Co-op City, Towers in the Park and The Pruit-Igoe Myth

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Co-op City

Co-op City

When I was a boy I used to frequently sat in the back seat travelling between my Parents house in Fairfield, Connecticut to visit my Grandparents in Nassau County, Long Island. My favorite part of the car ride was always going through the Bronx between where the NYC Transit buses were parked to the Throgs Neck Bridge.  There was always a lot to see driving through the Bronx in the mid 80’s but I was always most mesmerized with the presence of seeing the enormous towers of Co-op City.  

City Bus Parking

NYC Transit Bus Parking

Co-op City is a small part of the Bronx that consists of 35 residential high-rise towers. The towers sit in an open green space, sandwiched between 2 major highways. Looking back I think what I was so fascinated about was how mysterious these enormous towers packed with apartments looked so lonely and lifeless. They stood like giant filing cabinets filled with apartments. On the smaller scale, the streets never felt comfortable or like there was much life or community. 

Le-Corbusier-A-City-of-Towers1

Many years later in architecture school learned that Co-op City was modeled after a popular (yet controversial) modern design concept called “The Tower in the Park.” The idea is to get away from the horizontal urban street with residential on both sides and to essentially recreate a street environment vertically inside a high-rise tower. This major benefit frees the ground level for park spaces and giving the residents adequate space to move around the towers. Where the tower in the park idea failed miserably is that it relies heavily social programs to build community due to the spatial disconnection between the apartments, the ground plane and even how Residents interact with each other.

Pruit-Igoe

Pruit-Igoe in 1972

I became interested in Pruit-Igoe when I was studying of the Architect Registration exam. Pruit-Igoe was a housing project built during the 1950’s in St. Louis to resolve the slum housing issues in the inner city. The city of St. Louis used eminent domain to acquire the property of a large slum housing district to build 33 high-rise low-income housing. By 1972 the Pruit-Igoe towers had fallen into such neglect and become such a dangerous place that the Housing Authority of St. Louis demolished all the towers only 18 years after they were built.

Pruit-Igoe in 1958

Pruit-Igoe in 1958

When I was studying, I read an excellent article called Defensible Space by Oscar Newman.  Defensible Space is like a cookbook for help designers create urban environments that fosters safety and community, rather than the opposite. The first chapter of Defensible Space takes a good look at Pruit-Igoe, the tower in the park idea, urban design and the rest of the article discusses how urban design can influence the psychology of the residents interacting with the environments.

The movie Pruit-Igoe Myth (released in 2011) really does a beautiful job of telling the story of Pruit-Igoe. What happened in St. Louis was really the perfect storm with many unique factors all working independently to the rise of fall of Pruit-Igoe. The movie takes a very holistic view at how the architecture, the Housing Authority of St. Louis, the City of St. Louis, racial tension, the rise of the suburbs, the Police, a declining St Louis population and lastly the residents all played their own unique role in this unbelievable story.

The Pruit-Igoe Myth

The Pruit-Igoe Myth

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About the author

Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect who lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with his Labrador Retriever. He is passionate about helping Young Architects change the world. In his free time, Michael likes to take very long bicycle rides across America. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In.


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