The third installment of the Mini Microcinema’s series on urbanism and the city co-sponsored by the UC Center for Film and Media Studies and School of Planning, took place on November 9. The selection of films on revolved particularly around the ruins of modernist design. Chad Freidrichs’s feature-length documentary The Priutt-Igoe Myth (2011) and documentary shorts A Plea for Modernism (Evan Mather, 2011) and A City within a City (Cylixe, 2013) looked at particular instances of decaying modernist structures in St. Louis, New Orleans, and Caracas. The evening’s films were introduced by a brief architecture lecture by Conrad Kickert, Assistant Professor of Urban Design at DAAP, and were followed by group discussion. This series is part of the ambitious programming happening at the Mini Microcinema’s recently opened location in Over-the-Rhine.

The mere notion of a “modernist ruin” seems like a contradiction in terms. For something to be “modern,” it casts off and transcends the past, whereas a ruin is a romantic reminder of past glories. Modernist design also had utopian aspirations attached to its ahistorical forms. From Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, mid-century architectural design and urban planning were thought to be a rejection of historicism and the panacea for all social ills. Of course, modernist design did not create a utopia: by the closing decades of the twentieth century regional and historical reference entered back into design and modernism’s top-down rhetoric of rational city planning was roundly condemned.

The ruins that remain continue to interest writers, historians, and even contemporary artists, such as Amie Siegel (Provenance, 2013) and Jane and Louise Wilson (A Free and Anonymous Monument, 2013). The filmmakers in this program had a similar interest in the ruin, though not out of a romantic fetishization, but rather through a desire to unpack and connect these spaces to lived experience and history. No complex was more representative of the once hopeful moment and catastrophic decline than Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis. Built with federal funds from the Housing Act of 1949, Pruitt-Igoe and related projects were meant to rid cities of overcrowded ghettos and provide open spaces and livable homes for the city’s poor. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth opens with shots of the overgrown vacant lot and what remains of the modernist ruin, then begins to detail  how and why this social promise was never met.

Completed in 1954 and demolished in 1972, Pruitt-Igoe became synonymous with crime, urban blight, unlivable conditions, and racial segregation. Its demolition was nationally televised and was a central image in Godfrey Reggio’s classic experimental film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982). Architectural historian Charles Jencks cited its destruction as “the day modern architecture died.” Indeed the catastrophe of Pruitt-Igoe is often linked to the failure of two midcentury concepts: modernist urban design and federal social programs for the welfare state.

The documentary seeks to debunk both of these myths by looking instead at chronic failures by developers and federal agencies to plan for maintenance, as well as wider racial and socio-economic issues in St. Louis. Through its excellent use of candid interview footage with former residents and an astonishing collection of archival footage throughout the life of Pruitt-Igoe, the film convincingly chronicles the specificity Pruitt-Igoe’s tragedy, removing it from its status as the bad object of modern architecture.

Most striking was how the film effectively exposed the systemic racism underlying Pruitt-Igoe’s decline. Though developers believed the city of St. Louis was on the brink of a population boom in 1954, the city actually lost residents because of the decline of manufacturing and the flight of white citizens to the suburbs. Shocking archival footage in the film shows white suburbanites expressing their fear of “trash people” who do not “behave middle class.” One woman even bluntly says she wanted to live somewhere white. Similarly, the policies of the welfare department contained underlying racist associations about the behavior of poor people, splitting up families and cultivating a climate of control and resentment.

Living conditions deteriorated as residents grew increasingly economically and socially disenfranchised from the city. As dark corridors and empty spaces proliferated and security budgets were slashed, non-residents found ample drug havens and places to prey on residents among Pruitt-Igoe’s increasingly hostile surroundings. Interviews with residents who were mostly children during this time demonstrate the profound psychological effects of these policies and the ways in which the residents of Pruitt-Igoe were scapegoated for conditions they did not create.

What the film fails to address, however, is almost any discussion of design. While its argument largely is centered on issues beyond design, the central premise of the film (and title) is to debunk the myth that modern design was to blame. The documentary points to other causes, but does little to examine the ways design elements such as open and anonymous public spaces, tall buildings with little variation, and long hallways may have accelerated the downfall. Many architectural critics have said as much in the past, but this argument is not engaged in the film sufficiently enough to debunk it as valid.

The film neither defends nor condemns modernist design and sees it rather as a minor factor amidst more powerful social and and structural factors. While the film effectively recreates the spaces of Priutt-Igoe visually and orally through archival footage and interviews, it fails to give the same critical attention towards design that it gives to social policies and agencies. Nevertheless, the film offers a welcome perspective on the history of Pruitt-Igoe and cinematically humanizes its residents and nuances its infamous history.

While Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction was a nationally televised event, signaling the end of an era, other modernist ruins enter quieter trajectories of decay. The two short films that followed The Pruitt-Igoe Myth outlined the later histories of neglected modernist spaces in very different economies. A Plea for Modernism was part of a last-ditch (and ultimately failed) effort to save a modernist landmark from destruction, the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in New Orleans. Phillis Wheatley was a model of so-called “regional modernism,” raised above ground in the event of floods and allowing for air circulation in the hot Louisiana climate. In the impoverished neighborhood of Treme, this school was a place of community for many years, but the building was left derelict after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As the film argues, Phillis Wheatley sustained no structural damage in the storm and could have been restored as a landmark of architectural style. This raises one of the central issues with preserving the modernist ruin—oftentimes more cultural resources and money go into preserving historical styles than modernist ones. In New Orleans, this has a particularly potent resonance: the 19th century style that the film argues is preferred by landmarks preservation boards carries the legacy of the old south and slavery, whereas Phillis Wheatley was built in a predominantly African-American neighborhood just after the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. Much like the problems faced by Pruitt-Igoe, the preservation struggles in this short film echo the relationship between systemic racism, social inequality, and architectural history.

The last film, A City within a City, outlined yet another potential afterlife of the modernist ruin—the creation of interstitial spaces and alternative economies. Filmed with handheld footage in the aptly named “vertical slum” of Caracas, A City within a City exposes the hidden life of a skyscraper left abandoned and unfinished when the Venezuelan economy collapsed in 1994. Though perhaps the most surprising and interesting subject of the evening, this film’s low budget production value and lack of narrative made it the weakest of the three. The film features shaky footage from inside the many self-built dwellings with interviews with inhabitants. What originally seems like a communal reterritorialization of the failed spaces of global capitalism suddenly becomes unsafe, without the historical development or contextualization of the first film.

Nevertheless, the three films worked together to ask the audience what roles design, urbanism, and socio-economic change have on the shape and appearance of our cities. Underlying all of the films were central questions about social justice, community, and belonging, which were particularly apt for an audience living in a city in the midst of entirely new forms of demographic and urban change.


Annie Dell’Aria is Assistant Professor of Art History at Miami University. Her research examines the intersections between contemporary art, moving image media, and public space. She holds a PhD from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a BA from Harvard University.




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