Architects and the Public Health Agenda

Pruitt Igoe

It is easy to believe that the only generation of architects who thought their enterprise could make people healthy and strong, were the ones designing light airy Modernism in the decades leading to Pruit Igoe. That was a building that was physically healthy, but so socially cancerous it had to be demolished just a few years into its infamous life. Students of architecture are shown photos of its demolition and told that 1972, the year it went down, marks the end of the Modernist era, the end of Utopian dreaming, perhaps even the end of architects thinking their works could enhance conditions for healthy bodies.

The lesson of Pruit Igoe is that humans are not like most organisms that only need sunlight, clean water, fresh air and sanitation to thrive. To cohabitate better, and take pride in our surroundings, we need buildings that provide us with meaning. That lesson isn’t in question. What I would dispute are fallacies that can be drawn from Pruit Igoe, that would stop architects ever designing for the betterment of public health. Not every building intended to make its occupants healthier is also unlovable. Health is not the antithesis of meaning. Designing for health, isn’t naive.

I think the most magical place I took my students last month was the roof of Corb’s unite flats in Marseilles. We stayed in the hotel on the 3rd floor, toured an original apartment, lamented the failed retail street in the air, then gathered for drinks on the roof as the sun set. With its own gym, running track, park setting, surplus bathrooms (for 1954) and maximum light and cross-ventilation in each apartment, this building speaks clearly of Corb’s life long obsession with making people more healthy, through healthy, Utopian architecture. And it is pure poetry. The sun sets, and you are there in the stars, both those in the sky, and those made by the windows of the surrounding apartments.

But those over-puffed Modernists can’t be only ones to have thought buildings could make people healthy. I can can think of: the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans by Ledoux from the late eighteenth century; later English work towns like Saltaire Village near Bradford in the UK; and going way back, the criptoportico at Hadrian’s Villa. That’s just what I can think of here in the waiting lounge at Changi Airport, with an hour to go before my flight.

Saltaire

Those are all loveable structures today, partly for the story of health that is a part of their meaning. That holds true for the Unite de Habitation as well. And it aught to be true for anything we might design now, however naively, to make people healthy.

Doing star-jumps on the Villa Savoye

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