Visiting Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park in Detroit

Originally published on Torontoist on August 8, 2011.

20110807townhouse1

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.

tspa_0110747f_640
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.”

20110807lafayettetower1

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.

20110807plaque

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.

20110807townhouse2

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.

20110807miesplaza

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).

An Early November Night’s Walk

IMG_9240a

Once upon a time, I wrote a lot about my walks through the city. Whether they were solo strolls or psychogeographic excursions, I snapped many pictures along the way and summarized the trip in old-fashioned blog posts.

Friends have asked over the years if I would ever return to writing about walks. So I am. If nothing else, going for these strolls takes me away from my work desk.

I think I got a look of approval from Toronto’s first mayor from his perch at Queen station (though I swear he also mumbled something about muskets).

IMG_9230a

Originally I was going to wander along Danforth through Greektown, peering in at the early Christmas displays, such as this one at Kitchen Stuff Plus. Feeling there was more walking in me, I hopped on the subway at Broadview and headed downtown.

IMG_9244a

It was five minutes to closing time when I entered the Queen Street Bay. This cow didn’t seem bothered by the customers scurrying to leave the store. It was also proud to show off their holiday wreath, which at least one cutting board approved of.

IMG_9248a

Heading into the Bay Adelaide Centre, I had a feeling that I was being watched…

IMG_9250a

…and they weren’t the watcher from the wall.

IMG_9252a

Is the use of the word “path” intentional, given this is a busy corridor in the PATH system? Is it the path to financial well-being? Consumer satisfaction? Enlightenment?

IMG_9254a

Given the early Christmas decorations I had seen earlier, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” lodged itself in my brain.

As for seeing what they saw, all I could see was a row of closeups of eyes staring at me. Which, for some people, might be unnerving.

IMG_9256a

Time to move on to another complex.

IMG_9258a

Recent wayfinding installed in the PATH not only directs you to nearby attractions and buildings, but lets you know how long it takes to get to your destination.*

*Not valid during lunchtime, especially during inclement weather.

IMG_9264a

First Canadian Place, like much of the PATH after business hours, takes on a quiet character. The hustle and bustle of bankers and lawyers gives way to the occasional wanderer. It’s a great place for reflection while walking.

IMG_9266a

Heading into the Toronto-Dominion Centre provides one of the last glimpses of the uniform signage that, until the early 2000s, dominated Mies van der Rohe’s original design for the shopping level of the complex.

From Shawn Micallef’s book Stroll:

The Toronto-Dominion Centre was long an exception to the generic look of much of the PATH. Architect Mies van der Rohe laid out a mausoleum of a mall down there, a place of order, clean lines and polished travertine marble. Even the store signs were uniform: white letters on a black background using a font Mies designed specifically for the TD Centre.

IMG_9268a

The remaining black elements give the centre more character than its neighbours, making it one of the most atmospheric to stroll after hours. The loud partying sounds from the Duke of Devon felt out of place.

From Patricia McHugh and Alex Bozikovic’s book Toronto Architecture: A City Guide:

Also, this is where Mies did the city the dubious favour of pioneering the the underground shopping concourse. The Miesian signage and detailing are now gone from underground, but the PATH system continues to grow, turning office-dwellers into moles and emptying the streets.

IMG_9273a

One of the most interesting signs points to the King & Bay Chaplaincy, a spiritual retreat whose corridor was under construction. It feels like a necessary amenity for people to cope with the pressure of working in the Financial District.

From the February 2, 2008 Globe and Mail:

Hope comes in the form of a door handily emblazoned HOPE. Inside, Pat Kimeda sits quietly behind the desk of the King-Bay Chaplaincy, an interdenominational Christian chapel tucked below escalators in the TD Tower. Ms. Kimeda says many downtown workers come to deal with relationship issues, others in a daze after being dismissed. “All types of people come, and sometimes the problems are not so different,” she says. “Whether it’s family or work, often people are dealing with stress for one reason or another.”

But is it odd, expecting people to find faith in the heart of the country’s biggest financial district? Ms. Kimeda pauses. “It’s Bay Street. It’s money, money, money,” she says. “[But]not every person walking down here is like that. A lot are very, very deep.”

IMG_9281a

Compared to the Toronto-Dominion Centre, walking into Royal Bank Plaza feels like you’ve entered just another office/shopping complex. It doesn’t live up to the promise of the exterior, as described in Toronto Architecture: A City Guide:

Any building in Toronto that makes it look as if the sun is shining on a dreary winter day has a lot going for it. The faceted gold-enriched mirror-glass of Royal Bank’s Late-Modern jewel seems to reflect a warm sunny glow no matter what the weather. This is a very showy building all around.

One of the biggest mistakes: closing off public viewing access to Jesus Raphael Soto’s ceiling sculpture Suspended Virtual Volume, which can sort of be seen through the front windows.

IMG_9275a

Also available (for the moment) in Royal Bank Plaza: a vending machine dispensing $8.99 cake slices shipped in from Hoboken.

Given all the great bakeries in the city, I’ll pass.

IMG_9278a

Artwork on the wall next to the cake machine. Aww.

IMG_9283a

My feet needed to rest, so I headed out of Royal Bank Plaza into a building with more atmosphere…

IMG_9285a

…but first, the small shopping centre in the Royal York Hotel.

IMG_9286a

At the barber shop, a fine display of after shaves…

IMG_9287a

…and shaving products usually spotted at my local Italian grocery store.

IMG_9288a

A bank of elevators waiting to whisk guests to their rooms for a night of romance, or people attending functions throughout the hotel.

IMG_9292a

From Andrew Hepburn’s The Toronto Guide 1966-67:

The hotel, one of the the most celebrated hotels in the world and the largest in the British Commonwealth, has 1,600 guest rooms and suites and some of the most interesting public rooms in Canada, particularly a series of private dining rooms, each one decorated to suggest the character and history of a Canadian province.

IMG_9302a

The Royal York’s lobby is one of my favourite places to rest in the city. Easing into one of the comfortable chairs sends you into a state of relaxation, along with the classic decor. I’ll sit for 15-20 minutes to collect my thoughts, typing into my phone or writing in a notebook ideas to be saved for later.

IMG_9296a

The constant stream of activity makes it a great people-watching spot. On this night, there were attendees of a black-tie function roaming around, along with young tourism, couples out for a drink, and happy Leafs fans savouring a victory over Vegas.

IMG_9294a

Musically, a live pianist in Reign restaurant blended with dance music blaring from a speaker somewhere behind my chair.

IMG_9306a

An abandoned issue of O waiting for the next guests to flip through it.

IMG_9308a

Feeling recharged, it was time to head across the street…

IMG_9312a

…into Union Station.

IMG_9320a

First stop was Luis Jacob’s Toronto Biennial of Art exhibit The View from Here. According to the artist statement, the exhibit pairs Jacob’s photos with selections from his rare map collection, “representing different yet overlapping narratives of the same places. The tension between these views invites a reconsideration of Toronto’s identity and presumed cohesion as a city.”

IMG_9326a

I thought the reflected glow of a nearby TD logo added something to this picture taken in The Junction.

IMG_9330a

Another TD offering nearby: seating.

IMG_9335a

I headed into the new York Concourse, but it was packed with Leafs fans waiting for their GO trains home. Back into the Great Hall…

IMG_9338a

Who wants VIA merchandise?

IMG_9343a

While waiting for the Leafs fans to disperse, I wandered into Brookfield Place. While Royal Bank Plaza hid its sculpture to add more office space, Brookfield embraces Santiago Calatrava’s work in the Allen Lambert Galleria.

IMG_9347a

From Toronto Architecture: A City Guide:

Inside is a real architectural gift to the city: a galleria and “heritage square” by the Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava. Built to satisfy the city’s public art requirement, this bravura arcade of white steel evokes by turns whale bones, an ancient forest, and Victorian engineering feats such as the Eiffel Tower.

IMG_9345a

Looking down at the food court.

IMG_9351a

The steel fountain at the centre of Sam Pollock Square.

IMG_9354a

Near the entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame is a corner of pucks spanning all levels of hockey…

IMG_9355a

…including franchises that never played a game, such as the WHA’s Miami Screaming Eagles.

IMG_9356a

The night’s final image: a display of fall gourds on the Yonge Street side of Marché Mövenpick.

“We don’t want to become a city of moles”

This installment of my “Retro T.O.” online column for The Grid was originally published on May 22, 2012.

ts 71-12-18 underground plan map

Toronto Star, December 18, 1971.

To some, it provided a welcome respite from braving the elements on their lunch break. For others, especially those working in its retail outlets, it made them feel like a mole. The three kilometres of underground shopping malls and tunnels that 175,000 office workers passed through daily in May 1980 formed the spine from which today’s PATH system grew.

Since the opening of the Toronto-Dominion Centre’s sub-surface shopping complex in 1967, planners and developers envisioned an underground network connecting the core’s major business, shopping, and transportation facilities. One of the first reports commissioned by the city was 1968’s “On Foot Downtown,” which concluded that downtown pedestrians required a space that wasn’t impeded by industrial pollution, noise, traffic congestion, or too many of their fellow human beings. “We had reached the point where sidewalks couldn’t handle all the people,” former Toronto planning commissioner Matthew Lawson told the Star in 1980. “At the same time, all our forecasts said such conditions would only worsen because of the growth of the downtown work force.”

It was hoped that a climate-controlled underground route would avert these problems and provide protection from Mother Nature—as Toronto development commissioner Graham Emslie told the Star in 1971, “let’s face it, there are a hell of a lot of days you’d just as soon not walk outside.” The first major connection in the primordial PATH, which linked Nathan Phillips Square to the Richmond-Adelaide Centre, opened in January 1973. By May 1980, apart from a gap at Adelaide Street that became a haven for jaywalkers, one could wander underground from City Hall to Union Station.

ts 73-11-17 underground city

Toronto Star, November 17, 1973. Click on image for larger version.

While many users extolled the network’s conveniences, some urban planners and consultants were alarmed by the potential effects on surface life. An adviser to a planned revitalization of Yonge Street found it “worrisome” that in the future, people would take the subway downtown, shop at the Eaton Centre and other underground shopping complexes, then head home without ever setting foot outdoors. “We don’t want to become a city of moles,” noted Toronto planning and development commissioner Steve McLaughlin. To mitigate such a fate, a recently written central plan for the city encouraged developers to place higher priority on street-level retail in future buildings. According to McLaughlin, “we don’t want the downtown streets to contain nothing more than block after block of office lobbies.”

ts 80-05-03 plans for path

Toronto Star, May 3, 1980. Click on image for larger version.

Back underground, Downtown Business Council president David Arscott provided the Star with a shopping list of improvements. Filling the gap under Adelaide Street was critical, as was a proper orientation system to give users a sense of which surface landmarks they were wandering under. Complaints Arscott received that required addressing included narrow walkways, poor lighting, low ceilings, and boring street entrances. “We are still in a primitive stage of the art,” said Arscott. “We have a lot to learn from experience.”

Aerial views, maps and underground path. - 1981-1981

Downtown Toronto underground pedestrian mall system, 1981. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 408, Item 5.

Within the next decade, some of those issues were resolved. The Adelaide gap was fixed in 1984, while a tunnel opened under Bay Street in 1990 that properly connected the Eaton Centre and Simpsons (now The Bay) to the rest of the PATH. Signage would long remain a problem, one caught between city politicians who wanted clear wayfinding versus landlords who didn’t want to create the impression that the network was a truly public space.

tspa_0116035f small

“People bound for jobs in the financial district pour out of Union station into the underground mall section of the Royal Bank Plaza. It’s been described as an ‘environmental vaccuum’ by some due to the poor artificial lighting and the mechanically recirculated stale air.” Photo by Erin Combs, 1985. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library.

While a few people may have mutated into moles over the years, the surface streets remain filled with those seeking a breath of unfiltered air during the workday.

Additional material from the December 18, 1971, January 11, 1973, and May 3, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Good Vibrations at The Fifty Fourth

Originally published on Torontoist on December 16, 2008.

2008-12-16-54th

Globe and Mail, December 22, 1977.

For some, one of the highlights of the holiday season is taking the opportunity to wind down the year with a night on the town accompanied by a loved one or someone that will, fingers crossed, soon be the most cherished person in your life. The outing may include a couple of drinks, a fine meal, and a silent prayer that your partner won’t notice that you have two left feet on the dance floor. If you visited The Fifty Fourth restaurant atop the Toronto-Dominion Centre back in the late 1970s, you would have tossed in a fine view of the city and music from one of the country’s best vibraphonists.

The Fifty Fourth and its sibling, the Safari Lounge, first provided patrons magnificent views of the city in 1967. Besides mutant lobsters whose plans to conquer the city evaporated when they were tossed into boiling water, diners were treated to a “fine international menu” that spotlighted dishes like roast pheasant and Brome Lake duckling.

It’s odd that the generic depiction of musicians focuses on a horn player, as headliner Peter Appleyard gained fame for his skill with the vibraphone. Still active at age 80, Appleyard’s career stretches back to World War II, when the British native played in Royal Air Force bands. Appleyard was a busy man in 1977—he hosted his own syndicated television show, Peter Appleyard Presents, and served as musical director of The Fifty Fourth. His hiring, along with $14.50 prix-fixe meals, was part of the restaurant’s move to expand its clientele and play down its earlier reputation as one of the costliest places to eat in the city. Globe and Mail reviewer Blaik Kirby felt that “Appleyard’s quartet is admirably right because of its light weight as well as its conservative dinner repertoire. It noodles along pleasantly, jazz style, and never abuses your ears.”

Diners are still able to view the city from the top of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, courtesy of Canoe.

Additional material from the December 7, 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail and the March 9, 1979 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Appleyard passed away in 2013.  Here’s an opening to Peter Appleyard Presents dug up by Retrontario, featuring the Downchild Blues Band.

Vintage Toronto Ads: “The Bank” Wants You

Originally published on Torontoist on July 31, 2007.

2007_07_31_TD.jpg

Source: Leaside High School Clan Call, 1961/62 edition.

“THE BANK.” Does the use of bold face and quotations make this institution sound Big Brotherish?

Canada’s major banks regularly advertised in high school yearbooks and college newspapers in the 1960s, eager for new recruits as branches opened in new suburban markets. With all of the promises of security and comfort for potential employees, who wouldn’t want to sign up with “The Bank?” This was the era of secure, benefit-laden futures, which anyone who applied in 1962 and stayed the course is now hopefully enjoying in retirement.

It was an era of major change for Toronto-Dominion Bank, formed in February 1955 after the merger of the Bank of Toronto (established 1855) and The Dominion Bank (established 1871). Around the time this ad appeared, it was announced that a new headquarters was under development, plans that evolved into Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s landmark Toronto-Dominion Centre. It is possible that students drawn in by this ad were among the complex’s first office workers when the initial tower opened in 1967.

One question: was posing by a stool a prerequisite for businessmen in advertisements of this era?