Lafayette Park in Detroit is considered the first urban renewal project in the United States, and now it has its very own well-designed web site, Mies Detroit. We dare you to take a look and not want to visit Detroit.
Illinois Institute of Technology’s own alumnus, LaLuce Mitchell (ARCH ’09), had the opportunity to explore it with Neil McEachern, a long-time Detroit resident and architecture enthusiast. LaLuce, a former senior tour guide for the Mies Society and an aspiring preservation architect, provides a detailed account (below) of Mies’ largest development project.
Photo of Lafayette Park town houses by Jörn Schiemann
BY LALUCE MITCHELL
In mid-May, I had the honor of taking a tour of one of Mies’s largest and most unique developments, Lafayette Park, just northeast of downtown Detroit. Our guide was a long-time resident of the community, retired public school principal and long-time architecture enthusiast Neil McEachern. It is a complex of several housing developments from the mid-20th century, including a 50-acre portion that was designed and realized by Mies van der Rohe with the first buildings being completed in 1956. Founded as an urban renewal project by developer Herb Greenwald to help keep the middle class in the city, the development has absolutely succeeded in that regard. Detroit has a terrible reputation on the national stage, some of it deserved, but much of it not. In truth, the city’s death has been much exaggerated, and the problems it does have have only served to invigorate a generation of strong believers in the city’s future who are willing to fight for what they want their neighborhoods to be and take matters in their own hands when the city’s government does not provide the necessary control and policing. Neil told us stories about this in Lafayette Park, and it seems that there are pillars of community strength like him in neighborhoods across the city.
So, what is Lafayette Park like?
It is a collection of one- and two-story town homes, a small neighborhood shopping center, and three high-rises set in lush greenery adjacent to the municipally-operated green space also named Lafayette Park. The buildings are planned along three roadways that enter the development from the west. On one hand, parking is integral to the development. Detroit being the Motor City, Mies planned the development to embrace the automobile from the beginning, but he does not show them off. Rather, the parking areas are sunken about three feet below the level of the sidewalks and lawns of the town homes so that they are scarcely visible from a resident casually peering out the floor-to-ceiling windows of their unit. Out of sight, out of mind. All landscape design on the project was done by Mies’ landscape architect, Alfred Caldwell and the urban design was completed by Ludwig Hilberseimer. In other words, the development was created by Mies’ dream team for the developer that let him realize his work to the fullest. Lafayette Park is Mies at his best.
The layout of the homes is carefully choreographed so that, while most homes are entered from the parking areas, the living rooms of each of the two-story town homes faces onto green space. A portion of this internal green space in the development is left as passive recreation space for the children of the residents. The development is also adjacent to a public elementary school, one of Detroit’s best, and Mies carefully designed the circulation of Lafayette Park to allow children to get from their town home to the school without needing to cross a street.
The town homes are the most spectacular aspect of the development, and the most unique aspect in terms of Mies’ career oeuvre. Two-story town homes are the most common building type and are located throughout the development, with courtyard town homes located in the interior of the development facing the two interior streets. The town homes have an average size of around 1400 square feet and range between two and four bedrooms with each of the two-story units having three bedrooms. In the two-story town homes, this interior square footage is divided equally across the two floors, whereas in the courtyard town homes, it is all on one floor. The courtyard homes also each include a walled courtyard. In addition to its above-ground space, each home has a full basement below. Interestingly, Mies preferred that the development be clean and orderly, so he eliminated outside dumpsters by placing all trash and maintenance functions in a communal tunnel that connects all the units in each row at the basement level.
The interiors of the town homes include many features that would be expected of a Mies development, cleanly and clearly articulated. First, though the units are narrow, both ends have floor to ceiling windows. In order to provide the largest possible area of vision in the glass, the ceilings are specially designed in order to allow the blinds to retract into the soffit completely out of sight. In a two-story unit, both ends of the first floor are public spaces, which are connected by a galley kitchen on one side and a hallway that also contains the staircase on the other. Between the kitchen and hallway is a small service core that also includes a powder room. The staircase has the classic handrails that Mies uses through his many commissions, including at Crown Hall, though the open treads are wood over a metal frame. The second floor contains the bedrooms. Interestingly, the second floors of each of the units do not necessarily line up with the floor below. Rather, their size varies in order to allow the maximum amount of possible useful space in the bedrooms.
An interesting aspect of Lafayette Park is that it was always designed to be inhabited by middle class families and professionals, as it continues to be. As such, Mies was not able to use the highest-quality finishes, as he commonly used throughout his other projects. The walls and ceilings are plaster and concrete and the floors are finished with carpet or vinyl. The walls of the basement were exposed cinder block. In order to attract the buyers at the price point desired, Mies compromised on materials but made up for it with the elegance of the units’ views, layouts, and amenities.
One of the advantages of being located in a city that receives such a negative slant in the popular media is that, despite its careful upkeep and architectural pedigree, land values at Lafayette Park remain low. It remains a hidden gem in a city that is slowly reviving and reinventing itself.
The town homes at Lafayette Park showcase Mies’ design vision in an individualized, thoughtful human scale that is not always seen in his larger-scale work. For a lover of modernism and a person that wants to see the other side of Detroit, the positive one that is not portrayed in the news media, a visit to Lafayette Park is a must-include on any Detroit itinerary.
Special Thanks to Neil McEachern for the incredible tour and for allowing me to use pictures of his town home for this blog entry and to Bob Miske, who allowed us access to this condominium overlooking the development in order to get a sense of the layout of the whole development from above. Also thanks to Justine Jentes, Director of the Mies van der Rohe Society, for allowing me the opportunity to write about my experience for other enthusiasts of Modern Architecture to enjoy as well.
Neil McEachern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and is eager to give tours of Lafayette Park to groups that are interested in experiencing a fascinating piece of Modernism that plays a unique part in the history of Detroit.
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