Living With Mies

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.
Houses Being Given Away in Detroit
iReport CNN

It’s not the fact that they cost only $100 and they seem to be free; a new grassroots organization is literally giving away two houses this summer—completely renovated—and anyone can apply.

Habitat for Hamtramck is a grassroots organization with the goal of rehabilitating houses in the Hamtramck area of Detroit and then giving them to families that can help further the positive redevelopment of the area.  By accepting donations from the public then redistributing the accrued funds vis-à-vis cash payments to local workers and cash purchases of the building material which can then be gifted to the jobsite, the organization can bypass bureaucratic hassles and tax impediments, speedily accomplishing tasks that may otherwise take months to complete by larger, less pragmatic organizations.

“I wanted to create a new model for community service,” says director and founder Ian Perrotta, “based on action and result. Too much of community service is hands off these days. Raise money for an organization and wonder where it goes. Drop some change in a bucket during the holidays. Add a dollar to your purchase and get a shamrock to cure cancer. While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these, they’re all hands-off. Habitat for Hamtramck will not only give the public a chance to donate money, but to also see—and sometimes vote—where it goes.”

The organization will use a joint account that has the name of a public official on it, and every bank statement will be made public through a website that keeps real-time updates on projects, funds, and other developments, proving to the public where all funds come from and go to. Occasionally, the public will have the opportunity to vote on various tasks, like what kind of appliance to buy or what color to paint a wall. And if that’s not enough, for those who want to participate, that too is an option.

“My goal is to find a good, solid crew of local Detroit workers to pay, but we will need a lot volunteers to help out, too. Anyone with any skill—carpentry, masonry, plumbing, marketing, clerical, whatever—can help out. We’re also looking for businesses to help donate or discount supplies and other services.”

The reason Hamtramck was chosen is a mixture of economics, politics, and coincidence. Because home prices in the Detroit area fell to record lows as a result of the economic recession, the city of Hamtramck (fully encompassed by the city of Detroit) was also affected. However, rather than let the circumstances hold the city back, the progressive attitudes of both the Mayor and City Council, as well as the willingness of the citizens to embrace and institute change, has allowed the city to flourish, emerging as a model for a urban rejuvenation, with a locally owned and operated economy comprised of citizens from all around the world who have made Hamtramck their home.

On Friday, March 20th 2009 ABC aired a 20/20 episode titled “20/20: Living on the Edge in Today’s Economy.” It featured a segment on the housing market in Detroit that focused on the story of artists Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, who recently purchased a house for $1,900, as well as the two adjacent lots. After buying the house next door for $500, they sold it to their friends for a $50 profit and focused on a $100 house down the street, which they then helped their friends John and Sarah buy. Word of the Detroit area real estate phenomenon spread, and a group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of the Dutch museum Van Abbenmuseum has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment."

     Watching this episode was Ian Perrotta and his twin brother, Andrew. They were curious and did some research to see if houses could really be purchased for $100. After a chance encounter with a Craigslist ad that was listed as “deal of a lifetime: 50 houses for $75,000,” they located a few houses in the Hamtramck area and arranged to meet the seller’s agent the next day. By the arranged meeting time--10 a.m.--they were in Detroit. By the next week, five Quit Claim Deeds totaling $1,400 were in hand.

After the initial trip, both brothers decided to move to Detroit. Ian sent the mayor of Hamtramck, Karen Majewski, an e-mail informing her of his decision to move, volunteering whatever services a recent graduate with Political Science and English Writing degrees had to offer.  Amazed and curious about the offer, she agreed to meet to have coffee and discuss the e-mail and the potential for Hamtramck’s future. It was at this meeting that the idea for Habitat for Hamtramck was presented and met with encouragement by the mayor, and at this point when the idea started to become a reality. “At the end of the meeting, Mayor Majewski offered her services in any way she could help,” recalls Perrotta.

The project begins on June 1st, 2009. The Habitat for Hamtramck website features a blog, pages about both houses slated for renovation, as well as links to Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and other resources. Additionally, donations are now being accepted through Paypal. It is the embracement of these technologies that makes Perrotta believe his organization will succeed.

“Modern technology can be used the wrong way, like texting during class or talking on your phone instead of paying attention to the road, but it can also be used the right way, like creating a network of people with the resources and talent to enact a positive change. That is what Habitat for Hamtramck has the potential to become. And it doesn’t have to stop there. There is no reason there can’t be a Habitat for Pittsburgh, Habitat for Boston, Habitat for Manhattan, KS”

This attitude is shared by the website’s first Guestbook signer, Judith Vollmer, a renowned poet and professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg, Perrotta’s alma mater. Her belief in and optimism for the organization are clear:

“Wishing you good luck and much joy in your great project. I look forward to visiting.”

 Ian Perrotta with Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski during the meeting at Cafe 1923 on March 27, 2009.