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Pruit Igoe-Demolition-Public Housing-St LouisDemolition of Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis

Yesterday, we looked at part one, “Mud”, of the New York Times’ documentary collaboration with the Highrise project. This four-part installment continues today with “Concrete,” an exploration of the mid-century ups and downs of the high-rise building.

“Concrete,” available as an interactive video online, focuses on the state-funded highrise as emblematic of the middle––that is, the middle of the 20th century and the middle class. The invention of reinforced concrete was the first step to its increasingly rampant popularity. One of the earliest use of reinforced concrete was the nine-story “Number 30 Building” on Japan’s now-abandoned Hashima Island, which needed protection from possible typhoon damage. You may recognize the island as the inspiration for Raoul Silva’s lair from the James Bond movie Skyfall, but the reality is more grim: the phenomenally overcrowded building housed coal miners in horrific conditions.

Meanwhile, the French architect Le Corbousier held a more idyllic view of the high-rise: He envisioned what he called “towers in the park.” Soon after, under the dark cloud of the Great Depression, mayor LaGuardia cautiously opened state-funded public housing.

These three ingredients propelled high-rise housing to prominence. What communists called “housing for the new man” and capitalists called “a middle-income housing plan” quickly took off worldwide as a symbol of social equity––even today, 60 million people from Mongolia to Germany still live in a web of high-rise buildings.

highrise-new-york-times-interactive-video-series-concreteAn example of the interactive interface––click on a side topic to explore it during the documentary.

However, the plans of midcentury mastermind Robert Moses––whose urban planning often backfired and increased crime and segregation––obliterated entire neighborhoods around these high-rises. Shoddily built prefabricated buildings collapsed and took residents’ lives with them. The high-rise honeymoon quickly drew to a close. Alongside the highrise movement, the “urban sprawl” idea had been growing: Middle class white families fled to the suburbs, leaving the racialized poor in these increasingly neglected and mismanaged public buildings. Blaming the high-rises for social problems, high-rise demolitions began in New York but culminated in the famous demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis.

But on a global level, the era of the high-rise was just beginning. Today, the high-rise ideology is not one of social equity: Housing, especially condominiums, are now financial instruments of market capitalism. Newly globalizing cities are repeating the same mistakes, in the crunch for affordable housing.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore Part III: “Glass.”

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