Fallacies of master planning – Is Ordos another Pruitt-Igoe?

Deserted street in Ordos.

Master-planning of modern cities is alive and well in the world’s emerging super-economies of China, India and the Middle East. One recent example is Ordos, a new master-planned city intended to house one million people in Inner Mongolia. Today, Ordos lies mostly empty, thanks to the inordinate cost of living and the promotion of its housing stock as a growth investment for Chinese mainland investors.  Ordos is a consequence of China’s unflinching commitment to economic growth which has fuelled one of the largest building and infrastructure investment booms in history. But investment has now outstripped demand. Some massive projects are driven by national and regional pride in maintaining economic growth metrics (such as Gross Domestic Product) rather than pent-up demand. The construction of Ordos, a new city for a million inhabitants, has delivered the region’s GDP targets but is uninhabited — a cameo of design for all the wrong reasons. This is not the only reason why master-planning of cities can fail.

Modernist master-planning derives from Le Corbusier’s theory of zoning. By carefully re-ordering the city, by lifting and separating its functions, he thought it possible to solve a wide range of social ills. But by the time the celebrated revolution in popular culture of the sixties arrived, architecture’s infatuation with Le Corbusier’s egocentric vision had been noticed more broadly. Journalists such as Jane Jacobs reported on the discrepancy between the diversity and simple richness of life on Manhattan’s multicultural street corners and the lack of life in New York’s new Garden City developments. Architectural theorist Christopher Alexander crystallised these observations in his treatise A City is not a Tree in which he exposed the social ills of zoning and proposed network (semi-lattice) as a preferable planning structure.

Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe housing complex on March 16, 1972.

Modern architectural history is dotted with prominent failures of master-planning. In the modernist housing estate genre, the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, provides an oft-cited case study in late-modernist apartment design. Upon completion in 1956, the project won design awards from the American Institute of Architects which assessed the project as being an exemplar for future low cost housing projects. But the high-rise design was soon considered uninhabitable by its residents. Parents could not supervise children in the ground level playground, the facilities were inadequate, and the building’s segregation inhibited natural social flows and broke the resident’s established social relationships, allowing crime and vandalism to flourish. Just sixteen years after the initial flurry of accolades, the complex was demolished with almost universal blessing. Architectural historian Charles Jencks described demolition day as ‘the day Modern architecture died’.

There are other celebrated failures of modernist apartment complexes. When Le Corbusier finally managed to realise his design for a ‘unité jardin verticale’, it was the communal facilities that remained unused, German critical theorist Jurgen Habermas argued. The utopia of the preconceived concrete and steel forms, clinical and pure in black-and-white images, could not be filled with life, not only because of the architect’s ‘hopeless underestimation of the diversity, complexity and variability of modern aspects of life’ but also because modern societies with their functional interdependencies ‘go beyond the dimensions of living conditions, which could be gauged by the planner with his imagination’.

Pruitt-Igoe cameos the destiny of design performed independently of consideration of the needs of inhabitants or users. A masterful idea on the architect’s drawing board and acclaimed as a concept, it failed dismally in actuality because the designers were seduced by the prospect of realising a utopian town planning theory and ignored habitation. The Levittowners sought ways of articulating their environment because the master-planners had left it featureless and expressionless. The utopia of the British New Towns faded as a result of its designer’s failure to anticipate the social fabric of a community. A designer, no matter how brilliant, working alone at a point in time cannot anticipate the complexity and dynamism of its inhabitants need for interaction and habitation. Modernism’s propensity to freeze design in time created a kind of structural and functional purity that could not be lived in.

People living in community have rich and complex social dimensions that cannot always be planned a priori. We have an innate need to express ourselves and to articulate our environments. To misunderstand these lessons is to risk repeating the mistakes of the modernists. The rich and complex social dimensions of community living necessitate the pursuit of collaborative design approaches, and alternative planning models are emerging. City planning and large-scale design are better as a result. Without visiting Ordos it is not possible to form an opinion on how well the new city’s design responds to the needs of people. Ordos may not (yet) be the 21st century’s Pruitt-Igoe, but its emptiness today signals design for all the wrong reasons.

Habermas, J. (1997). Modern and Postmodern Architecture, in ‘Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory’, Routledge, London, 227-235.

Jencks, Charles (1984). ‘The Language of Post-Modern Architecture’.

5 thoughts on “Fallacies of master planning – Is Ordos another Pruitt-Igoe?

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  3. Great essay, you’re about to get a pingback from me. I’m really conflicted about these “ghost cities”. Part of me really loves them as artifacts. They’re the rarely realized end result of a chain of logic: the state provides for the citizens, the citizens want cities, and so cities there will be. A big, empty city is a powerful symbol, for “state capitalism”, for master planning (as you have focused on), for loneliness, for mystery, for anything. But then I think of all the resources that went into these hulks that might never be occupied and I get a little angry.

    To touch on master planning a little bit, I don’t think it’s folly to master plan. I do, however, think it’s insane to master plan so rigidly. Zoning can be a boon for cities, and local homeowner’s groups can be great tools for maintaining property values, but both can be enormously detrimental when used primarily to exclude community members or, in the logical extreme above, to rigidly define neighborhoods and build based on speculation.

    And here’s an awesome podcast you might like about Pruitt-Igoe that I won’t talk about because this comment is already a mile long:


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