The Ballad of Minoru Yamasaki

The Federal Housing Act of 1949 allowed, finally, for the eradication of tenement slums. Until then, generations of underprivileged Americans would memorize the annual date and time of the sun’s only brief appearance in their cramped, basement homes. Children would stay home from school to see it, and watch as the family pet stretched in the yearly rectangle of brilliance on their broken, chipped floors. Leaky tin roofs, dark passageways and rampant garbage-born illness had melted even the most conservative congressional hearts into legislating a chance for a new post-war life for the poorest Americans.

As these tenements were torn down, the wooden windowsills would often be found with two smooth depressions which had come from generations of women’s elbows leaning out to enjoy the passing street life, exchange gossip across the way, and mete out verbal justice to the children below.

Now, federal money created the opportunity for new forms of urban housing that would bring prosperity to all levels of society.

Enter the Congrès Internationale d’Architecture Moderne.

Architecture, they knew, was a living, social art form, which had a profound effect on human life and the potential to solve the world’s ills. The fourth CIAM Congress had taken place in 1933 on the SS Patris en route to Athens. Aboard, they analyzed thirty-four cities to determine solutions to the world’s most pressing urban problems. The resulting “Athens Charter” committed CIAM members to push for “functional cities” with citizens housed in high, widely spaced apartment blocs.

This was their chance to use architecture to get society out in front of an overwhelming century of industrial and military progress.

Minoru Yamasaki was a 42-year-old unknown when he won the bid to design the Pruitt Igoe homes in St. Louis, Missouri—one of the first massive projects funded by this federal legislation. As a devout follower of the CIAM and its philosophies, he resolved to vindicate the Athens Charter with tall, spaced out, beautifully functional residence blocs.

The sun would pour into homes in these striking if somewhat brutalist high rises, and Pruitt Igoe residents would have better views than the wealthiest of St. Louis.

The city fathers were convinced they had solved their low cost housing needs.

But there was a fatal flaw in the design.

Pruitt-Igoe was to be mixed income and a beacon of economic integration, which to this day remains a crucial ingredient in a thriving city. But the same Federal Housing Act of 1949 that funded the homes, also subsidized mortgages for first time home buyers, and was a key component in the insidious epidemic of white flight to the suburbs in the 1950s. So Pruitt Igoe was subjected to 50% vacancies, and the money for maintenance and upkeep, that was to come from the rents, was always a shortfall.

Elevators broke and were never fixed. When roughhousing teens in the hallways smashed the lights, cages were installed around the bulbs to make them unbreakable, a challenge then accepted by the roughhousing teens, who would do everything they could to re-break them. Dark hallways, vicious poverty cycles, and callous government leadership led inevitably to rampant crime.

The brutalist nature of the high rises required functionality to be seen as beautiful. Without it, they became a monster.

Finally, on July 15, 1972, Pruitt Igoe was destroyed.

This iconic photograph of the homes coming down with the Arch of St. Louis in the background appeared above the fold in newspapers across the country and led to this moment being declared by many to be the death of Modern Architecture.

Minoru Yamasaki and the CIAM had tried to solve the world’s ills but wound up making them worse. Yamasaki had attempted to simulate prosperity for the poor, hoping it would take and then domino through the rest of society’s woes. But it didn’t work. It pressed down on the bruise.

But wait, there’s more irony.

One year after the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe, Yamasaki was overseeing the finishing touches on his crowning achievement: the World Trade Center in New York City.

At the dedication, he proclaimed, “the world trade center is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace… it should become a symbol of man’s belief in humanity…”

This poor bastard.

This time he was attempting to honor prosperity as an inspiration to humankind, that we all might be galvanized to achieve. But the twin towers were perceived by some as monoliths of imperial oppression and the west’s self-centered optimism, and they sustained, as we know, a horrifying, tragic end.

How do you solve a problem like poverty?

The answer, in the 21st century, is scare quotes.

The question is in fact: how do you “solve” a “problem” like “poverty?”

In the 21st century, if you are a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.

You can no longer solve a problem by solving it.

That’s what the Modernists attempted, but they were just too far downstream.

These days, you need a lot more imagination.

Artist Jenny Holzer installed a large electronic billboard in Times Square in 1982 and used crude LEDs to flash provocative messages to the tourists below. One of these messages has lingered with me for the 17 years since I first saw it. “Private property created crime.” Four simple words that detonate the fabric of American society. If the Modernists were too far downstream on economic disparity, then the invention of private property is the headwaters of the issue. Jenny Holzer knew where to begin.

The ballad of Minoru Yamasaki teaches us that unless you’re standing at the headwaters of an issue, merely to “solve” a problem is to risk exacerbating it with your inevitable blindspots.

In the 21st century, we must view issues from orbit, locating them in their rightful place along vast rivers of time.

Otherwise, if you are a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.

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