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.”
All photos shot on expired PX 70 Color Shade on an Polaroid SX-70 by this Detroit photographer.