Pruitt-Igoe, very much the embodiment of the quest for urban utopia, as an image, is it’s own antithesis. Constructed during a critical moment in St. Louis and indeed American history, this building complex, which was at first seen as a needed facelift to an impoverished neighborhood, quickly fell into decay–a process greatly expedited by the changing economic and racial climate (demolition began under two decades after its construction!) The building rests some would say between modern and postmodern architectural frameworks, its destruction being the moment of transition. (Though, it must be added, this point is heavily debated.) Moreover, it is also an image of urban liminality–place in flux. The building, as both a real world construct and as an image, is a transitional object. As viewers, we see its failure (both physically and socially) as defining it. That is to say, Pruitt-Igoe embodies a sort of “creative destruction.” WJT Mitchell (University of Chicago) defines creative destruction as “spectacular annihilation… [that] creates ‘secondary images’ that are, in their way, forms of idolatry just as potent as the primary idols they seek to displace” (from What Do Pictures Want?) Mitchell was using this phrasing in discussing the physical destruction of the World Trade Center (coincidentally designed by the same man, Minoru Yamasaki). As such, it must be noted that there is a large difference between what Mitchell talks about in terms of violent destruction, and the government sanctioned destruction and social degradation of Pruitt-Igoe. However, I think the bare bones sentiment still applies. That is to say, the degradation and destruction of the image is a creative act that births yet another image, one that the social then raises in order to venerate or oppose the actions which created it.
If we take that for true, we must ask ourselves a question: Could it be that urban spaces in particular (though not exclusively), places of co-habitation, locations of the intersection between public and private, offer us image and “secondary image” simultaneously, as a multiplicity?
Michael Powell (TA F2011)