Big bad blocks: Part 1, blame the architects

July 30, 2009 | Architecture, Athens Charter, Configuration, High-rise, Humor, Le Corbusier, Public housing, Speculation

If architecture cannot make us into better human beings and societies, can it make us into worse ones?  Can large monolithic high-rise blocks dehumanize us?  As presented on the funky Web site Oobject, herewith are 15 housing projects from hell, through which – aside from being appalled that architects, builders and government inflicted these upon their populations – we can examine the question.  So settle back, put your design-air-sickness bag within reach, and let’s take a look:


Despite the title of this list, several of these housing projects were designed by some of the world’s most famous architects and lauded at the time. The undeniable squalor of 19th Century slums combined with modernism to produce and attempt to clean things up and create a crystalline utopia. The end result was often an anti-septic vision of hell, a place devoid of organic spaces and evolved social interaction.



Le Corbusier, nee Charles-Edouard Jenneret-Gris


Through this review of real and alleged atrocities against urban living will run themes of modern architecture and its most famous (and, alas, most influential) proponent Le Corbusier.  Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, like Madonna, Prince, and Le Notre he adopted a nom de guerre, Le Corbusier.  Thus reborn, he set out to remake the world of our inner lives by changing the world of our outer spaces.



Hazard a guess why he named himself ‘the nostril’?


In 1933, aboard a barge sailing from Marseilles to Athens, Le Corbusier and many fellow modernist architects convened and founded:


The Congres International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) was enormously influential on the mid-century visions of urban planning, particularly at the level of dense multifamily housing.


If we design the buildings, ran the reasoning, why not design the whole city?


Here the group discussed concentrated on principles of “The Functional City”, which broadened CIAM’s scope from architecture into urban planning. Based on an analysis of thirty-three cities, CIAM proposed that the social problems faced by cities could be resolved by [1] strict functional segregation, and [2] the distribution of the population into tall apartment blocks at widely spaced intervals.


Although arrogant nonsense, it helped (grotesque thought) that the world was then distracted, first by a global depression that led to an infatuation with the ‘efficiency’ of Fascism (the Lewis Mumford vision) –


[Le Corbusier] drifted into a fascist-like philosophy and his and similar authoritarian architecture is often seen as the backdrop for fascist political thinking.


– and then by its bastard offspring a global war, leaving the intellectual field empty for Le Corbusier, who sat out the war from the comfortable perch of Switzerland:



Have we got our relative importance clear, common man?


These proceedings went unpublished from 1933 until 1942, when Le Corbusier, acting alone, published them in heavily edited form as the “Athens Charter.”


It took thirty years before the New Urbanists, led by feisty squat cackling Jane Jacobs, were able to refute such arrogant nonsense with common sense, and in the meantime, Le Corbusier and his friends held sway, with postwar urban planners throwing up block after block of Brutalist high-rises that nobody actually wanted to live in.


Its principal feature is de-humanizing alienation. Vote for your worst.


1. Mass Housing in Ixtapaluca, Mexico



Ixtapaluca, Mexico


The problem with dull alienating social housing has nothing to do with modernism per se, but to do with mindless design. This scheme uses non-modernist styles but the result is terrifyingly soul-less like so many McMansion developments.


As someone who’s visited many slums throughout the global south, studied them extensively, and systematically, and worked on slum upgrading around the world, I disagree with this view.  Ixtapaluca has to be seen as embryo housing and the subdivision as a neighborhood in development no different from Levittown 1949 or Daly City 1965.  While I don’t like the monomania for housing rather than retail or commercial, come back in five years and see how many shops and work-at-home businesses have sprung up, how much home improvement has taken place, and how the subdivision has become part of the formal city.  The Oobject authors are wrong about this one.


2. Cabrini Green, a roach infested slum in a wealthy neighborhood, Chicago



Cabrini Green, Chicago: RIP


About Chicago‘s Cabrini Green, however, neither I nor anybody else will ever have much good to say;

Badly designed, badly located, overly dense, excluded from the remaining city, it was built to shoebox ‘those’ people out of sight, out of mind, out of our city. 



Across the expressway, visible yet inaccessible**


Add to that management by the Chicago Housing Authority – for decades among the nation’s worst – and a financing structure that was and is a dependency trap.


At one point the garbage piled up the blocked chutes to the 15th floor and rat and roach infestations were common.


No different from the slums inside the Paris banlieuex, where l’horloge orange turned the city of light into a city of flames.


The thing that differentiated Cabrini Green from other failed projects, however, was its location in a relatively wealthy part of Chicago.


The authors are wrong to call Cabrini-Green’s neighborhood wealthy.  It wasn’t.  Forty years of increasing urbanization have improved the neighborhood, and that is always a good thing, but when Cabrini-Green was built, the neighborhood chosen, Chicago’s North Side (west of the expensive gold coast neighborhood)*, was in decline, so much that the University of Chicago built a little fortified village around itself, paying substantial private-security costs to protect the students from the hordes just over the expressway.


Isolated, underfunded, financially infeasible, Cabrini-Green was doomed to fail.


As, we will see, were so many other public housing properties.  Brutalist monolithic isolated communities and financial insolvency went together hand in hand.


Which dynamic completely explains the next celebrated implosion, perhaps the most famous failure of all:


3. Pruitt Igoe



Pruitt Igoe, St. Louis: RIP


For all its pretense at modernism, the fact that the Pruitt Igoe was built in two complexes, one for white people and one for black, speaks volumes of its primitive ideology.


Actually, I wouldn’t condemn Pruitt-Igoe for that, because it was of its time, the mid-1950’s.  Many other properties before, and others for over a decade thereafter, were similarly segregated, and while the segregation was abhorrent, other properties nevertheless survived it, later being successfully integrated.  Their physical structures – like Columbia Point in Boston – were able to overcome a racist heritage even as America overcomes ours.


When the Pruitt Igoe was demolished, Charles Jencks declared it as the death of modernism.


Reports of modernism’s death, however, were greatly exaggerated.



“Shut up and write a line-o-type about losing money on new technology, okay?”


Pruitt-Igoe’s legendary both in architecture and in my own past, because I remember its demolition from my callow college days.  Unlike Cabrini-Green, it was not built-to-fail; rather, it was built in genuine hope of succeeding:



Does this look like a slum to you?

Pruitt-Igoe, 1956


Pruitt-Igoe died of social isolation – wrong side of the expressway, just like Cabrini-Green – income concentration, and the fundamentally flawed public housing dependency schema. 



Without maintenance money, anything can look like this: Pruitt-Igoe


A property that needed to go somewhere to die, in only 17 years, it went from completion to demolition.



We had to destroy the buildings to save the community


The demolition sequence itself features in the movie, Koyaanisqatsi.


While we’re on the subject of Paris, consider:


4. Aillaud Towers, Nanterre Paris



Are you trying to look like a termite mound?

Aillaud in Paris



For that matter, are you trying to look like public housing?


The word suburb, ‘banlieue’, conjures up something very different in France to the US. Burning cars and desolate tower blocks, rather than SUVs and low-rise strip malls.


As I’ve previously posted, European cities invert the normal US-style Greenfield development.  The poor are on the outside, looking in.


These superficially rather interesting looking towers are visible from Paris’ financial district, La Defense, and are a reminder of what lies outside of the Peripherique.


By now readers will have noticed the strong correlation.  When housing fails, it’s not just what was built, but where it was built.  What used to be the wrong side of the tracks, is now the wrong side of the expressway.


So we can’t blame just the architects; someone else is blameworthy as well.


[Continued on Monday, August 3, in Part 2.]



Ed – Thank you for pointing out the errors in this article, they have been amended:


* Corrected: Original said “Chicago’s North Side”.  

** Corrected: Image with the caption “Across the expressway, visible yet inaccessibleshowed the now demolished Robert Taylor homes.


Note: We presume that photos from second-hand sources are accurate, but they’re not always …