Why Utopian Urban Developments Never Work

How a 1920s master plan for an ideal city still influences high-rise, residential developments from North America to Africa.

When it comes to residential urban development, it seems that we keep repeating the same mistakes. The idea of erecting a collection of homogeneously designed buildings, with paths and green space in between, has failed more times than it has succeeded, yet the template is still promoted in today’s urban developments.

Many of these projects failed, not because of their architecture, but because they forgot the most important aspect of any community: the people.

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier

In 1924, Le Corbusier, known as one of the three masters of modern architecture, released an urban master plan called “Ville Radieuse” (or Radiant City).  The scheme called for a cluster of cruciform towers with each structure surrounded by open space. In keeping with the proclivity for social engineering promoted by many modern architects at the time,  Le Corbusier’s master plan promised to greatly improve the lives of residents. To achieve this goal, it was thought that what people needed was to live in an urban environment based on symmetry and order built from a tabula rasa, which would replace the asymmetry and disorder of traditional European cities. With a Cartesian grid separating cars, pedestrians and commercial spaces, Le Corbusier saw the Radiant City’s geometric layout, standardisation and repetitive towers as “the perfect form” of urbanism.

radiant-city

Radiant-City

The plan was never realised, but the proposal became a model for many 20th-century urban developments, particularly in the years after WWII.

These developments, often known as communal housing or projects, got the reputation as places of crime and poverty. One of the projects that’s always mentioned as proof of this failure of residential urban developments is the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri.

The pruitt-Igoe social housing development, built in 1954 and demolished in 1972 . Image∏ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The pruitt-Igoe social housing development, built in 1954 and demolished in 1972 . Image∏ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Opened in 1954, Pruitt-Igoe had 33 towers, each 11-storeys high. It was suppose to be the ideal housing development for the rapidly growing population of the mid-western US city. Yet, within a decade, this complex of identical buildings became a place that was monolithic in terms of race and social-economic status.

The second stage of demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in April 1972. Photograph Lee BaltermanTime & Life PicturesGetty Images

The second stage of demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in April 1972. Photograph Lee BaltermanTime & Life PicturesGetty Images

When Pruitt-Igoe was demolished on live television in 1972, many people saw that as symbolic of the failure of such developments. It was the moment that “modern architecture died,” according to architectural historian, Charles Jencks.

What went wrong? Was it really modern architecture falling flat on its face, with its top-down, technocratic idealism found wanting? Pruitt-Igoe failed for many reasons, but its architecture was not all to blame. It took nearly fifty-years, but eventually a more balanced narrative of what went wrong was told.  The initial project proposed towers of varying heights, but administrative and political issues resulted in a lesser project with inexpensive materials.

Also, at the same time that Pruitt-Igoe and urban housing in American cities was falling into disrepair, the practice of redlining trapped many people of colour in failing urban ghettos while white Americans escaped to newly built suburbs, and the American dream. Many urban developments in America failed under similar circumstances, but none as infamous as Pruitt-Igoe.

stuyvesant town

New York’s Stuyvesant Town

New York’s Stuyvesant Town stands as an example of a successful urban development, despite similar architecture to Pruitt-Igoe. “Stuy Town” (as the locals call it), opened in 1947 as a place for middle-class families. Over time, it became home to residents from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and race. It remains a neighbourhood of affordable housing in pricey Manhattan.

Six hundred buildings and 18 blocks were demolished for Stuy Town’s 110 red brick, cruciform towers. It worked in the mid-20th century and continues to work now, because of a mix of income levels, cultures, and ages, despite its ‘towers in a park’ design. As a result, residents feel a sense of community and enjoy a good quality of life.

Stuyvesant Town. Image via felix.castor via photopin cc

Stuyvesant Town. Image via felix.castor via photopin cc

It is not the banal architecture nor the repetitive forms that make some of these developments fail, but the lack of community. Planting trees and building plazas are not enough to stop people from feeling odd walking between these giant towers. People have a right to live in dignity, and it doesn’t depend on utopian fantasies, but on the people living their disparate lives together.

Ordos-China

Ordos-China

The first phase of a Chinese-built apartment complex in Nairobi, the Great Wall Apartments.(Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen)

The first phase of a Chinese-built apartment complex in Nairobi, the Great Wall Apartments.(Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen)

Though today most urbanists know what works, and have some examples from around the world as case studies, countries such as China don’t seem to be learning from the failures and successes of last century. In that country, the quest for utopia has resulted in what photographer Raphael Olivier calls an “over-ambitious poorly planned urban development. There are over 100 ghost Chinese cities full of failed idealistic developments, because there can be no community without demand. Now, even cities on the African continent are blindly following the master plan.

Kilamba New City, developed by Chinese company CITIC, is designed to accommodate 500,000 people and includes 750 eight-story apartment blocks. (Paulo Moreira)

Kilamba New City, developed by Chinese company CITIC, is designed to accommodate 500,000 people and includes 750 eight-story apartment blocks. (Paulo Moreira)

Regardless of the architecture being eclectic or boring, life in a large scale, high-rise, residential development cannot be imposed. When they are built for a diversity of people they work, but when they are built as regulating social experiments, they fail. That is what architects like Le Corbusier failed to realise and from looking at many of our cities today, so have we.

Words: Phil Roberts


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