A partly demolished apartment block at Chicago's Cabrini Green public housing complex, in 2006.
Señor Codo via Flickr Creative A partly demolished apartment block at Chicago's Cabrini Green public housing complex, in 2006.
The 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, which observers such as Tom Wolfe celebrated as a bullet to the head of urban renewal, was in reality just the beginning of a painful and protracted end. Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, arguably the best known of the housing projects and the setting for the CBS sitcom Good Times, didn’t start coming down until 1995; the last tower block was razed in 2011. Earlier this year, the Chicago Housing Authority finally unveiled a draft plan for redevelopment of the 65-acre site. (As for Pruitt-Igoe, today most of its 57 acres are overgrown forest, untended and awaiting redemption.)

It takes time to dismantle an institution. As enthusiasm and funding for the welfare state have waned in the United States, so too, it seems, has the incidence of grand public gestures in infrastructure, architecture, and planning. Certainly, the Cabrini-Green replacement scheme is nothing spectacular. It requires design bravado in small doses at most. And that may be almost alright, to borrow a phrase from Robert Venturi, FAIA.

The new Cabrini-Green plan follows the received wisdom for remediation of American cities these days: complex public-private partnerships instead of top-down government-led initiatives, a restored street grid instead of Corbusian megablocks, and proximity to parks and transit instead of isolation behind the barricade of an interstate highway. Add to all that a careful mix of densities, uses, and incomes. Social scientists continue to debate the merits of this planning strategy, but time will tell on the ground. Build the place, let it set for a decade or two, and we might just have ourselves a sustainable neighborhood.

So has the possibility of heroic, publicly minded architecture and urbanism expired in the United States? Must American architects forevermore look abroad—to China, the Middle East, or elsewhere—for opportunities on the grand scale? In my darker moods, thinking of the many post-industrial, après-modern reclamation projects underway, such as the 606 elevated park in Chicago or Lincoln Center in New York, I worry that we will be reduced to building upon the shoulders of giants, the way medieval masons quarried the ruins of imperial Rome for raw materials.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta interna dell'Atrio del Portico di Ottavia, 1760
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Veduta interna dell'Atrio del Portico di Ottavia, 1760

In brighter moments, however, I imagine such present-day practices as a sort of noble quest to right historical wrongs—both architecture’s own occasional missteps and those of society at large. There is a lot of work to be done, not always sexy on the surface, but essential. Freeways can be buried. Anti-urban bunkers can be opened to the street. Hermetically sealed energy hogs can be taught to breathe naturally. Marginalized neighborhoods can be knit back into the city fabric.

There will always be clients who want big, bold new buildings, and there will always be designers who are willing and able to provide. That’s axiomatic, and good. It’s also good that architecture—as a profession and as a culture—is embracing another kind of heroism, one that offsets Daniel Burnham’s one-sided enjoinder, “Make no little plans.” Because right now this country needs architects who are willing to forego the Howard Roark cliché and find the joy in tight budgets, limited briefs, and seemingly mundane programs. Architecture—and America—needs a new kind of hero.