Lafayette Park is the Cinderella of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s bold roster of work. In the heart of Downtown Detroit, it is one of the city’s most economically and racially diverse and stable communities, but has never received acclaim equal to that of Mies’ similar projects, due in part to its residence in a struggling, iconic American city some would like to turn away from.
We love Detroit, and we are equally in awe of Mies’ otherworldly alchemy of earthly grandiosity and ethereal refinement. After a recent book launch for Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit — published by Metropolis Books — at Project No.8 off the Ace New York lobby, we interviewed editors Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani of Placement about this communal glass house, its maker and what it all means.
In contrast to other planned Modernist communities being tested at the time, Lafayette Park seems successful on many levels such as sensitivity to scale and circulation by pedestrians and automobiles alike. But the beautiful integration of landscape design throughout the project is remarkable. How much is known of the collaboration between Mies and Alfred Caldwell, the landscape architect for the project? Did Mies envision the long term importance of the landscape design to Lafayette Park?
Yes! The landscape design is a huge reason that Lafayette Park is such a great place to live. There is a bit of research on the relationship between Mies and Caldwell, they collaborated on many projects and were both on the faculty at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. When Lafayette Park was first built in the late 1950s/early 1960s there was not enough of a budget to buy grown trees, so they planted saplings. The landscaping really became a lush, green environment in the late 1970s. Today the trees attract migrating birds and it’s become a kind of active habitat for wildlife.
When I first visited Lafayette park I was struck by how tidy all the window dressings and interior decor as seen through the expansive windows were. Le Corbusier had a famously adverse reaction when residents of his Pessac housing project decided to modify and decorate his rational modernist sculptures (and windows) to their personal tastes. In Lafayette Park does the architecture inspire the residents to neatness or do rules do this?
In the high-rises in Lafayette Park, residents have to use vertical blinds on their windows, but in the townhouses there are not actually any rules about what kinds of window treatments people can put up. That said, people are generally motivated not to obstruct the view. But, as with every neighborhood, some people are neat and some are messy.
In the end architecture is for the people who inhabit it and for the cities that they together create. The title of your book may imply more that just what you ‘view’ through the glass but thanking Mies for his view on how we should live. What are some of the key lessons architects could learn from this project through the point of view of the residents who have lived happily in Lafayette Park through the years?
The neighborhood’s designers –- Mies, Caldwell, Ludwig Hilberseimer, the urban planner, and Herbert Greenwald, the developer -– were clearly very aware of the importance of designing spaces that would encourage strong relationships between residents. But in the high-rises, which are rentals, it’s clear that the building’s management is of equal, or greater, importance to the health of the community in that building. In the townhouses, which are co-operatively owned, the neighbors’ reliance on one another is what creates strong bonds.
We’re not sure how Mies wanted people to live in his buildings, but there are many people who don’t share the minimal/spare side of his aesthetic who love living in the spaces he designed. The views through the windows contribute to the relationships people have with the city, the trees and each other. That said, as one resident who lives in the neighborhood put it to us, people “come for the architecture, but they stay for the neighbors.”
We’re very excited for the book launch of Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit — published by Placement Books — at No. 8a, the Ace New York branch of Project No. 8 and Various Projects, tonight at No. 8a off our lobby from 7-9pm.
Lafayette Park, an affordable middle-class residential area in downtown Detroit, is home to the largest collection of buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the world. Today, it is one of Detroit’s most racially-integrated and economically stable neighborhoods, although it is surrounded by evidence of a city in financial distress. Through interviews with and essays by residents, reproductions of archival material, new photographs by Karin Jobst, Vasco Roma and Corine Vermeulen, and previously unpublished photographs by documentary filmmaker Janine Debanné, Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies examines the way that Lafayette Park residents confront and interact with this unique modernist environment.
Lafayette Park has not received the level of international attention that other similar projects by Mies have. This may be due in part to its location in Detroit, a city whose most positive qualities and cultural power are often overlooked in the media.
This book is a reaction against the way that iconic modernist architecture is often represented. Whereas other writers may focus on the design intentions of the architect, authors Aubert, Cavar and Chandani seek to show the organic and idiosyncratic ways that the people who live in Lafayette Park actually use the architecture and how this experience, in turn, affects their everyday lives. While there are many publications about abandoned buildings in Detroit and about the city’s prosperous past, this book is about a remarkable part of the city as it exists today, in the twenty-first century.
We’ll see you tonight for a signing and launch party in one of our favorite shops in the world — we’d live in a glass house with them any day.
We caught up with Eames on the eve of a trip abroad before the retrospective, and he was kind enough to go over some topics both familiar and new. We talked about his epic project Kcymaerxthaere, love, creativity, perseverance and fruitful failure, as well as how his legacy affects his work and process. We wished the conversation could have gone on infinitely, and we’re looking forward to seeing you next week as we keep it going.
I’m sure that you get asked at every turn about your grandparents. What I was noticing looking through your bio and your work is both that your work is very diverse and it seems like you have an almost spiritual thread through the things that you pursue. I was wondering how your grandparents’ legacy informs the work that you do now, especially this idea of 3-dimensional fiction.
Well I think we are all products of how we grow up and what we are exposed to. And Charles and Ray were definitely a part of my life growing up, and they are pretty amazing people. I think the real place that I find conscious inspiration from them is just this, you know — if you look at Charles right now, they are famous, they are iconic to a lot of different people, which is fantastic. But it wasn’t always that way. There were definitely a lot of struggles for them, especially in the 1940s. One thing I take inspiration from is just this whole idea of really sort of pursing an idea with great passion, an idea you believe in, and trying the hardest you can to pull it off knowing that it won’t happen right away. And I think for me that’s been helpful to know that it has worked for other people, it has happened to people that are a part of my legacy. But I think it’s inspiring to everyone. Because you know when you’re doing something that is really new, you don’t really know whether you are going to succeed or not. And so, one of the nice things I think for them, and certainly for me, was the process — I mean whether Kcymaerxthaere becomes incredibly world famous and successful and all that, it’s been an amazing experience no matter what. I’ve met amazing people, I’ve been to incredible places, and I’ve done some work that meant a lot to me. And so if you can approach things in that way, then whether or not you get the material success, it certainly helps you do more work, and I would be very happy about that — but it also means that you have something that you can feel good about looking back, no matter what. And Charles and Ray, I think, were very pleased with things that things worked out, but I think if they hadn’t, they’d had an amazing time learning about these materials — making the splints, understanding plywood better — and indeed if you look at what they actually did, the final chair that really sort of put them over the top, was not the plywood chair but the plastic chair, which came from their deep engagement with the challenges of molding plywood, even though the final result was plastic. So again, the process really is of value no matter how it turns out.
And you’ve spoken also about — in your Ted Talk and I think in your lectures that you give around the country and around the world — about this idea of “surrendering to your design journey.” Do these ideas relate to that, and what does that mean to you, necessarily?
Well I think that it is related to that. I would agree with that. I think of it particularly in terms of deign itself in the sense that there are so many times you hear about companies, or whatever, where people say they want to be design-driven, but they really have a specific end result in mind. And it’s not that that can’t work out sometimes, and sometimes that end result is really good insight, but very often it’s not really about being willing to surrender yourself to what you learn, and to what results from what you learn. And I think that that’s what I mean by surrendering to the design journey, and being really willing to do that. It doesn’t mean sort of giving up and not pushing back and not trying hard and making sure that ideas aren’t explored carefully and rigorously. But it does mean letting it take you where it goes. Because if you focus on what your real need is, if you keep your focus on that actual need, then certain other things become… they become…. they don’t take center stage when they shouldn’t. So, to use that example of that chair we just talked about, the important thing was making a comfortable and affordable chair. And they had an insight, keep in mind, that the seat and back is one, but there could be something really important there. Now, if the only acceptable outcome was making a mold of plywood, then you could be right, but you could also be destined to failure. But if an acceptable outcome is a successful and affordable chair that combines the seat and back, then success may come. They tried it in metal, they tried it in plywood, and they tried it in plastic — and that’s the one that eventually worked. And then, even with that, over the course of the next 20 years, they were constantly improving it, they were always trying to find a more of a uniform finish to it, and that whole time they had just designed one of the most successful chairs in history and they were still trying to make it better in the 70s.
The December 1944 cover of Arts & Architecture by Herbert Matter, courtesy of SCI-Arc’s Kappe Library. Matter’s revolutionary use of photomontage strongly shaped the vernacular of contemporary graphic design, and his life of experiments and variation in skill dignified the dilettante for good.
Heather David is a devotee of midcentury architecture and the author of Mid-Century by the Bay. We found this detail from a larger postcard in her collection — it’s an old shot of Ace Palm Springs from back in the Westward Ho days.
Acclaimed architecture firm Portland, Oregon-based Allied Works celebrates their new and first book Allied Works Architecture | Brad Cloepfil: Occupation (out May 1st) at Ace Hotel New York tonight for ExPac, our monthly night devoted to Pacific Northwest expatriates and their friends. Mr. Cloepfil will speak about the book, its genesis and the philosophies that guide the ground-breaking work Allied Works is known for.
Occupation articulates the principles of their work through conversations with other makers — artists, fabricators and designers. It seeks to universalize and contextualize the ideas that give way to the making of buildings by sharing those connections that first inspired them — a community of ideas that Mr. Cloepfil happens to manifest in buildings. They worked with landscape photographer Victoria Sambunaris to shoot the places in which Allied Works buildings now live, but without the buildings — the genesis of the structures. Mr. Cloepfil says about the book that “a key factor in the concept is that it’s not about fancy buildings as objects; it’s a counterpoint to the consumer culture of architecture which has become more about collecting images and names and not about doing work that has a sense of place. It’s just consumerism. In the last 10 to 15 years there has been an elevation of designer culture but it’s only elevated the consumption of design rather than enriching the conversation of design, the sense of awe, the humbling experience that you encounter with a place, a building — introspection. Architecture can convey that and move you in a way that nothing else can.”
To further explore the book’s ideas, we’ve also invited Allied Works to create an installation in the gallery space. Forest from the Trees is a spatial sketch exploring point of view, reference and memory. An attempt to dis- and re-orient the experience of a specific room — obliterating boundaries with a displaced and idealized archetype from the Pacific Northwest. The exhibition will be up through April 28, so have a look when you stop by Tuesday evening.
RSVP to ExPac at firstname.lastname@example.org — music by J. Escobeda MD and special guests to follow in Liberty Hall.