Reflections on Towers in the Park, and the Limits of Architecture

Michael Kimmelman, after visiting the Penn South housing cooperative in Manhattan and reflecting on the new film "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth", questions the role that design has in determining success or failure for tower in the park housing type.

A companion piece in some ways to the story we linked to earlier this week, Kimmelman considers the much maligned housing type that held such promise for providing a high quality-of-life for its residents when built en-masse in the 1950s and 1960s. Not all developments designed following the same Corbusian philosophy as Pruitt-Igoe shared its, now symbolic, fate. And Penn South is just one of Pruitt-Igoe's architectural cousins that thrived.

"Alienating, penitential breeding grounds for vandalism and violence: that became the tower in the park's epitaph. But Penn South, with its stolid redbrick, concrete-slab housing stock, is clearly a safe, successful place. In this case the architecture works. In St. Louis, where the architectural scheme was the same, what killed Pruitt-Igoe was not its bricks and mortar."

Full Story: Towers of Dreams: One Ended in Nightmare



Kimmelman Discredits Himself

I had hopes that Kimmelman would be a better architecture critic than Ouroussoff, but he has discredited himself with this article.

Ouroussoff had a background in architecture, but he had narrow, cliquish taste and just focused on a handful of starchitects and their latest icons.

Kimmelman has little background in architecture or planning; he was originally the NY Times art critic and then reported on culture from abroad. When he first became architecture critic, he seemed to be much more in touch with urban realities than Ouroussoff was, but his lack of background really shows in this article.

There is plenty of evidence that tower-in-a-park superblocks are not as workable as a traditional urban grid:

-- The grid is more walkable. Studies in Portland have shown that the density of street connections is the number one factor promoting walkability. The CNU just created a little publication promoting the grid because it promotes walkability and a sense of place, but Kimmelman doesn't seem to have heard the news.

-- Because it is more walkable, the grid has more street life and therefore less crime. Studies by Oscar Newman and others compared housing projects with traditional neighborhoods across the street that had the same socioeconomic characteristics, and found that the traditional neighborhoods had lower crime rates.

In fact, the New Urbanist architect, Ray Gindroz, renewed a housing project in St. Louis by breaking up the superblock - adding new streets to make it into smaller blocks and adding porches and picket fences in front of the houses to give residents a sense of ownership of the yards in front of their buildings. The result was fewer gangs hanging out on the project grounds and less crime: Gindroz said that you could tell where fences were most needed by looking at where the grass was most trampled down because the location was a favorite gang hang out.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Kimmelman is willing to go back to a discredited 1950s urban design model, after seeing one sentimental movie about Pruitt-Igoe and visiting one housing project in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan that is an exception to the general rule about housing projects failing. (He doesn't seem to consider that Penn South is an exception because it was developed as a Rochdale cooperative that attracted political idealists.)

The best he can to is to make this mealy-mouthed defense of the tower-in-a-park:

"The two projects, aesthetic cousins, are reminders that no typology of design, no matter how passingly fashionable or reviled, guarantees success or failure: neither West Village-style brownstones nor towers in the park nor titanium-clad confections. This is not to say architecture is helpless, only that it is never destiny and that it is always hostage to larger forces."

This is certainly true. The people who built the housing projects were obviously wrong to believe that the design of housing alone would make for successful neighborhoods. New Urbanists understand this: Gindroz found that the housing project still had many social problems after his renovation, because of poverty and unemployment, but it had fewer problems than before the renovation.

Architecture and urban design does have some influence, as Kimmelman himself admits by saying "This is not to say architecture is helpless, only that it is never destiny."

If architecture does have some influence, if it is not completely helpless, then it is Kimmelman's job as an architecture critic to think about which type of architecture and urban design has the best influence. In this article, he has not done that job.

Charles Siegel

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