Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: Where Race and Modernism Collide

Playing Saturday, Feb 12th at 4pm in Wilma 1

Following its highly-publicized destruction, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex became a widespread symbol of failure amongst architects, politicians and policy makers. THE PRUITT IGOE MYTH explores the social, economic and legislative issues that led to the decline of conventional public housing in America, and the city centers in which they resided, while tracing the personal and poignant narratives of several of the project’s residents.

We talked with director Chad Freidrichs and producer Brian Woodman about their motivation to make the film and why, decades after the subject's demise, it's still such a relevant and racially charged topic.

Big Sky Doc: Why did you want to focus on Pruitt-Igoe? What struck you about it as a topic worthy of an entire documentary?

Chad Freidrichs: Like many these days, I first heard the words “Pruitt-Igoe” in the same sentence as “Death of Modern Architecture.” The professor in an audio lecture was discussing
Pruitt-Igoe as the ultimate representative of the decline of the City of the Future envisioned by LeCorbusier and other Modernist architects and planners. This award-winning project that was supposed to change the city instead quickly transformed into a Modernist slum.

I like documentaries about really big ideas, and this was a big one for me: that beautiful
architecture with idealistic social goals ended up being worse than the conditions it
replaced largely because of its design. And considering the former site was only a couple
hours down the road from me, and in a city with which I’m pretty familiar, it seemed like
a very promising subject.

When I began my research, I came at the subject from this architectural point of
view. But I soon read an article by Katherine Bristol called “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” in
which she argued that Pruitt-Igoe had been inflated as an architectural achievement, that
it had never won an architectural award (she’s right) and that its supposed significance
was being used by subsequent architects and theorists to not only attack Modernism,
but also to aggrandize architects’ ability to significantly change social conditions, for
better or worse. This article, and others like it, guided my subsequent research and the story that we told.

What kind of challenges did you face with doing a documentary with a subject so racially charged?

Poverty and crime, the two markers most attributed to Pruitt-Igoe’s residents, often unfairly, are extraordinarily sensitive subjects, especially when race gets involved. Those were certainly conditions that existed in Pruitt-Igoe and deeply affected many of its residents; we don’t shy away from them, but we also wanted to tell another story.

If you want to tell a truthful story about Pruitt-Igoe, a story that presents life as it was
truly lived, you have to show the relative normality that prevailed. Most people in Pruitt-
Igoe lived lives free of crime. And yet, that’s not often pointed out. Many were poor, but
the focus often stops there. It usually doesn’t extend to the ingenuity and brave struggle
that the poverty engendered.

One strategy was simply to point out something that’s so mundane that it’s often
unreported: most people in Pruitt-Igoe were pretty much like people everywhere. And
I feel that simply saying that is refreshing and more truthful than the dominant image of
life in the projects that’s been presented in the past.

On the flip side, we tried to steer clear of a tendency to place all blame on racist suburban
whites for the decline of the inner city. Again, it’s there in the film; there was no way of
avoiding that issue entirely. But we also tried to show how the larger economics of home
ownership forced even well-meaning whites to abide by the dictates of segregation.
We try to put it all in context – so far as we are able in eighty minutes – to present the
complexity of life in Pruitt-Igoe, and life in the city, during those years. I think people are
ready for that.

BSD: Were you at all inspired by "Koyaanisqatsi?" Do you use it at all in the film? As a St.
Louisan, that's a huge part of Pruitt-Igoe to us--is that featured bit in the film.

Brian Woodman: We were all very aware of the film and Pruitt-Igoe’s important place in it. If you ask a lot of people, Pruitt-Igoe really is embodied in that implosion footage. It seemed pretty
difficult not to use that footage in a film about Pruitt-Igoe. However, our research led us
to an immense amount of material that added more to the Pruitt-Igoe story than just the
destruction, so the Koyaanisqatsi material plays only a small role.

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