Clinton Peabody, St. Louis, 1955
Clinton Peabody, St. Louis, 2017
"The Project Domesticated: Postmodern Retrofits for Public Housing"
Society of Architectural Historians, Glasgow, Scotland, June 8, 2017
Susanne Cowan, Assistant Professor, Montana State University
In St. Louis, few realize that the city's two oldest public housing projects actually are preserved and still functioning for their original purpose. As HOPE VI felled the city's skyline of high-rise public housing, the St. Louis Housing Authority elected a different course for the city’s two low-rise, Wagner-Steagall era projects. However, the retention of these early projects reinforces the architectural mythology of public housing. The decision to demolish tower blocks while retaining low-rises reflected the influence of the contested physical determinist theories of Oscar Newman. Furthermore, the decision to modify the retained units adhered to postmodernist ideas that the International Style needed to be made palatable and contextual through the introduction neo-traditional building elements. The surviving low-rise projects were integrated into New Urbanist plans that erased original styles, altered the building forms and distorted historic landscape plans.
Here while the buildings could be said to be preserved, they have been stripped of the architectural features that characterized the original projects. The resulting landscapes present both the promise and ambiguity of preservation programs for public housing in an era where federal policies remain foundationally anchored to rejection of the negative image of public housing.