Elizabeth Birmingham

Reframing the Ruins: Pruitt-Igoe, Structural Racism, and
African American Rhetoric as a Space for Cultural Critique

1The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, first published in 1977, Charles Jencks proclaims the death of high modernism. In doing so, he is able to time that death to the moment—the cloudless July 15 in 1972 when the first three building of St. Louis's infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex were dynamited. Indeed, Jencks is even able to provide the cause of death: the inability of this architectural style to create livable environments for the poor, in great part because the poor are not the nuanced and sophisticated "readers" of architectural space the educated architects were.1 There are several elements of this myth worth noting: that the Pruitt-Igoe's failure is noted and remembered as an architectural failure—a design flaw, wrought upon the unsophisticated poor by well-meaning intellectuals. What issues are not discussed in this myth are issues of race—the over 10,000 residents of Pruitt-Igoe were 98% African American—and issues of poverty. Though clearly the occupants of public housing are poor, the residents of Pruitt-Igoe were the poorest of the poor, with an annual median family income of $2,454 and a family including, on average, a mother and 4.28 children.2

Jencks notes with some postmodern irony, "Previously it [Pruitt-Igoe] had been vandalized, mutilated and defaced by its black inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, trying to keep it alive (fixing broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put out of its misery. Boom, boom, boom" (9). Jencks mentions race only in conjunction with the implication that the tenants of Pruitt-Igoe were uncivilized and destructive—the problems of Pruitt-Igoe are linked to bad behavior, not poverty and hopelessness. Moreover, the problems at the project are blamed on the destructive tenants, not on the minimal upkeep of the project by the Housing Authority. Jencks's myth has taken on a life of its own, in spite of several serious inaccuracies, and has become the central story in explaining the "death" of High Modernism.

2This ascendant myth about Pruitt-Igoe in discussions of modern architecture since Jencks follows a similar line of reasoning, suggesting that although modern architecture often sought non-referentiality, that goal was perhaps so at odds with a human need to make meaning through reference that those experiencing the architectural products of the modern movement had to re-encode the structures in order to read them—to make meaning of them. Therefore, that modernist desire to re-encode (or perhaps un-code) the built environment fell flat as the coding system of the architects came into conflict with the code (or signifying system) of the populace. According to Brent Brolin in The Failure of Modern Architecture:

In spite of the generally held belief fostered by modern architecture that technological societies share a common cultural denominator, each culture retains strong links to its own past. One way of expressing these connections is through visual traditions, but these have been intentionally excluded from modern cities throughout the world. The spiritual loss is real and people of all cultures sense it. (12)

Brolin's response, typical of the contemporary reactions against modern architecture, is in many ways equally universalizing, asserting that "all" people are likely to respond negatively to the modern city and read modern architecture as sterile. Moreover, Brolin simply rearticulates Charles Jenck's myth that modern architecture failed its constituency, "the people." Nowhere, the story goes, was this failure more apparent than in the conflicts surrounding St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe—Minoru Yamasaki's public housing project that became a monument to despair for its residents and a sign to contemporary theorists of the "failure of modern architecture."3 The ascendant narrative has articulated these messages so persuasively that the story barely changes from source to source, with many sources retaining even Jencks' original inaccuracies, and certainly his too-quickly drawn conclusions. In this paper then, I take on the ascendant myth that traces the failure of high modernism to the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe by asserting that the focus on poor people's inability to "read" high modernism, and hence Pruitt-Igoe, is not simply shifting the grounds of an argument that needs to about race and poverty. It is also simply wrong. The residents of Pruitt-Igoe read and de-coded that housing project perfectly, recognizing it for what it was—an urban reservation which had the effect of containing and segregating those residents from the rest of the city and the city's resources.

3I want to be neither an apologist for modern architecture nor do I wish to blame it for Pruitt-Igoe's failure. Clearly, architectural programs are bound up in the same racist ideologies that affect the rest of our culture—as Jenck's statement suggest—and perhaps high modernism, as an arguably elitist proposition, is worthy of particular examination and critique.4 However, viewing the problems of Pruitt-Igoe as design flaws is simply a way of avoiding serious questions of the complex entanglement structural racism has with our built environments. Catharine Bristol writes that it is problematic of architectural critics to "attribute of the problems of public housing to architectural failure, and propose as a solution a new approach to design. They do not in any significant way acknowledge the political-economic and social context for the failure of Pruitt-Igoe" (170). As Henri Lefebvre asserts in The Production of Space, "Authentic knowledge of space must address the question of its production." These questions of the how's and why's of Pruitt-Igoe's production have been erased from the discussion by focusing on design issues rather than the socio-historical moment at which Pruitt-Igoe was produced.

The Modernist Vision

4International Modernism in architecture is closely linked to modernist movements in a variety of fields—its goal was a rational, even scientific approach informed in part by a popular but imperfect conception of evolution. This teleological view suggested that progress toward a perfected world was inevitable, making the past obsolete. In addition, it led to beliefs about functionalism—that only the necessary, functional parts of structures should survive. There are several other elements informing modernist structures like Pruitt-Igoe that warrant being discussed in greater detail, because although the negative impact of these schemes has been indicted after the fact, it is as important to contextualize the theories that informed modernism as is it to deconstruct their impact. Describing the architectural theory that informed this period of urban history points to the ways in which planners rearticulated the assumed superiority of the dominant culture.

The idealistic rationality that underlies the modernist vision in architecture can be traced in part to Le Corbusier's theories that combine two very different, and perhaps even opposite theoretical strands. His idealism and attendant willingness to strive for a better future grew from his Calvinist education, his brush with Nietzschean elitism through Frank Lloyd Wright, and his reading of Ernest Renan's Life of Jesus which convinced him he was a "tragic revolutionary martyr come to redeem the world through architecture" (Kruft 396) which led him to approach his work with an evangelistic zeal. Like Christian evangelism, this idealism caught fire within the architectural community and architects' work took on "moral" aspects, often in the form of ascribing moral characteristics to matters of taste and assuming universalized ideas of "good." The second theoretical strand of rationalism seems to have come through the architectural treatises of Viollet-let-Duc (who in turn was influenced by Descartes and the Port Royalists) which attributed beauty to geometric purity and was central to the development of the modernists' aesthetic preferences for the sleek surfaces of the machine and their foundations in scientific rationality. This uneasy marriage of theoretical impulses underscored the work of many modernist architects and resulted in visible tension between the twin goals of rational expression and architecture for the "people." Modern architecture grew from the rationalist assertions that human beings and their needs, desires, and responses were universally similar. By proclaiming democracy and equality through the built environment, these architects hoped to shape the inhabitants of that environment into the beings the architecture asserted they were. This idea suggested that good or enlightened buildings would elicit similar attitudes or behaviors in individuals interacting with those buildings. This goal was quickly co-opted by capitalist interests 5 that supported widespread post-war urban renewal of the sort that occurred in St. Louis in the 1950's.

Pruitt-Igoe and the Modernist Vision

5The United States Housing Act of 1949 provided the federal moneys for urban redevelopment and slum removal that led to the design of Pruitt-Igoe by architect Minoru Yamasaki of the firm Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth. The housing project, located on a 57 acre site, consisted of 33 eleven-story, flat-topped apartment blocks sited to incorporate Le Corbusier's "three essential joys of urbanism: sun, space, and greenery." Pruitt-Igoe was meant to be surrounded by a "river of trees" winding through the open spaces and connecting the project to the surrounding neighborhoods, as Yamasaki told Architectural Forum in 1951. The almost brutally spare, unadorned surfaces were to reflect the dissolution of the old hierarchies that made luxuriously superfluous decoration a demarcator of wealth. The repetition of apartment after apartment opening to "streets in the air" where tenants and their children would be safe from traffic was said to be modeled on the metaphor of the hospital—a safe, hygienic, and healthful environment (Russell 23).
In early discussions of the project, like the one in Architectural Forum, features like open galleries and skip-stop elevators were hailed as "patentable" innovations that would help create "neighborhoods," even in the highest density public housing ever built in the U.S. The 12,000 inhabitants housed within a few city blocks created a small city within the larger city. Galleries were envisioned as places for children to play, mothers to meet for conversation and laundry, and places to store items such as bicycles. The early drawings depict middle-class white women strolling in plant-filled, sunlit galleries pushing baby carriages.
By making the text of Pruitt-Igoe read clean, safe, and democratic, Yamasaki desired to instill those same qualities in the housing project's inhabitants. Galleries, open horizontal space every third floor, 11 x 85' and oriented south, created spaces for neighborhood-like interaction among tenants, while skip-stop elevators, elevators stopping only at gallery floors, (and requiring tenants to walk up or down stairs to their apartments), assured that the gallery space would be used. In addition, laundry and open air drying facilities were also placed on gallery levels, as was space for storage. The design called for screening along the galleries to allow for "summer breezes," but shutters to "block winter winds" ("Slum Surgery" 131). Such a space was meant to encourage interaction among tenants, safe spaces for children and families, and clean, sunlit areas for recreation and neighborhood life.

6As designed in 1951, the project was segregated, with 1/3 the housing meant for whites (Pruitt) and 2/3 meant for African Americans (Igoe). However, before the project was finished, the Supreme Court handed down their decision ending segregation, which in practice (though not principal) guaranteed Pruitt-Igoe would house only African Americans, as whites could not be convinced to move into the project. Moneys for the project began to dry up immediately.6 Much of Yamasaki's design was altered based on a new lack of funds—his original design called for both the high-rises and garden apartments at a density of 30 per acre. Yamasaki explained that the housing authority forced him to double the density: "The best we could do," he said, "was to eliminate the low rise and add more slabs" (Bailey 23). In addition, as the population was increased, money for landscaping and any services (public spaces like gyms, playgrounds, a proposed grocery, even public bathrooms) disappeared. The only public structure left was a "community center" where housing authority offices were set up to collect rent and administrate the project. Architect Gyo Obata, who worked with Yamasaki, recalls that "[Yamasaki] tried and fought at every turn [for amenities]" (Bailey 23). The result though, was a housing project that represented to its tenants a system of powerful control because it encoded racist messages by isolating and containing a population that was 98% African-American. Not only did the tenants clearly decode very different meanings than the architects had hoped to encode, a claim that will be discussed in detail later in this paper, but in fewer than two decades architectural critics moved from hailing the structure's embodiment of democratic ideals to indicting it as a "Eurocentric, Enlightenment-driven product of capitalism" (Kruft 440).

Structural Racism and Architectural Analysis

7Contemporary architectural critics are particularly poised to engage the public in the sorts of critique that may begin to reshape the built environment. According to Cornel West, the United States is facing a complex cultural crisis to which postmodern architectural critics have responded inadequately with their focus on the symbolic content of architecture rather than architecture's "failure of vision [that] must be unpacked by means of structural and institutional analyses" (Keeping Faith 47). Part of this failure of vision has been the unwillingness to analyze structures beyond buildings—the larger social and economic forces that shape those buildings. West sees the influence of Foucault and Derrida as signs of deep (and positive) changes taking place in architectural criticism, suggesting:

The major virtue of the French invasion is that new possibilities, heretofore unforeclosed, are unleashed; the vice is that architectural critics lose their identity and focus primarily on academicist perspectives on the larger crisis of our culture—a focus that requires a deeper knowledge of history, economics, sociology and so on than most architectural critics have or care to pursue. My point here is not that this task should be abandoned by architectural critics. Rather, I am claiming that what architectural critics do know—the specificity of the diverse traditions of architectural practices—should inform how we understand the present cultural crisis. (Keeping Faith: 50)

West goes on to describe the ways in which architectural critics should be especially able to analyze the "structural and institutional dynamics of power" (Keeping Faith: 50). He offers no framework with which critics can take up this project, but only asserts that the project must focus on the demystification of the modernist proposition and must reach deeper than what Derrida would call the "surfaces of emergence" to deconstruct the binaries of power relationships (white, black; man, woman; modern, primitive; etc.) without simply inverting the hierarchical relationship in the pair.

8This paper then, is one of inquiry and exploration, a loose structure of corridors that seem to open into too many as yet unfinished rooms. My central claim is that the simplistic indictments of the modernist/rationalist propositions that informed Pruitt-Igoe do not provide an adequate lens for critiquing Pruitt-Igoe as site of conflict about not an architectural program alone but about any program's complex entanglement with structural racism. By suggesting that the problem of Pruitt-Igoe was a flawed design, theorists like Jencks shifted the discussion, disallowing interrogation of deeply embedded chasms of political, economic and social inequality.
African-American cultural critics (Cornel West, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, Marlon Riggs) have used the term "structural" racism to describe the ways in which racism is so deeply encoded in American society's structure as to seem natural. Cornel West implies that structural racism acknowledges that the relationship between structural constraints on black opportunities and behavioral impediments to black mobility are complex and entwined (Race Matters 11-12). Michael Eric Dyson expands this definition in Reflecting Black by describing "the complex ways in which everyday racism is structured, produced, and sustained in multifarious social practices, cultural traditions, and intellectual justifications" (30).

These authors often evoke the language of neo-Marxist cultural critics like Stuart Hall and Lawrence Grossberg in attempting to explain how racist messages can become so "tenaciously" linked to meanings beyond themselves that they take on a power that disempowers individuals and provides meanings so entrenched in the cultural consciousness as to seem natural. Explanations of this tenacity try to account for the ways in which racism has become a "structural" conceptual scheme, functioning within many levels of our society. Hall applies his critique to racist structures, which he claims are articulated by "'inferential racism' the apparently naturalized representation of events and situations relating to race, whether factual or 'fictional,' which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions" (48).

9I use the word "structural" to suggest all these things and more. I am using it as a metaphor—I'm signifying in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s sense, "calling out" as bell hooks would have it, "creating a cultural space that would promote rigorous analysis" (Dialectically Down 57). I am attempting to enlarge the discussion of what "structural" racism is by suggesting that while it is inarguably to be found within the structures of American society at all levels, it can be found equally in the discreet infrastructures and structures of our communities. Though Pruitt-Igoe was a physical structure, in this paper it acts as a metaphor for structural racism—a structure that deepened pre-existing chasms standing between African-Americans and cultural integrity, political power and educational/economic opportunity because its premises and "encoded" messages were inscribed with the unquestioned assumptions of structural racism.
To explore the relations among language, "structure," and architecture, I consider several related issues. I begin by describing a framework that opens a space for architectural critique based in the tropes of African-American rhetoric, specifically the ideas of literary and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and then employ this alternate framework as a lens through which I examine Pruitt-Igoe, not as a symbol of the failure of modernism, but as a possibility for re-reading and writing urban texts in ways that can provide a critique of structural racism and the ways in which architectural systems (like other social systems) can reinforce it.

Signifyin(g) as Text Analysis

10In The Signifying Monkey, cultural and literary critic, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., creates a space for cultural critique through the study of African American literary tropes. Although Gates has applied his framework specifically to the analysis of African-American literary and oratorical traditions, other scholars are applying Gates's work to a variety of other cultural artifacts: Black English (BE), rap music, filmmaking, television, and fashion. The application of Gates's work to architectural criticism is not far-fetched, particularly considering the long history of semiotics influencing architectural theory.
The earliest connections between semiotics and architecture emphasized a conduit metaphor to describe communicative acts—the way buildings as well as humans communicated. This metaphor is one that has remained essentially uninterrogated through the modernist period. When the earliest architectural critic, Vitruvius, wrote "in all matters, but particularly in architecture, there are those two points: the thing signified and that which gives significance" (4) he alluded to this metaphor. Much later Charles Sanders Pierce attempted to "deal with the signification of signs in all modes of signifying, that is the ways in which they actually carry meaning" (Broadbent 126). Geoffrey Broadbent, following after the rhetorical work of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, asserts that "any building, at any time, can be signifier, signified, and referent—or all three simultaneously" (134). To apply this model to the example of Pruitt-Igoe, the referent would be the buildings themselves, problematized somewhat because they no longer exist, but the buildings designed by Yamasaki in 1951 and first dynamited in 1972 and finished off in 1975-6. The structures also exist in signified form, for example photos of the site, or the blueprints, or to a certain extent, the description of the project that threads through this paper. The housing scheme is also a powerful signifier; for many it is a sign of a failed architectural scheme, for others, it represents a set of failed (liberal) social values, and for yet others it represents the power of a grassroots, anti-establishment movement to dismantle a signifier of racial oppression and hopelessness.

11In contrast, the ways in which post-structuralist theorists like Gates would dismantle this explanation would begin with a refutation of its basic premise: that there is necessary relationship between the referent, signified and signifier. Meanings are fluid, and much of interpretation (the accepted way of "reading" an object) is socially driven. In The Signifying Monkey, Gates summarizes the work of sociolinguists working in the area of BE and uses it to develop a framework for cultural critique of African-American rhetoric and literature. Gates's work relates to Derrida's theories in that he sees language as not referential or as a conduit for thought, but metaphorical and based in negotiated meaning. Nowhere are these qualities of language more clear than in BE, Gates suggests, which is deeply metaphorical in that its signification's have not historically attempted to mirror a single referent and in many cases function as a trope, or a play on a Standard English (SE) signifier. Because of this rich context of multiple associations, BE is a fluid dialect, but one that has a necessary relationship to SE meanings. Therefore, the black concept of signifying is only fully meaningful when contrasted with the white term that is its homonym. According to Gates:

Thinking about the black concept of Signifyin(g) is a bit like stumbling unaware into a house of mirrors: the sign itself seems to be doubled, at the very least, and (re)doubled upon closer examination. . . . This level of conceptual difficulty stems from—indeed, seems to have been intentionally inscribed within—the selection of the signifier "Signification" to represent a concept remarkably different from that concept represented by the standard English signifier, "Signification." (44-45)

The contrast between BE signifyin(g) and "signification" as a SE semiotic term is important. Gates diagrams the difference (48-49), suggesting that in BE, as in many other cultures with strong oral/rhetorical traditions, rhetorical figures such as metaphors are not and perhaps cannot be separated from their signifiers, just as in SE the signified and the signifier are traditionally linked, at least conceptually. The relationship of metaphor/signifyin(g), like the relationship of signifier/signifying, is a linked set and cannot be easily "unpacked." The metaphor becomes a part of what defines the thing it represents.

12Gates uses his understanding of African-American rhetorical forms to critique African American cultural artifacts—literature, oratory and music. His program is in part influenced by his unwillingness to use the critical/analytical frameworks of white culture to measure the products of black culture. His goal is to outline for readers the important linguistic aspects of BE, the tropes of black literature, and to devise a framework that illuminates the differences in black literature, celebrating its own social/cultural/political heritage and understanding it within those terms.
Gates employs notions of deconstructing binaries but adds an explicit political agenda through cultural critique. Gates provides a way of "reading" African-American culture that "traces" historic elements of dislocation, slavery, poverty and discrimination and powerlessness while locating his own analysis in rhetoric as language in action, inseparable from the social forces constituting it. It is in this light that I want to reexamine to Pruitt-Igoe through Gates's framework considering the complex entanglement among architecture, social forces and structures of racism, creating the possibility for re-reading and writing other urban texts in ways that provide a critique of structural racism and the ways in which architectural systems reinforce it.

A Second Look at Pruitt-Igoe: Rereading the Text

13I know it seems easy to point to Jencks's critique of modernism as simplistic, but the way in which his argument has become the ascendant story repeated by the popular press and even among other architectural critics makes it necessary to at least consider his argument. He suggests that the problem with modernist structures is that they don't function as signs in semiotic sense. Moreover, they especially seem foreign and unreadable to "regular people." (Though whether he considers the tenants of Pruitt-Igoe, who he characterized as animalistic and destructive, to be regular people, is indeed arguable.) One problem with reducing the problem of Pruitt-Igoe to one of a lack of shared codes ignores the fact that the development had little in common with the high modernism Jencks wishes to associate with it. We cannot ignore that though spare and unadorned, the quality of materials and construction in Mies's apartment towers on Chicago's lakefront provided a stark contrast to those used in subsidized housing. Mies's shining glass twin towers, complete with Lakeshore Drive addresses, combined all that was beautiful in modern architecture: shimmering glass curtain walls, geometric unity, Italian marble floors, and perfectly mitered steel beams. The comparison can't hold. If God were truly in the details, God had surely abandoned the tenants of Pruitt-Igoe.

14The details of the subsidized housing reflected Mies's ideals in no way. The apartments were similar in floor plan, small, with few features to distinguish one unit from another. According to Architectural Record's 1965, "The Case History of a Failure," the cutbacks forced on Pruitt-Igoe before construction began devastated the project. As problematic as the increased density were the decreased amenities: "The landscaping was reduced to virtually nothing and such "luxuries" as paint on the concrete block walls of the galleries and stairwells, insulation on exposed steam pipes, screening over gallery windows, and public toilets on ground floors were eliminated" (22). The project as designed, would have made use of contrasts between public and private space, but as built, it offered no public spaces. The indoor public space of the galleries was decimated by cost cutting measures and never became the green, plant-filled, screened front porches designers had envisioned. Children could not play unattended because of the dangers of falls or burns from exposed steam pipes. The only outdoor public spaces were simply open spaces, which while designed to link the project to the larger neighborhood, only created a barrier. The "essential joys" essentially isolated the complex from the city—the green-space never materialized as landscaping was deemed too expensive, and rivers of barren dirt served as the buffers between the apartment buildings and the parking lots surrounding them; the building stood as wastelands of concrete de-militarized zone surrounded by major streets. Because Pruitt-Igoe was built as part of a vast urban renewal project that razed city blocks of St. Louis, the project was left standing alone among the ruins. Escape was difficult, for complex reasons. The housing scheme was developed at ground zero of an urban renewal project that created physical distance between Pruitt-Igoe and the larger community to which it was not even connected by sidewalks. Churches, schools and even groceries were not easily accessible, nor were jobs or economic opportunity. Though the modernist vision for Pruitt-Igoe encoded it as healthful, clean, and safe, the argument that the tenants had no access to that reading doesn't accurately depict the situation.

15In Lee Rainwater's five year Harvard University Study, tenants of Pruitt-Igoe reported that most "liked their apartments very much" found them "clean and healthy" and "the best place they had lived" (11). However, the same proportion also reported that their neighborhood was less clean, less safe, and more unfriendly than any place they had lived. Though the architectural planners had gone to great lengths to introduce what they saw as community-building features in the design (galleries, etc.), community never materialized, according to Rainwater's study. Several reasons for this are associated with housing authority policies. Neighborhood relations were strained in part by the housing authority's policy of rewarding tenants who informed on the activities of other tenants, keeping all tenants nervous about sharing information or interacting with their neighbors. According to Rainwater, "Tenants are constantly expressing their concern that if neighbors learn too much about them, and if what they know involves something that is or seems to be in violation of the numerous Housing Authority regulations, they may inform the Housing Authority. . . " (113). Moreover, the most commonly reported "crimes" in Pruitt-Igoe were having income (which could include receiving gifts) or living with one's husband.7 Since these are things that a close acquaintance would likely have awareness of, many residents avoided close relationships with people who were not extended family members. According to one tenant, "down here it's not the stranger that you want to be afraid of, because you're going to be ready for him. . . .Your friends are the ones that'll put you in the trick" (Rainwater 21).

However, Rainwater's survey begins to undermine Jencks's argument that Pruitt-Igoe failed because tenants could not read the architecture. Clearly, the tenants "read" the apartments just as they were supposed to—as clean, healthy, etc. But the interaction of paternalistic regulation, racist segregation, and family-destroying welfare law made the project itself an unsafe, unfriendly environment. According to one tenant, "They were trying to get rid of the slum, but they didn't accomplish too much. Inside the apartment they did, but not outside" (12). In addition, the tenants, not being stupid, were able to "read" the real intent of the buildings' designers, that low-cost and low-services were the primary design considerations—the bottom line. Another tenant summed this up well: "They were trying to put a whole bunch of people in a little bitty space. They did a pretty good job—there's a lot of people here" (11). In contrast to the assertion that the signifying system of the "people" was in conflict with the encoding system of the architects, both comments here show a keen ability to differentiate between the stated purpose of the housing and the actual outcome of urban renewal. In addition, both comments show an ironic understanding of the gap between the assertion and reality. The second speaker is not suggesting the housing is well designed when she comments "they did a pretty good job," but only asserting ironically that "they" achieved exactly what they were trying to do when creating such high density housing. Each speaker slyly lets the listener know she knows the goal was to fit many people in "a little bitty space," not to design good housing or to recreate the functional neighborhoods that were destroyed in the effort to tear down slum housing. Gates would identify this as the ability to signify and read other signifyin(g) behaviors—each speaker is doing both by speaking the contradictions she hears spoken to her.

16Because of problems with vandalism, within two years after its construction, armed police officers regularly patrolled the grounds and buildings of the complex, ostensibly to keep the peace, though their presence served to further clear the public spaces of people and interaction. They seemed to be protecting not the tenants, but the property rights of the city-owners of the complex. Heavy metal grills and chain link fences were installed to enclose the "streets in the sky" after two children died and another was seriously injured in falls from upper story galleries. In the absence of playgrounds, treeless green spaces were read as athletic fields for children's play, and when the green was lost to impromptu baseball diamonds and football fields, the city chose not to maintain such spaces. They became dirt lots, like the rest of the razed city in which the development sat. When Rainwater asked tenants what they thought the government was trying to accomplish by building this housing, and what had actually been accomplished, one woman replied she guessed, "They were trying to better poor people (but) they tore down one slum and built another; put all kinds of people together; made a filthy place" (11). But this woman could only guess at the intentions and suggest those intentions might have been generous "to better poor people." She really only replied strongly when discussing the results, they "made a filthy place." Again, here response shows a clear understanding of the gap between intentions and results—and moreover, she was uncomfortable discussing intentions because the results were so ghastly. The recognition of this gap between rhetoric, what the government seems to be arguing, and lived experienced, the results of choices the government made, is consistently clear in responses of the Pruitt-Igoe tenants.
By the early '70s, vacancies had risen; the only tenants who stayed were those with nowhere else to go, most often single mothers with more that 4 children who couldn't find accommodation in the 1-2 bedroom apartment that made up other public housing projects. (In Pruitt-Igoe, one and two bedroom units had a vacancy rate of nearly 42% by this time, though 3-5 bedroom units were used to capacity.) . The high vacancy rates increased costs and cut maintenance. Elevators were never repaired (for that final 3 years) leaving some tenants with 11 story climbs with children and groceries. Soon after, the city quit providing any services to Pruitt-Igoe, according to tenants from the early '70s. In contrast to their earlier constant presence, police and firefighters no longer responded to calls. Mail carriers refused to deliver packages, as did retail deliveries (Comerio 27). In 1972, after extensive arson damage and years of vandalism, the city of St. Louis dynamited three of Pruitt-Igoe's apartment blocks. According to Kate Nesbitt, Pruitt-Igoe was "An anti-utopian derivative which both inspires and deserves destruction" (22). It inspired destruction for 14 years, as tenants fought against its prison-like constraints.

17Nesbitt focuses on the point of juncture (or rupture) between the tenants' metaphoric reading of Pruitt-Igoe and their destructive response to that reading, rather than the supposedly encoded modernist message they were supposed to respond to by developing middle-class virtues of citizenship and hard work. Again though, she seems aware of the tenant's ability to correctly read the doubled message they were receiving. The two messages function, as Gates would have it, rather like a "hall of mirrors" (44). Each is a distorted reflection of the other—for on one hand the building does claim to offer the hope of its conservative 1950's time, that through hard work and minimal governmental invention, anyone can pull her/himself up. Yet "anyone," even in that myth, meant an adequately educated white man—clearly not Pruitt-Igoe's population. The second message was relayed more consistently, even while it was denied through silence: that the people of Pruitt-Igoe were dangerous, criminal, and needed to be imprisoned. For example, the St. Louis Globe Democrat, the local newspaper, referred to every criminal offense in the downtown area as a "Pruitt-Igoe" crime—which became the local code-word for African American. So by following Gates, it is possible to think about "reading" not the structure, but the point of rupture where the narrative of the dominant culture breaks with the lived reality of African American tenants at Pruitt-Igoe.

18In fact, Pruitt-Igoe's tenants read the structure as if it were the prison it physically resembled, and as if it were the prison the dominant community attempted to shape it into. Tenant Thomas Coolidge talked about Pruitt-Igoe in the terms one might use to talk about a prison, conflating the signification of the project with a prison: "To a person who cannot afford the luxuries that a person can have, Pruitt-Igoe is what you might say was forced upon them. This is the last resort. . . . Yes, the environment is very bad. If a person could get outside I'm sure he wouldn't be here. If I could get on the outside. . .I wouldn't be here either" (18-19). Coolidge's discussion of Pruitt-Igoe as being "inside" and the rest of the world as "outside" uses the very language often used to describe being imprisoned; he sees the project as imposed or "forced" on him by outside forces, not as a housing choice among several. Unsurprisingly, the tenants treated Pruitt-Igoe as if it were this prison, not because they "misread" the project as a prison, but because they understood that the larger community wished them imprisoned—they were many blocks from commercial services, unconnected by sidewalks or public transit (the sort of infrastructure the rest to the city had access to), and though 86% of them claimed a desire to "get out," they were unable to escape. Moreover, in spite of the claim that they would like to get out, large numbers claimed fear of the "outside." What is perhaps the most surprising part of this scenario, and the part still wholly uninterrogated, is the reality that Pruitt-Igoe was not a metaphorical prison, but functioned as a prison in fact, complete with bars on windows and doors, chain link fences, guards, enforced segregation from the larger community. And yet blame for the project's demise, as in Jencks's rendition, was repeatedly placed with the tenants themselves. For example, Yamisaki said in 1968, "I never thought people could be that destructive."

"Signifyin(g)," writes Gates, "presupposes an 'encoded' intention to say one thing but to mean quite another" (82). The predominately African-American tenants of Pruitt-Igoe had no difficulty reading the intention of the larger white community because they knew they were being signified on—that they were being told one thing that was quite in contrast to the reality of their situation. Gates suggests that while signifyin(g) often displays itself in literature as a "subtle and witty use of irony" (90) more often it manifests itself in "establishing necessary distance between themselves [African-Americans] and their condition to Signify upon white racism" (94). Often such signification's include turns on white culture and language, turns which might even be characterized as revisions (112-113). One way of reading the history of Pruitt-Igoe is by examining the de(con)structive moves of the tenants as revisions of a text representing their confinement and separation from larger society. Graffiti, a method of marking territory and proclaiming ownership literally rewrote the austere facades of the complex. Repeatedly tearing down the enclosing chain link fences could be read as an attempt to rewrite the "prison" text, a way of at least briefly, enlarging world views from the galleries. And as Rainwater, Bauer, Bristol and others argue, it could simply be read as anger toward the racist culture that built the structures meant to contain them and limit their lives to a few city blocks.

19According to architectural historian David Clarke, within only a few years of first construction, the elevators and corridors became rank with the odor of urine—which Clarke attributes to the employment of skip-stop elevators in housing designed primarily for children under 12:

With a certain mathematical elegance, the single elevator per building stopped at only the fourth, seventh, and tenth floor, thus forcing a third of each elevator's passengers to walk down either one, two or zero stories. That's not much of a walk (if the elevator's working) and think of the savings! But the empiricists never put themselves in the place of an eight-year old on the playground with a full bladder; one for whom all the buildings and all the entrances and all the elevators looked alike and never left the playground until he or she really had to. (73)

Clarke's interpretation is no doubt in part accurate—such innovations as the skip-stop elevator, combined with no public, first floor bathrooms made the project inhospitable to children (who were the vast majority of the project's tenants, outnumbering adults 4.5:1). However, doubtless some of the propensity for urinating/defecating within the buildings themselves (by children and most certainly some adults) suggests a general hostility toward the structures of Pruitt-Igoe and the lack of connection these structures had to anything their inhabitants could read as "houseness." 8 In these actions can be traced what Gates would call "the historical effects of dislocation," the historical lack of "home."

20In each of these situations, signifyin(g) is language in action, language as act; it points to the epistemic nature of language as it focuses on language's ability to make meaning, to bring ideas into being. According to Gates, the act of signifyin(g) exists

in marked contrast to the supposed transparency of normal speech . . . [it] turns upon the free play of language itself, upon the displacement of meanings, precisely because it draws attention to its rhetorical structures and strategies and thereby draws attention to the force of the signifier. (53)

The violent response of Pruitt-Igoe's tenants, who conflated their reading of the stark, isolating institutional structure with their readings of the structures of racism, most certainly drew attention to the force of the signifier—a prison-like structure of racism, but never a home.
According to bell hooks, home is an especially important concept for African-Americans: "Throughout our history, African Americans have recognized the subversive value of homeplace, of having access to private space where we do not directly encounter white racist aggression" (yearning 47). In the case of Pruitt-Igoe and countless other public housing projects, home becomes a metaphor for white racist aggression—or more to the point, generations of African-Americans are being rendered "home"less, because the place they live cannot be a home; they are relegated to wasteland tracts that we must begin to view as contemporary urban reservations.

21Urban housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe function as a sign of structural racism because they are part of a complex social and economic system that reinforces nihilistic behaviors by physically enforcing barriers to the opportunities this society affords middle-class whites. The relation of the architectural housing programs to the structures of our (racist) society assures that the structure of racism will be present in our structures. Architecture was and is informed by a series of beliefs that go nearly uninterrogated in American culture. In "Pruitt-Igoe and Other Stories," Mary Comerio writes, "While it is natural for architectural critics to focus on the stuff design is made of: space, proportion, structure, form and other essential elements of building, it is unnatural to ignore the social, economic, and political structure of society that ultimately shapes what architects do, how they do it, and why" (23). Though this is only one start, Gates's critical program may help provide a way for us to reread this one project as more than design alone, to unravel the historical entanglements between architecture and racism, and make a space for architectural critics to find creative ways to de(con)struct the structures of racism.


1 Jencks's argument in this book is for a semiotic reading of architecture—a reading he believes is possible with post-modern architecture, which is much more clearly referential than high modernism. Because reading high modernism necessitates a more thorough understanding of architectural theory and history before the viewer understands precisely what modernism is reacting against, Jencks and others have declared it elitist.

2 According to Lee Rainwater's study of Pruitt-Igoe, Behind Ghetto Walls, the average per capita income at the project was $498 per year in 1966, making Pruitt-Igoe the poorest of all public housing developments in St. Louis at the time (13).

3 Mary Comerio in her article "Pruitt-Igoe and Other Stories" and Katharine Bristol in "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," both do an excellent job tracing the birth of the contemporary Pruitt-Igoe narrative from the actual history of the project to the birth of the myth—that myth being that Pruitt-Igoe failed, at least in part, because its tenants couldn't "read" it.

4 A project that has been undertaken since Jane Jacobs took on the topic in the early 1960's. In 1976 Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter's Collage City first made the argument, using photos of Pruitt-Igoe for the first time. Catherine Bauer later took on the issue in a series of articles in the Journal of Housing, arguing that the consistent use of high-rise, high-density housing in urban renewal projects marked the fact that business and city officials chose profit over safe public housing. In many cities, as in St. Louis, neighborhoods were razed and commercial districts built in their place, while housing was moved to the periphery of the urban center. Bauer effectively argued that the drive for economic profit, and its attendant problems of isolation, high-density, a poor quality building materials, not non-referential architecture, led to urban problems with high modernism.

5 See Catherine Bauer, Journal of Housing, volume 9 1952.

6 According to the U.S. Public Housing Administration's Annual Report in 1951, housing projects nationally faced cuts in funding due to the expense of the Korean War and the conservative Congress's unwillingness to more than minimally fund any public housing. But cities, left to disperse what little federal moneys remained available, tended to create higher density, lower service housing in areas to be inhabited by African Americans, according to Arnold Hirsch's The Making of the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1966. Moneys seemed to be cut more drastically to all African American Pruitt-Igoe than to two other integrated, lower density housing projects being built in St. Louis at the same time.

7 In order to qualify for AFDC and/or housing subsidies in Missouri at this time, the female head of the household had to have been abandoned by her husband. Simply having both parents unemployed could not qualify a family for welfare benefits, causing the population of Pruitt-Igoe to be skewed—of the nearly 11,000 tenants in 1966-7, only 900 were adult men.

8 According to Rainwater's study, the apartments at Pruitt-Igoe were in general, neat and clean. People were not urinating/defecating inappropriately in their own apartments.

Sources Cited:

Bailey, James. "The Case History of a Failure." Architectural Forum 123.12 (1965): 22-25.

Bristol, Katharine. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth." Journal of Architectural Education 44.3 (1991): 163- 171.

Broadbent, Geoffrey. "A Plain Man's Guide to the Theory of Signs in Architecture." Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture, ed. Kate Nesbitt. New York: Princeton U P, 1996.

Brolin, Brent C. The Failure of Modern Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company: 1976.

Clarke, David. Arguments in Favor of Sharpshooting. Beaverton, OR: Timberland P, 1984.

Comerio, Mary C. "Pruitt-Igoe and Other Stories." Journal of Architectural Education 34.1 (1981): 25-31.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Reflecting Black: African American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford U P, 1988.

Hall, Stuart. "On Postmodernism and Articulation: An Interview with Stuart Hall." Ed. Lawrence Grossberg. Journal of Communication Inquiry. 10.2 (1986): 45 - 60.

hooks, bell. "Dialectically Down with the Critical Program." Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent. Seattle: Bay P: 1992.

-----. Talking Back. Boston: South End P, 1989.

-----. Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End P, 1990.

Jencks, Charles. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 5th ed. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.

Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Morris, Charles. "Foundations of the Theory of Signs." International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol. II. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1938. (qted, Broadbent)

Rainwater, Lee. Behind Ghetto Walls. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970.

Russell, Beverly. Architecture and Design 1970 - 1990. New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1989.

"Slum Surgery In St. Louis." Architectural Record 94.4 (1951): 128-146.

Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture, trans., M. H. Morgan, 1914. New York: Dover, 1960.

West, Cornel. "Race and Architecture." Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. New York: Routledge, 1993.

-----. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.


Positionen Positions Pozicii