Photo: State Historical Society of Missouri

“Modern Architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3.32 pm (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite” or so wrote American theorist Charles Jencks in his treatise on post-modern architecture, subtitled The Language of Postmodernism. Jencks was referring to a housing project first occupied in 1954 and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who later designed the Twin Towers in New York. What Jencks most probably didn’t know at the time, and is beginning to emerge only now, is that in the 1950s and 60s the United States Army had conducted secret testing of chemical and radioactive weapons in the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate.

As Larsen, Kirkendall and Stewart write in their History of Missouri:1953 to 2003, in the 1950s the housing situation in St Louis was such that in some areas it resembled something “out of a Charles Dickens novel”. In 1950 the city of St Louis commissioned Yamasaki to design Pruitt-Igoe, intended for segregated white and black middle class tenants. Public housing in Missouri remained racially segregated until 1956, so the original city plans divided the Pruitt Homes for the black residents, and the Igoe Apartments for the whites.  What the architect designed instead were 33 uniform 11 storey apartment buildings. In 1951 the magazine Architectural Forum named the Pruitt-Igoe apartment plans as the best high rise apartment designs of the year. Every 3 floors included laundry rooms, communal rooms and rubbish chutes. Residents initially called the apartments an ‘oasis in the desert’, or ‘poor man’s penthouses’. However, the occupation of the housing complex peaked in 1957 with a 91% occupancy, and then, started to decline, in parallel with the declining population of St Louis itself. Then, corridors and staircases entered a permanent condition of disrepair and started to be vandalised and  attract muggers. By 1971, the occupancy had declined so much that there were only 600 people inhabiting 11 buildings out of the completed 33. The main reason for this decline, apart from greater factors affecting the population decline in the city, was, according to the residents, a lack of maintenance of the communal areas, staircases, lifts and corridors. Local authorities claimed that there was a lack of funding for this, as the original plan had foreseen these costs being taken from the rents, but that proved not to be enough to maintain the buildings. In 1968 the Department of Housing decided to begin reducing the density of the development by demolishing some of the housing blocks. In 1972 the demolitions began, and predictably failed to revive the ailing Modernist scheme. They continued until 1976, with the demolition of the last building.

There is, however, a missing chapter to the architectural history of Pruitt-Igoe, as the Illinois based Belleville News Democrat reports:

In October 2012, CBS News broadcast a story about how in the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, the Army used motorized blowers in low-income, predominately black neighborhoods to test the dispersal rates of a potentially dangerous compound.

Local officials were told at the time that the government was testing a smoke screen that could shield St. Louis from aerial observation in case the Russians attacked,” according to the CBS story. “But in 1994, the government said the tests were part of a biological weapons program and St. Louis was chosen because it bore some resemblance to Russian cities that the U.S. might attack. The material being sprayed was zinc cadmium sulfide, a fine fluorescent powder.

Just a few weeks ago, the US Army Corps of Engineers in completing an environmental assessment of the former Pruitt-Igoe site for the sake of possibly locating there the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, suddenly dropped the site from its report. As Belleville News concludes, exposure to zinc cadmium sulfide can lead to ‘adverse effects include lung cancer, prostate cancer, birth defects, liver and kidney damage, anaemia and osteoporosis’.  It’s then not surprising that the NGA, a federal spy agency that makes maps for the military based on satellite imagery, may not want to locate its new headquarters in a contaminated site, although the final decision will be made on May 2nd 2016.

The Cold War testing of the spread of zinc cadmium sulfide in urban areas that had similarities to the architecture of Soviet cities was part of Operation Large Area Coverage, or Operation LAC. In 1997 the National Research Council claimed that the spread of the powder posed no significant health risks to the population of the United States. However, Lisa Martin-Taylor’s research at the University of Missouri indicates that segregated areas of St Louis where people of African-American descent were living were also subjected to a covert spin off of the Manhattan Project, and that in 1953-54 and 1963-65 secret tests were carried out by the US military to test the effects of weaponized radiation on the black population of these dense residential areas. Under the Freedom of Information Act, Martin-Taylor identifies the site of Pruitt-Igoe was where these tests took place, described as a “densely populated slum district” of St Louis. A possible unknowing participant in this testing program was Doris Spates, a cancer survivor, whose fathered died in 1955, two years after the first tests, and whose four siblings also died of cancer at relatively young ages. Spates was born in 1955 on the top floor of one of the Pruitt-Igoe housing blocks. What she or her family did’t know, is that on the roof of the building, the US military had been and were to be spraying chemicals as part of Operation LAC and the Manhattan Project spin off by the Manhattan-Rochester coalition. Another witness, Mary Helen Brindell, recalls Army planes dropping a powdery substance, which she had to go and wash off her face at the time.

The Pruitt-Igoe housing development, used by Postmodern architecture theorists to illustrate the end of the Modernist style of housing in the US, was used to conduct military tests due to its architectural similarity to Soviet housing blocks, without the knowledge of its inhabitants. At the very beginning of its life, in the years 1954-57 Pruitt-Igoe had represented a promised land for those who were living in slums in Dickensian conditions, but later it turned into a dilapidated and largely abandoned housing development due to inadequate financial planning for its maintenance. In those same early years, according to the research by Professor Martin-Taylor, it was used for weaponised radiation testing. What should be added to the story on architectural styles, which is significant due to the US Army’s effort in replicating the housing conditions present in the USSR, is the price paid by many of its inhabitants, largely of African-American descent until at least 1956, for having lived in this Modernist scheme. Architectural history books should include this missing chapter which links architectural Modernism to the US military’s Cold War efforts. Like most probably Doris Spates herself, one of the first residents to have been born there, it turns out that the Modernist housing development of Pruitt-Igoe was not only bombed by dynamite in 1972, it was also poisoned at birth.

See also:

Pruitt-Igoe Myth [DVD] [2011] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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