Visiting Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park in Detroit

Originally published on Torontoist on August 8, 2011.

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One of the Mies-designed townhouses in Lafayette Park. Photo by Sarah Ojamae.

As far as downtown architectural landmarks go, it’s hard to miss the Toronto-Dominion Centre. Its sleek, black, rectangular appearance proudly demonstrates the modernist style of its architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. While Mies projects like Westmount Square and the former Esso gas station on Nun’s Island dot the landscape of Montreal, just past the western end of Highway 401 sits the world’s largest collection of his work. A short distance northeast of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is Lafayette Park, one of the United States’ first urban renewal projects.

Thanks to the foresight of the team who developed it, Lafayette Park has resisted the decay that has afflicted Detroit in the years since its groundbreaking in 1956. The neighbourhood stands as a well-planned, mixed-race urban neighbourhood that merited placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The site also provides possible inspiration for those planning urban residential development in healthier cities like Toronto.

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Toronto-Dominion Centre, 1973. Photo by Boris Spremo. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0110747f.

Conceived in the wake of a 1943 race riot and postwar renewal, Lafayette Park was built over the remains of a predominantly African-American neighbourhood known as “Black Bottom” (whose name reportedly derived from the colour of the soil, not its inhabitants). As happened in the south end of Cabbagetown during the same era to make way for Regent Park, Black Bottom was bulldozed and its previous inhabitants moved into public housing complexes like the Brewster and Jeffries projects. Unlike Regent Park, the new housing scheme for Lafayette Park was geared toward middle-class renters and homeowners enticed by the promise of suburban living within the city. To Mies, replacing urban slums was a more sensible means of urban development than building sprawling suburban homes and subdivisions: “Instead of eating up the land they should have been developed as tall and low buildings in a reasonable way.”

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Lafayette Tower West, designed by Mies van der Rohe. 

That’s how Lafayette Park proceeded. The plan—originally developed by Mies, urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, developer Herbert Greenwald, and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell—envisioned several high-rise apartment buildings and a series of one-to-two-storey townhouses surrounding a 52-acre park in the middle of the neighbourhood. According to Mies, “If you build high, you must have enough space to live upon”—a principle he applied to residential and commercial projects alike (and typified in Toronto by the generous outdoor space surrounding the TD Centre). Though factors such Greenwald’s death in a 1959 plane crash dismantled the original team and led to other parties being involved in the final phases of construction, much of the vision for Lafayette Park remained intact.

While the apartments were easy to rent out, the co-op townhouses were a tougher sell. As the greenery that now surrounds them was just sprouting, residents felt that the square shape of the buildings and the sparse landscaping made them feel like occupants of a motel.

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Marker proclaiming Lafayette Park’s place on the National Register of Historic Places. 

While young professionals and first-time homeowners were attracted to the project, once their children reached school age they tended to move out to avoid dealing with Detroit’s declining education system. While the departure of young middle-class tenants led Toronto residential complexes like St. James Town to become home to poorer residents, Lafayette Park remained stable amid the decline of much of Detroit following the 1967 riots, partly due to city regulations that required Detroit municipal workers to live within city limits and partly due to the neighbourhood’s well-groomed, semi-secluded location.

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Even when government housing assistance programs reserved space in the apartment buildings during a higher-than-usual vacancy period in the early 1990s, the results seem to have been more along the lines of mixed-income Toronto neighbourhoods like St. Lawrence Market than a stereotypical descent into crime-infested hell. The lack of balconies and other touches meant to foster privacy in Mies’s design removed markers of social class, so that from the outside it was hard to tell which units were occupied by market renters and which by government-assisted tenants. Events like pool parties and neighbourhood picnics fostered a community spirit. Many of the low-income tenants moved on after agreements with the government ended in 1998 and the neighbourhood took on a tonier air.

Townhouse prices, which remained low for decades, took off as the 21st century dawned, a reflection of increased appreciation for the now-historic architecture, attractive landscaping, and the safety of the neighbourhood. And with Detroit’s increasing potential and attractiveness as a city to incubate businesses like new technology firms and urban farms, we imagine the appeal of Lafayette Park will increase.

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Mies van der Rohe Plaza, with Lafayette Tower West in the background. 

Mies’s contributions to Lafayette Park are honoured in a corner of the Lafayette Towers Center shopping plaza. Between storefronts with varying degrees of vacancy (the opening of Lafayette Foods was considered big news in June, as a sign supermarket owners are willing to invest in Detroit) sits Mies van der Rohe Plaza. Standing in front of the nameplate, you can stare forward and admire the architectural design of the apartment towers.

Lafayette Park shows one way urban redevelopment projects could have enticed people to stay in cities rather than spread into the suburbs or made suburban developments more land-effective. The neighbourhood demonstrates the role of careful thought during development—as opposed to some Toronto condos where it feels like buying the land to build upon was the only planning consideration. It shows that architectural and landscaping considerations play a large role in whether a planned neighbourhood can develop into a community or, as in the case of some postwar public housing projects in Detroit and Toronto, become so dysfunctional that another round of renewal is required. We’re currently witnessing the transformation of Regent Park into what is intended to be a stable, mixed community that includes high- and low-rise dwellings and public space. Stay tuned to see if in 50 years, this new housing stock remains as desirable as the community built by Mies, Hilberseimer, Greenwald and Caldwell in Detroit.

Sources: CASE: Hilberseimer/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, edited by Charles Waldheim (New York: Prestel, 2004) and Conversations with Mies van der Rohe, edited by Moisés Puente (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).

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