The New York Times Opinionator
By Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani
Photo by Corine Vermeulen
Corine Vermeulen Lafayette Park is an enclave of modernist townhouses designed by the architect Mies van der Rohe.
A few blocks east of Detroit’s downtown, just across Interstate 375, sits Lafayette Park, an enclave of single- and two-story modernist townhouses set amid a forest of locust trees. Like hundreds of developments nationwide, they were the result of postwar urban renewal; unlike almost all of them, it had a trio of world-class designers behind it: Ludwig Hilbersheimer as urban planner, Alfred Caldwell as landscape designer and Mies van der Rohe as architect.
The townhouses, plus three high-rise buildings, were built between 1958 and 1962 on land previously occupied by a working-class African-American neighborhood, Black Bottom. While much of Detroit began a steep decline soon after, Lafayette Park stayed afloat, its residents bucking the trend of suburban flight. Lafayette Park today is one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in the city. It is economically stable, despite the fact that Detroit has suffered enormous population loss and strained city services.
We wanted to hear how residents — especially people with long-term, intimate knowledge of living with Mies — think about this unique modernist environment and how they confront and adapt it to meet their needs. During our research, we were struck by the casual attitude that many residents have toward the architecture. Then again, Detroit has an abundance of beautiful housing options: one can live in a huge Victorian mansion, a beautiful arts and crafts house or a cavernous loft-conversion space in a former factory. Living in a townhouse built by a renowned architect isn’t as noteworthy as one might think. At the same time, such nonchalance is a mark of success: the homes are great because they work, not because they come affixed with a famous name.
Indeed, their beauty isn’t always obvious. There is a kind of austere uniformity to the Lafayette Park townhouses when viewed from the outside. Some visitors find them unappealing; one contractor described them as “bunkers.” The interior layouts are nearly identical. The units are compact in size and some people find them too small, though the floor-to-ceiling windows on the front and back of each building open the living spaces to the outside.
To be sure, there are people who live in Lafayette Park who are architecture enthusiasts, keenly aware of Mies van der Rohe’s place in history, who were drawn here specifically because he designed these buildings. But they are a minority. Many more residents were attracted to the lush landscape, the sense of community, the gigantic windows and the convenience of living downtown.
While they may have strong aesthetic preferences, the residents we spoke with do not necessarily favor midcentury modernism in their interiors or architecture. But they make it work: several people remarked on the way the interiors in the Lafayette Park townhouses can function as blank canvasses for a variety of decorating styles. Indeed, the best design doesn’t force a personality on its residents. Instead, it helps them bring out their own.
Interactive Feature: See how residents live in their spaces and hear about what Mies’s design aesthetic does and does not mean to them.
Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani work together on Placement, a transient, site-specific project about the interaction of people and places.