Winning projects envision new life for Pruitt-Igoe site
What do you think of when you hear the term Pruitt-Igoe?
Instead of doomed high-rise public housing buildings, try envisioning a swath of native Missouri plants, or ingredients for ice cream, or a living educational workshop where young people try to make ideas come true.
Pruitt-Igoe Now, the competition seeking ideas and designs to rejuvenate the site of the long-gone housing project in north St. Louis, has announced its top three finishers. The top three will be awarded $1,000, $750 and $500 respectively.
First Prize: St. Louis Ecological Production Line
Second Prize: Recipe Landscape
Third Prize: The Fantastic Pruitt Igoe!
The original call for the competition summoned “individuals and teams of professional, academic, and student architects, landscape architects, designers, writers and artists of every discipline to re-imagine the 57 acres on which the Pruitt-Igoe housing project was once located."
Despite promises that the site would be reborn after the legendary implosion of its high-rise apartments in the ‘70s, such “rebirth has never arrived. The spectacle of the detonations created momentum toward the accelerated death of Pruitt-Igoe, and led to public sentiment against high-rise housing and even modernist architecture.”
Though the St. Louis Public Schools used part of the site for new buildings, the rest “has lain fallow, an urban forest grown dense with native species, its boundaries delineated by a tall chain link and barbed wire fence meant to discourage a curious public.”
One of the managers of the competition, Michael Allen, is director of the Preservation Research Office, which promotes projects involving architectural history, cultural memory and a sense of community.
Allen said the competition garnered 348 submissions, more than three times what he expected, which shows that the site resonates in the consciousness of those who are interested in urban landscapes.
“Pruitt-Igoe is a very important site,” he said. “It is one that architects, planners and artists are very excited to engage. That site and its history are so vivid in the recent memory of this country. You don’t have to say much other than the name Pruitt-Igoe and people know exactly what you are talking about.”
What’s next? Allen said he plans to make sure the winning designs are in the public eye as much as possible. And he wants developers who have paid attention to north St. Louis, like Paul McKee, to be aware of the range of possibilities that the competition has raised, from landscape intervention to architectural intervention to building the site back into the city grid.
“The whole shrinking city movement deals with these sorts of issues,” he said. “This happens to be a large vacant site with a history of its own, but it also plays into the larger debate over the question of what do you do with pieces of land like that?
“The quality of the submissions was excellent. I was truly amazed at the talent and the imagination involved. It really fulfilled the whole purpose of the competition.”
This March marked the 40th anniversary of the first demolition on the site and also the call for new ideas to achieve its revitalization. Here are the winning projects that mapped out ideas for the next 40 years and beyond.
St. Louis Ecological Production Line
As people flee from urban areas, the land left behind often shrinks back into itself. When a site has a troubled history like Pruitt-Igoe, a sad state of ecological affairs can become even more troublesome.
For their winning entry, Heather Dunbar and Xiaowei Wang, students at Harvard’s graduate school of design, decided to reimagine the 57 acres as a “memorial and a beginning for the current site to be absorbed and integrated into the surrounding urban fabric.”
Terming their idea an “ecological assembly line,” using species native to Missouri, they said it could serve as “the point where plots of reclaimed land become productive ecological and economic generators for the city. Beyond urban agriculture, our proposal consists of tree nurseries and plant nurseries that capitalize on the favorable growing conditions of St. Louis to provide plantings and trees to over 13,000 acres of St. Louis parks.”
Their plan is laid out in four phases, spreading projects throughout the acreage like aquaculture, trees and plants, many of them endangered.
Dunbar said that focus would help make productive the land that once was bustling with activity but now, as in many urban centers, has been largely abandoned.
“When we began looking at the site,” Dunbar said in an interview, “we looked at what Pruitt-Igoe was now and thought it needed to stay as an urban memorial, to recognize the importance of letting it be but also having it be a centerpoint where we could start looking northward.
“We found that the north St. Louis area is experiencing what many cities are, losing population. We thought we could decommission that land and tie it in with a larger ecological process to serve the immediate neighborhood and beyond.”
The site would not necessarily be a place for active use, like Forest Park, but rather one where could go and appreciate nature.
“It’s not a park that serves recreational activity,” Dunbar said. “This is a productive landscape that is doing something. It is multilayered. But it is also a workplace where things are growing.”
Such a concept, the designers said, could move the site into a next phase of development.
“The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe signaled the end of modernism,” their proposal said, “and as we see it, the beginnings of an ecological urbanism that is the driver of economic and social upswing. Rather than close-ended social engineering through architecture, our proposal designs and sets forth new sets of possibilities, allowing for flexible use and a multi-faceted set of outputs.”
You don’t often hear Pruitt-Igoe and Ted Drewes discussed together, but the design submitted by Aroussiak Gabrielian and Alison Hirsch ties them together in a special urban recipe using animal husbandry, beekeeping and cultivation of plants.
It’s also designed to remind people that Pruitt-Igoe didn’t always have negative connotations.
“Though memories of Pruitt-Igoe haunt St. Louis and discrimination plagued the project from the start,” the designers say, “its early history included dance, exchange and strong social ties. Our proposal celebrates that often-overlooked history by reinstating a landscape of collective ritual and domestic life.”
Through animals and bees, the site would produce milk and honey, leading to “the most savored delight of all – ice cream.”
Besides Ted Drewes, Hirsch notes that St. Louis has an historic connection with ice cream, back to the first cones served at the 1904 World’s Fair and the fabled concoctions at Crown Candy Kitchen.
“Rather than hiding the scars of history that represent not just an event but pertuating social inequities still palpable in the surrounding environment,” the designers said, in their plan “the footprints of the buildings are excavated and planted with gardens that generate 33 flavors to be mixed with milk and honey to produce Pruitt-Igoe ice cream varieties.”
Turning the site into a land of milk and honey, Hirsch said in an interview, was a way “to generate a design proposal that was optimistic, productive and commemorative, recalling memories that are both positive and painful.”
She noted that the concept of a recipe is “a set of instructions that leaves room for improvisation” – just the type of attitude they want the revamped site to convey.
Hirsch said she also saw possibilities of partnerships with the various life sciences institutions in the area.
On a broader scale, the designers said “the processing of natural ingredients adjacent to their place of production contributes to the conversation on food security and public health (despite the welcomed indulgence of the product). The Pruitt School is transformed into a dairy and creamery where ice cream is made and which continues as an educational center for the study of urban agriculture, environmental stewardship and cultural rituals of food preparation and eating.”
The Fantastic Pruitt-Igoe!
The project was designed as a way to connect designers with youth in the St. Louis area to give young people a greater say in designing their environment. The result, ideally, would be “a generation who believes in their ability to reshape and rebuild the city.”
The plan also takes note of “the importance of the Pruitt-Igoe site in St. Louis’ collective memory,” a place that “demands that it be treated as a place that can facilitate citizens’ engagement in defining their own futures. This process approaches the site as a place of agency, where memory and future possibility can come together to allow St. Louis’ youth to help define new futures for themselves and their city.”
In January, the design team toured the site with local students and brainstormed with them on what they like and don’t like about the city. Students imagined what the future of the site could become – an amusement park, an animal park, a homeless shelter, a place for teens to hang out and a place that the generations could share.
Next step: a pilot project called Home Base, where a curriculum that could be used in local school would be implemented by a youth council that could govern the site. The process could then be repeated each year, as future classes take the ideas in new directions.
Each class of eighth-graders would be expected to submit a proposal to revise the site in terms of its structure, its programs and temporary activities like painting a mural or playing a game.
“Because we work with youth already,” said Alexandra Miller of the Social Agency Lab, “it seemed pretty logical not to concentrate so much on the physical aspects of the Pruitt-Igoe site but to focus on the process side: how it would be a good site for youth to realize some of the ideas we had come up with.
“We wanted to take an opposite approach of the original concept of Pruitt-Igoe, to change people by changing where they live. That was kind of a modernist idea in architecture, but we have seen the results of that social experiment – it doesn’t work. You have to have the support of people and bring them in from the very beginning of the process so people buy into the idea. The youth we worked with were really amazing and had a lot of great ideas.”
Miller said her group had worked with the Rebuild Foundation in St. Louis to help engage young people in such projects, so using a similar strategy at Pruitt-Igoe was a natural.
“Our goal is to continue working with Rebuild, to move forward with creating an actual curriculum” she said.
“We want to make sure that we leave some sort of product behind, not just a dream. Whether it’s at Pruitt-Igoe or not is not as important as whether kids are actually learning something.”