project statement: new, improved, and revised

Several narratives distinguish the city of Saint Louis.  Historically, it has historically served as a frontier trading village; both a stop and a destination for Exodusters following Emancipation and African Americans seeking work during the Great Migration; and an inland center of manufacturing and trade that has undergone significant boom, bust and attempted urban renewal.  From an environmental standpoint, the city represents an ecotone between the Eastern forest and Midwestern grasslands and a southern limit of glaciation.   The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers provided transportation to and from the city; the forests, limestone and clay deposits provided the materials to build it; the coal deposits in Illinois the means to power it.[i]

Today, the city’s most famous historic landmark is the Gateway Arch (part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, or JNEM).  While described as a historic landmark, JNEM is a 20th century construct built over the cleared colonial village site.  The Arch represents the city in terms of the national narrative of manifest destiny at the cost of local urban history.  But as a $600 million redevelopment of the JNEM grounds and a $8 billion urban redevelopment of North St. Louis are proposed, the city is presented with the unique opportunity to re-present local historical and environmental narratives.  Framing a Modern Mess explores the extent to which two iconic urban renewal sites – the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Pruitt-Igoe homes – could be utilized to reveal these obscured narratives.


St Louis was founded by French colonists in 1764.  The location was strategic on several fronts – the city was sited on the west bank of the Mississippi River, south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  Located near a break in the limestone bluffs, the city would be protected from flooding while maintaining access to the river and establishing a French village to exchange furs for goods with New Orleans.  With the Louisiana Purchase, the village became part of United States territories and functioned as a frontier town as Americans began to stream westward.  Following the arrival of steam boats in the 19th century, the city grew to the north, south and west, and original riverfront village became an increasingly industrialized city.  As trade by rail increased in importance, rail lines began to parallel the riverfront.

By the time of the 1907 City Plan, planners were describing the downtown riverfront as chronically misused and calling for a redevelopment of the area.  By 1935, this had assumed the form of the proposed Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.  Under the Historic Sites Act, the location of the original village of St Louis was acquired and razed.

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial design by Saarinen and Kiley was selected in 1948; construction was further delayed until the 1960s.  The Arch commemorates the history of manifest destiny; the modernist pastoral landscape was intended to abstract the wilderness frontiersmen exploring the Mississippi River might have encountered.  The riverfront railway and the former industrial land use are concealed by the landscape strategy.  This has also resulted in poor physical and visual connections to the Mississippi River.  The only artifact of the historic village of St Louis is the Old Cathedral, located on the western edge of the site.

Landscape maintenance and operation is costly and unsustainable and visitation to JNEM has never reached the levels the project’s promoters had hoped for.  The planned redevelopment of the grounds is intended to respond to calls to privatize the project and introduce more intensive entertainment programming.


Located in “near-north” St Louis, this neighborhood developed in the mid-to-late 19th century.  Two churches, St. Bridget of Erin and St. Stanislaus Kostka evidence the neighborhood’s history of Irish and Polish immigrant settlement.   Through the early 20th century, the neighborhood continued to be a home to immigrants and migrants who came to St Louis seeking work.

Like much of the city, this neighborhood was classified ”blighted” and “obsolete” in the 1947 Comprehensive City Plan.  With federal funding made available by the Housing Act of 1949, 22 blocks were acquired and razed.  They were replaced with Pruitt-Igoe homes – a mega block of seventeen 11-story buildings housing 2,300 low income families, many of them displaced by other slum removal projects occurring throughout the city.  Initially hailed as a revolution in public housing, Pruitt-Igoe suffered from high levels of vacancy, quickly fell subject to disrepair and vandalism and became notorious for crime.

Only 20 years after its completion in 1955,  Pruitt-Igoe was considered beyond repair and demolished.  Following the demolition and without any use or maintenance plans in place, natural processes have created a forested megablock where the housing project once stood.  Native and exotic species able to survive on rocky soils have exploited the niche created on this rubble-strewn site to create a unique St. Louis urban forest with minimal human intervention.  The proposed NorthSide Regeneration project would redevelop a large swath of North St Louis, including this site.


Several themes tie the JNEM and Pruitt-Igoe sites together.  The history of each site, as typically understood, has been curtailed by urban renewal.  History as understood at JNEM has largely been limited to the National Park Service-defined “Period of Significance”, 1947-2003 – a time frame that corresponds with the design and construction of JNEM but not the site’s longer history of use as the original site of the city.  The monument, and its commemoration of westward expansion, is considered the most important feature of the site.  While Pruitt-Igoe is not recognized as a historic landmark and therefore does not have an official period of significance, its history is understood along similarly narrow lines: Pruitt-Igoe’s history from 1950-1976 depicts it as a slum removal project that was torn down, ending the reign of modern architecture.[ii] This narrative fails to acknowledge the site’s history prior to urban renewal, and the condition of the site today.

In limiting our understanding of the history of these sites to two narratives focused on the heroics of westward expansion and the failure of modernist urban renewal, we neglect to value these as sites of everyday urban history.  The JNEM site functioned as a working waterfront for 170 years; as valuable to our understanding of JNEM as a site of working class labor is our understanding that in the 20th century, the visibility of this labor was considered undesirable.  The Pruitt-Igoe site was home for working class immigrants and African Americans for 100 years; today evidence of domestic life on this site is vanished.   That the site has been uninhabited and unmaintained for 40 years suggests that visibility of this history is also considered unimportant or undesirable.

A re-examination of the two site histories might also allow for greater understanding of the optimism surrounding the modern movement, and the ironies of its failures.  JNEM is a historic monument intended to represent a sites prehistoric condition – over a cleared site condition. Pruitt-Igoe was considered a revolution in the design of cost-efficient public housing—a safe, sanitary alternative to tenements.  Instead the project came to be known as a “federally-funded ghetto”[iii] and a concrete jungle – which eventually gave way to a literal forest.

Indeed, each site is a forest today.  Pruitt-Igoe is an un-designed forest existing on a bed of concrete and brick rubble and urban fill; a mix of hardy native and exotic species adapted to survive on this site without any intentional human maintenance regime.  JNEM is a designed landscape on urban fill; again a mix of native and exotic species – but these species are poorly adapted to survive on this site and require intensive human maintenance and care.  JNEM is intended to evoke a prehistoric regional forest but performs very poorly; Pruitt-Igoe might be is considered emergent post-industrial regional forest typology.

Framing a Modern Mess seeks to explore these site readings and narratives through the medium of landscape architecture—to create design interventions at each site that result from the conception of urban renewal as a part of each site’s history, not its beginning or end.  Design strategies that take a longer view of history, explore the everyday lives of the sites, question the dominant narrative of heroics and failures and engage and alter the forests are intended to complicate the reading of each site, re-presenting St. Louis’ lost narratives of immigration, emancipation, migration, industrialization, and reforestation.


Both Pruitt-Igoe and JNEM have historical and ecological value that is currently under-recognized.  The historic narrative of each site has traditionally been formed around a particular event and period in time that limits our understanding of the site.  The urban, degraded nature of each site has prevented the appreciation of their ecological values: Pruitt-Igoe evidences no human care; JNEM requires too much.

While urban cultural landscape theorists such as Dolores Hayden have created a framework for recognizing the historic value of urban landscapes, their approach has typically relied on the presence of physical artifacts.  In this schema, the process of erasure is undervalued in the re-presentation of a site’s history.

In this case, however, erasure and urban renewal are important aspects of each site’s history, as are their treatment over time: as an intensively maintained modernist landscape (JNEM), or as a vacant block left fallow (Pruitt-Igoe).  Framing a Modern Mess therefore seeks to establish a connection between each site’s history and ecology, exploring the extent to which species and conditions at Pruitt-Igoe might be considered “indicators” of the site’s history – and how the introduction of those species and conditions to JNEM might complicate our reading of that site.

The design process begins at the Pruitt-Igoe site, where the forested megablock will be retrofitted to become a forested park – requiring new edge, path, maintenance and planted form typologies.  The design does not seek to recreate Pruitt-Igoe or its tenement predecessors, but to reveal processes of erasure and regeneration (seed dispersal, plant growth over concrete, gravel or bricks) and opportunities for reclamation of the cleared ground plane.

Ecological memory refers to the means by which a site regenerates following profound disturbance.  The site does not immediately return to its previous state, but to an earlier successional sere.  The seeds and species associated with this sere may be stored on site, but in an urban setting may also be transferred from one site to another.

In revealing the processes of regeneration, this project will treat Pruitt-Igoe as a source of ecological memory for JNEM: the species distributions and design interventions at Pruitt-Igoe will inform those adopted at JNEM – creating a shared vocabulary between the two sites that will indicate each as a site of life and regeneration following urban renewal.

[i] Hurley, Andrew ed Common Fields: An Environmental History of St Louis Missouri History Museum

[ii] Jencks, Charles The Language of Postmodern Architecture

[iii] Rainwater, Lee Behind Ghetto Walls

This entry was posted in arch, memory, northside, plants, pruitt-igoe, spontaneous vegetation. Bookmark the permalink.

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