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The Pruitt-Igoe Myth Contextualizes The Story Of Public Housing Failures

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 12, 2012 7:20PM


You don't have to have ever been near the titular St. Louis housing project to readily identify the tragedy depicted in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. The contours of the public policy disaster, all the way from quixotic and compromised architectural conception, through the mismanagement and underfunding that turned a paradise on paper into a hell on earth, to its decay and eventual destruction, are a sad legacy of many rust belt cities. Even if watching the slow-motion death of Chicago projects like Cabrini Green has kept this chapter of our history somewhere near the front of our mind, this engrossing and gut-wrenching documentary, playing this weekend as part of the Architecture and Design Film Festival, usefully puts the whole story in context.

When construction was finished in 1956, the 33 11-story towers of Pruitt-Igoe represented a hopeful future for the lower-income families who somehow fashioned neighborhoods out of the Minoru Yamasaki-designed modernist structures. By the time the menacing husks of failure were spectacularly demolished, a mere 18 years later, the blame was invariably placed squarely on the shoulders of the very people who struggled to live there. Director Chad Freidrich's detonates that myth through an exploration of the shortcomings in planning and management, as well as the socio-economic forces, business practices and governmental policies that doomed the effort from the start.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth was shown twice last August as part of the Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video, but is just as relevant to the bailiwick of the Architecture and Design Film Festival, which begins tonight. The film is paired with a short depiction of Mudgee Tower, an eco-friendly, sustainable living space for one, isolated by hundreds of miles of wilderness. The contrast between the depicted architectural visions could not be more severe, and we can't but wonder how much the trauma of large-scale modernist failures like Pruitt-Igoe a generation ago fosters a yearning for tree-fort like antipodes to concrete and steel urbanity among the Dwell magazine set.

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth screens Friday at 9 p.m. and Monday at 7:15 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. General admission tickets are $11. The Architecture and Design Film Festival's complete schedule is available online.