When I was a little kid I read a short story set in the desolate ruins of the Pruitt-Igoe complex. Pruitt-Igoe was a a public housing project in St. Louis that was infamous for extreme poverty and segregation. The government blew it up in 1972, and it became emblematic of the disconnect between Modernist architecture and human needs, at least for many architecture critics. The grim spectacle of those abandoned buildings stayed with me, and I sat through the film Koyanisqaatsi to catch a glimpse of the towers as they were demolished. Years later, I wrote an impassioned term paper defending Le Corbusier against accusations that he was responsible for the failure of public housing. Of course, racial inequality and government neglect destroyed Pruitt-Igoe, not modern design, but the monolithic buildings retain a haunted, tragic air.
Cyprien Gaillard's work interests me because it captures romantic allure of crumbling Modernist slabs, treating them with reverence due to a Greek temple or ancient obelisk. He recognizes that fixating on ruins rather than what causes them is useless, but nonetheless acknowledges the primeval power of these decrepit slabs. Videos about the Crazy Horse memorial or the demolition of a housing block explore the ambiguity of monuments. Their scale grants them authority, but makes the failure of whatever they stand for all the more shameful. Crazy Horse's gigantic profile retains its nobility, but in doing so emphasizes the sadness of its paltry surroundings.
The long shots of housing projects in the film Desniansky Raion evoke the same feeling of awe that Le Corbusier recognized in these forms, but Gaillard's aesthetic appreciation is undercut by the destitution and violence behind these images. The presence of sullen young men places human experience in front of pure visual pleasure. Viewers cannot enjoy the composition of his shots without noticing the victims of poor infrastructure. Gaillard makes pure artistic pleasure irresponsible, guilt-tripping complacent viewers while giving them gorgeous images. The fight scene in Desniansky Raion pushes this conflict to the extreme, juxtaposing picturesque fireworks and explosions with a massive gang battle.
The fight itself is stylized, as men are reduced to colorful masses, swirling and flowing across the screen. Violence is inherent in these buildings--Pruitt-Igoe was built on the site of a traditional neighborhood, bulldozed by a thoughtless, paternalistic regime. Housing projects are by nature a crude solution to social problems, consolidating unwanted populations in institutional spaces. Destruction breeds destruction, and Pruitt-Igoe's brutal mission sealed its doom. Gaillard repopulates abandoned scenes, and allows the anger of the displaced to explode alongside the projects. This unleashed violence allows the buildings to be beautiful again, their grim secrets set free. Recontextualizaing the ruin imbues old ideas with painfully current relevance. Gaillard immortalizes the buildings with full awareness of what they stood for, and gives them an elegiac dignity.