Lafayette Park is a residential development in east Detroit, just outside of the downtown business district. It is a listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the neighborhood is a U.S. National Historic Landmark District. The homes are owned as a cooperative, with residents democratically elected to manage decisions for the property.
It was built to replace Black Bottoms, a blighted area so named due to its fertile topsoil. Originally slated to be designed by Minoru Yamasaki, it was transferred to Mies van der Rohe when no local developer took interest in the project. Herb Greenwalt from Chicago was approached, and owing to his fruitful collaboration with Mies along Lake Shore Drive, the two took up the project along with Ludwig Hilberseimer as City Planner and Alfred Caldwell as Landscape Architect.
I first visited the property last December when I was in Detroit. It was far too cold to walk around very much. My family certainly wasn’t interested in looking at bricks in that weather! Returning this past weekend was perfect. The mature landscape shaded the internal walkways and gave a beautiful, organic counterpoint the geometric certainty of the architecture. Le Corbusier wanted to raise the buildings in his housing developments above the ground; I think Mies and his team were right to set them into the artificial forest. Similar to the Farnsworth House that I visited last September, the architecture provides an optimal lookout position to experience the change of seasons. It should go without saying that the best way to be in touch with the natural world is to go outside, but everyone knows that some times of the year it can be beautiful outside but much more comfortable indoors under a wool blanket! The condensation, HVAC, and energy issues regarding large, single pane glass windows are well documented and don’t need to be repeated. Contemporary materials and systems easily solve those concerns. The important goal that remains valuable was the intentional dissolution of the opaque wall that visually removed the viewer from the environment. Mies’ architecture consistently broke down the spatial boundary to enlarge the perception of the room. Much like Richard Neutra, the reflective properties of glass were masterfully orchestrated to stunning effect.
I was not able to see inside any of the homes, but photos exist online at several sites like Dwell Magazine and Mies Detroit. The outside of the buildings are very similar, the interiors are varied to suit the tastes of the owners. I think this calm, unified exterior suits the aims of a democratic collective better than a development where everyone’s individual preferences are on display. Some may see this as a loss of personal expression, but I think it is willful choice of good manners in a civil society and it gives the whole project a unified and coherent appearance.
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