The spectacular demolition of the high-rise Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in 1972 has been described as "the day Modernism died," but a very different dynamic played out across the Atlantic. As documented in a beautiful new book by architect and historian Mark Swenarton, in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, London saw the creation of a wide variety of low-rise, high-density public housing projects by young architects who adapted Modernist design idioms to the era's intense need for low-cost housing. Focusing on the architectural output of single north London borough, the richly detailed and lushly produced new book, called Cook's Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, documents in vivid detail the design and construction of thousands of affordable homes in Camden, one of London's wealthiest and most historic neighborhoods. Created between 1965 and 1980 under the direction of Camden's visionary chief architect Sydney Cook, the projects described in Mark Swenarton's magisterial book constitute what he describes as "not just the last great output of social housing... but also arguably the most concentrated architectural investigation into urban housing undertaken in the last 50 years." In the foreword to the book, Columbia University historian Kenneth Frampton concurs, describing Cook's Camden as "an exceptionally thorough documentation and analysis of British achievements in the field of low-rise, high-density housing.... part and parcel of this international movement towards achieving denser, anti-suburban, proto-ecological patterns of land settlement." At the heart of Cook's Camden is the work of New York-born architect Neave Brown, whose social housing projects range in scale and ambition, starting with a small terrace of five raw concrete row houses and ending with Alexandra Road, perhaps the most celebrated architectural scheme in England. Alexandra Road turns its back on the adjacent train tracks to form a protected interior street, with front doors facing out onto a pedestrian-friendly, car-free environment from a ziggurat of stepped apartments, each with its own balcony garden. All of the projects Neave Brown designed for Camden have been protected as national landmarks, and last year, his work earned him even greater honor: a much-belated RIBA Gold Medal, bestowed just before his death at age 88, in large part, thanks to the appreciative attention garnered for him by the author Mark Swenarton, who has been conducting the research for Cook's Camden for more than 12 years. Another designer featured in Cook's Camden is Peter Tabori, whose Highgate New Town complex, located between a large hospital and a Victorian-era cemetery, took inspiration from the dense urbanism of a Tuscan hill town. Like many of the housing schemes described in Cook's Camden, Highgate New Town was first celebrated, then allowed to decline, and in recent years has been revived as one of London's most valuable public-private council estates. A final project described in Cook's Camden, Branch Hill became known as "the country's most expensive council houses." Built on a difficult hillside site in the heart of Hampstead, one of London's most exclusive and expensive residential districts, Branch Hill was designed by architects Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth, who went on to design the acclaimed Museum of Scotland. In keeping with the goal of maximizing green space, the architects took full advantage of the sloping site to create extensive private roof gardens. For present-day architects or developers looking to "solve" the affordable housing crisis, perhaps the most valuable chapter covers the smaller-scale infill schemes that Swenarton calls "urban dentistry." The projects described and illustrated in this section include Neave Brown's first small-scale effort, on which he joined with fellow early 1960s student architects Michael and Patty Hopkins, to develop, design and build a five-unit terrace of supremely detailed modern homes on a tight urban site. Another commission went to Edward "Ted" Cullinan, who designed a five-story mix of family duplexes and smaller one-bedroom apartments, composed with contextualist flourishes that put it among London's first postmodern buildings. Along with lush production quality, hundreds of vintage and contemporary photographs and carefully catalogued references, one of the many valuable features of Cook's Camden is a gazetteer and map of all the properties and projects studied in the book, which may well inspire readers to take a trip to London to see these fine designs and inspiring examples of municipal success. In a final section of Cook's Camden, the author digests the era's seismic changes and draws three important lessons for today's designers, planners and builders: one, recognize that the street is the basis for urban housing; two, understand that designing urban housing demands attention not only to physical form but also to the social relationships these forms may engender; finally, and perhaps most importantly, that designers must use all their abilities–"analytical and visionary, rational and imaginative, practical and poetic, to provide something better than what is currently being built around us." Based in London and New York, Jamie Jensen is a writer and advocate for public space and urban sustainability. Cook's Camden: The Making of Modern Housing Lund Humphries $69.51 (hardcover)
Posts tagged with "Pruitt-Igoe":
More than 40 years after its last high-rise fell, the site of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe public housing development remains basically empty. Design competitions, documentaries, and local developers have all pondered its future. Now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has said it’s considering the 34 acres once home to the infamous housing project as a location for 3,000 jobs. The website nextSTL reported this week that the NGA—a federal agency created in 1996 to provide maps and data for national defense—is looking at Pruitt-Igoe as it relocates its St. Louis offices from the city’s Kosciusko neighborhood. The site is one of six under consideration, but officials say the decision won't be made until 2016. The city recently sought $25 million in infrastructure improvements to the area, which some called a necessary investment regardless of the site’s future. Others disparaged it as a handout to developer Paul McKee, who has an option on the Pruitt-Igoe site and already owns nearly 2,000 other parcels of land in St. Louis. In January the city extended McKee's option, which he purchased in 2012 for just over $1 million, for another two years. The infamous post-war development in St. Louis’ DeSoto-Carr neighborhood (now Carr Square) was demolished less than 20 years after its construction in 1954. Photos of its demolition with the Gateway Arch in the distance have come to symbolize the failure of midcentury public housing projects in the U.S. Several of the development’s smaller buildings remain, including a one-story brick building that served as the development’s electric substation, three churches, a library, a school and a health center.
Building on the renewed interest in the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, a new competition looks to engage the history and inspire possible future uses for the 33 acre site. Nearly 40 years after the demolition--which Charles Jencks claimed signaled the death of Modern architecture itself--most of the site remains cleared, filled in with trees and grasses that have sprung up over time. Organized by the newly formed non-profit Pruitt-Igoe Now, the competition brief asks, "Can this site itself be liberated from a turbulent and mythologized past through re-imagination and community engagement?" Winning entries will receive small cash awards, and winners and honorable mentions will be exhibited publicly near the site. The organizers are also putting together a symposium at Portland State University, planned for Spring 2012.
Pruitt Overgrown. Thirty three acres in the middle of St. Louis are now densely overgrown with forest, but the site was once home to the infamous Pruitt Igoe homes. Preservation Research Office led a tour of the site last week and took some great photos on the way to a screening of the Pruitt-Igoe Myth documentary. Ciclovia Transformations. While LA shut down city streets over the weekend for its first CicLAvia of 2011, Project for Public Spaces imagines how such car-free events can invite new thinking about the use of public space in cities across the world. Tobacco Troubles. On Friday, the latest round of drama surrounding Brooklyn's Tobacco Warehouse played out, and it wasn't the latest performance by the indie theater troupe of St. Ann's Warehouse, who plans to renovate the abandoned building. A judge has issued an injunction against developing the property on grounds that a public hearing wasn't conducted. Brownstoner and the Brooklyn Paper have the latest. Lego Love. The Overhead Wire spotted a lego train with an actual operating sliding door. OW says it best: "I like legos, I like trains, and I like them together." In other Lego news, Curbed found the world's tallest Lego tower in Sao Paulo, Brazil standing 102 feet high, and Unbeige reports that Mies' Farnsworth House is the newest architectural icon to become a Lego set.
A new documentary called The Pruitt-Igoe Myth by Chad Friedrichs seeks to capture the life of St. Louis' infamous housing project through the lens of the people who lived there. The film looks beyond the iconic images of its implosion and offers an analysis of urban renewal's impact locally and across the nation. From the movie's web site:
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth tells the story of the transformation of the American city in the decades after World War II, through the lens of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development and the St. Louis residents who called it home. At the film’s historical center is an analysis of the massive impact of the national urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s, which prompted the process of mass suburbanization and emptied American cities of their residents, businesses, and industries.The 83-minute film will be premiering February 11-13 at the Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi. No word yet when it will make it to St. Louis and beyond, but we're anxiously awaiting! [Via Preservation Research Office ]