusively black dwelling. Even though Pruit- Igoe was
built for the middle class, the abandonment of white people caused it to turn
into economic and racial ghetto instead. Because of the economic situation had,
by 1960, majority of middle-class white people left St. Louis, which in turn
created a housing demand gap. This opened up the previously tight inner-city
rental market to blacks. Many of them preferred to live in inexpensive private
dwellings over the public housing, which in turn led Pruitt-Igoe’s occupancy
rate to decline.

The decline in
occupancy had direct impact on the St. Louis Housing Authority’s ability to
maintain the project, because the amount of money received through rents
reduced. At first, they tried to compensate for the problem by raising the
rents, however this caused that even more people moved elsewhere. Empty funds
led to deterioration and devaluation of the building that combined with chronic
neglect of maintenance made living conditions for the people inside almost

A strong
association can also be made between architectural flaws and Pruitt-Igoe’s
deterioration. The design compromises architects had to make started showing
very early. Poor build quality and cheap fixtures showed strain almost
immediately after the first occupants moved in the building. Electricity
malfunctions, mechanical breakdowns of the elevators often left people trapped
in them for hours, smell from garbage incinerator was spreading through the
whole buildings and sewage leakage because of the faulty plumbing were just one
of them. Increasing poverty of tenants combined with growing dissatisfaction
with the conditions led to vandalism. Architectural features that were meant to
revive the community turned to be dangerous and were avoided.

The vandalism
was also accompanied by increasing rates of violent crime. Gang activities and
drug dealings spread through the Pruitt-Igoe neighborhood. The high-rise
buildings provided a good lookout point to the surrounding area, thus making
any police intervention difficult and almost always unsuccessful. Prostitution,
increasing number of rapes and murders followed soon.

Unsatisfied by
the conditions, Pruitt- Igoe tenants, in 1969 participated in massive
nine-month rent strike. This further depleted the Housing Authority’s limited
financial reserves and worsened the vacancy problem and forced the Department
of Housing and Urban Development to consider closing the project. In 1972, in
an attempt to improve the situation caused by poor maintenance, vandalism and
criminality, they demolished three buildings in the center of the project,
while Pruitt- Igoe’s remaining tenants were moved to other remaining buildings.
When even this attempt failed, they in 1976 demolished the whole complex.

It is not a
single reason but a sum of them that led to downfall of Pruitt-Igoe. “The decay
and hopelessness of the society inhabiting it. As occupancy plummeted and the
buildings developed the scars of underclass anger and racist neglect, the
project became an icon of the physical and moral blight…? stand as a?…reminder
that every built structure, especially public ones, is a bricolage of the
various intellectual, political, economic, and design forces which animate it.”
(Boym S., 2009)


Aravena’s Elemental housing


The Chilean
architect Alejandro Aravena, with his firm Elemental is globally known for his
major contribution in social housing design. Often working with financial
restraints, vulnerable social groups and difficult criteria, they developed
innovative approach to this kind of projects. The main focus of their social
housing work is on urban design, community development and public
infrastructure, all done in close participation with residents.  “Elemental’s insistence on referring to their
housing work as urban projects is an indication of their desire to protect
existing communities and design neighborhoods, rather than individual
buildings. Theirs is a participative design process that responds to the
individual needs and circumstances of each community. Through acknowledging
what is available both economically and socially they act as spatial agents,
transforming the meagre housing subsidy into a tool that can genuinely be used
to address the huge housing deficit.” (Miles 2014) The goal is also ensuring
that each property unit would rise in value over time, so that the social
housing projects would become social investment rather than a social
expense.  Generally speaking, middle
class housing in expected to increase its value, which is not the case with
social housing. Moreover, it is exactly the opposite. It is the keen interest
in this essay to understand how is it possible to generate cost-effective
social housing. This was especially important in Chile, because of the polices
dealing with social housing deficit in last twenty years, over ten billion
dollars was spent. The process in which this occurs is best explained in a case
study, more precisely two of them. They do vary in the context which will even
prove that this prototype methodology can be adapted with the same positive

The first task
assigned to the company by Chilean Government in the town of Iquique, was to
settle the hundred families that were squatting in the city center for more
than thirty years. On the edge of the Atacama Desert, in the same 5000 sqm site
that was occupied a new low-income settlement by the name Quinta Monroy was to
be built. A relocation and displacement to periphery was avoided at all cost.
That land is normally far away from the opportunities of work, education,
transportation and health that cities offer. (Quinta Monroy 2018) The current
Housing Policy allowed them the budget of US$7,500 to pay for the land, the
infrastructure and the architecture. “Considering the current values in the
Chilean building industry, US$ 7,500 allows for just around 30 sqm of built
space.” (Quinta Monroy 2018). First task was to create enough population
density to get good value in terms of land use, but without getting
overcrowding. These restraints happen globally, where the budget is not enough
to provide appropriate size and quality of unit. The solution came within the
idea of building a “half a house”. Meaning that the initial small unit could be
doubled in size by the residents themselves over the time. Basic infrastructure
was provided inside the built unit, as structure, firewalls, kitchen and
bathroom. Leaving the rest half of house empty, but structurally possible for
owners to extend it by their needs.  “The
results? People were able to double the area of their original homes (36 square
metres) at a cost of only $1,000 each. Today, five years later, any house in
the Elemental Iquique project is now valued at over $20,000.” (Quinta Monroy
2018). On the property in between the private and public space, new common
areas were implemented, where families could interact and socialize, helping each
other surviving fragile social conditions. The interaction would involve around
twenty families per area to create tight, strong communities. From this social
housing concept, grew around hundred variations. Elemental made significant
step to creating an improved social housing by publishing the plans for some of
them, to be freely used and studied by anyone.

In 2010, another
significant project was done in the Chilean town Constitución. After a strong
earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale and the following tsunami,
destroying major part of Chilean coast, Elemental started working on that
matter. Entire Villa Verde area was populated by two-story half houses,
positioned on a high hill above the town. In this case the budget given to
produce 9,000 units was higher, but still following initial half a house
concept and growth scenario to higher standard. Built area of unit was 57 sqm,
expandable up to 85 sqm, making low-income houses affordable. The goal was
building the community and providing home owners enough of a starting point in
which they could invest by time and improve on their homes. In this case,
reducing the construction times was as important from social and economic
standing point. The families who lost their homes urgently needed a new
accommodation. On the other hand, contractor’s general expenses where rising
with each day, reducing the total neighborhood budget. Citizen participation
was highly emphasized on this project. Various unconventionally workshops were
organized to socialize the project with the families. They were especially
educated how the expansions should be performed to improve the house. It is the
owner’s responsibility to maintain structural safety and generate added value.
The government role in this project was financing surrounding infrastructure
such as energy distribution systems, waste management, public spaces and
facilities maintenance.

“So, we only
suffered material losses, but that can be regained somehow, and we got over it.
When we got here it was a very happy experience, really.” Oriana Pinochet
Villagra, after three years living in Villa Verde