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Dwelling is humanity’s most basic architectural need. Every venture starts well after the establishment of a base hence the paramount importance that housing has throughout history. There is much to understand about societies, cultures and political systems by analysing individual and collective housing projects as all of the above affect the way our homes are built. Of course there are many other important factors to consider like the evolution of technology, aesthetic trends and artistic movements. An intricate system that implicates all those parameters is at play in the development of housing projects and none should be neglected in attempting to evaluate a project’s success. Especially when its scale is considerably large.

The Pruitt-Igoe estate in St.Louis, USA was tore down on March 16, 1972 and Charles Jencks pronounced at the time that its demolition signalled the death of modernism. Regardless of the 40 years that have passed since then, the discussion of the reasons that brought the immense housing project to its demise is back in the spotlight, mostly due to the recent release of the documentary ‘The Pruitt-Igoe myth’ by Chad Freidrichs. Modernism was undoubtedly the movement that affected architecture more than any other in recent history hence the failure of a project that is regarded as one of its important representatives cannot but continue to be revisited.

Speaking of failure,  reading a rather interesting article in Blueprint’s March issue titled ‘Failing to succeed’ by Natre Wannathepesakul where the St. Louis estate is also mentioned, I was rather surprised not to say shocked. Apparently factors other than architectonic and aesthetic should be considered in order to evaluate the scheme’s failure. Especially for Pruitt-Igoe that endorsed and housed racial segregation (the Pruitt part of the estate only housed African Americans and Igoe white caucasians) and obviously ended up symbolising social fragmentation, many reasons were more important than aesthetics and architectural formalism in leading it to its bitter end. Evidently the position of the architect, (non other than tragic-twin-towers’ architect, Minoru Yamasaki) was less god-like than ever. An architect of such projects is little more than a pawn in a game played by governments, local authorities developers and other possible agents of power. The false impression that one designer has more power in making architectural decisions is rather dangerous in its ignorance.

Visiting the ‘place to call home’ exhibition at the RIBA  I was again very much surprised but this time positively. In the introductory panel of the exhibit, is mentioned that houses are extensions of ourselves. Well, no one ever doubted that but they are also a product of a specific era, a political system, a culture and possibly a religious system as well. This exhibition manages to attribute to each of the above ‘forces’ their proper responsibility in shaping London and most other UK cities. The size of the exhibit is rather small but the information it presents is quite concise and candid.

For example the fact that the ever-present class system is reflected on homes that were designed and named ‘first to fifth class house’ for centuries is mentioned and is also portrayed eloquently in the photo of John Cleese’s 60’s sketch “Three ages of man” . Industrialisation, economy boom, genteel housing, working classes, world wars, post war II escapism and garden cities, modernism, Thatcher’s ‘right to own’, individualism etc are all mentioned and documented. The exhibition’s layout and general aesthetics are impeccable which makes it even easier for its rich context to be absorbed. Of course the mechanisms that are at work in shaping our homes and cities are very complicated and require awareness and extended research in order to decipher. The information given by ‘a place to call home’ exhibition though, is food for thought in that direction.

A place to call home will be on until the 28th of April

Pruitt-Igoe myth documentary information here

A place to call home exhibition information here

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