Lafayette Park

 1961 - 1965

The Story

Lafayette Park, just northeast of downtown Detroit, is a 78-acre housing development designed and realized by Mies van der Rohe. The first urban renewal project in the United States, it was founded by developer Herb Greenwald to help keep the middle class in the city. Alfred Caldwell, Mies’ longtime collaborator, did all landscape design on the project, and Ludwig Hilberseimer handled the urban design (in the only professional collaboration between Hilberseimer and Mies).

The complex is a collection of one- and two- story townhomes, a small neighborhood shopping center, and two high-rises set adjacent to a 19-acre municipally-operated park also called Lafayette Park. The buildings are planned along three roadways that enter the development from the west. Mies planned for Lafayette Park to embrace the automobile from the beginning—after all, Detroit is the Motor City. However, he does not show off the parking areas, instead sinking them about four feet below the level of the sidewalks and laws of the townhomes. A resident peering out of the floor-to-ceiling windows of his unit would scarcely be able to see them.

Some of the land around the townhomes themselves is carefully left as green space to serve as a passive recreation area for the children who live there. The development is adjacent to a public elementary school, one of Detroit’s best, and Mies carefully designed the circulation of Lafayette Park to allow children to get from their townhome to school without having to cross a street.

The townhomes are the most spectacular aspect of the development, and the most unique buildings in Mies’ oeuvre. Two-story townhomes are located on the north and south ends, with one-story courtyard townhomes in the center. The townhomes come in floor plans of two and three bedrooms, with an average size of 1400 square feet. The courtyard homes also each include a walled courtyard, and every home has a full basement below. Interestingly, Mies eliminated outside Dumpsters by placing all trash and maintenance functions in a communal tunnel connecting all units in a row at the basement level.

The interiors of the townhomes are cleanly and clearly articulated, as would be expected of Mies’ work. For example, although the units are narrow, both ends have floor-to-ceiling windows. In order to provide the largest possible area of vision in the glass, the blinds are specially designed to retract into a pocket in the soffit above the ceiling. In a two-story unit, both ends of the first floor are public spaces, with a galley kitchen on one side and a hallway also containing the staircase on the other. Between the kitchen and hallway is a small service core that includes a powder room. The staircase features the classic handrails that Mies uses through his many commissions, including at Crown Hall, though here the open treads are wood over a metal frame. The second floor contains the bedrooms. The second floor of each unit doesn’t necessarily line up with the floor below, rather varying in order to allow the maximum amount of possible useful space in the bedrooms.

Lafayette Park was always designed to be inhabited by middle class families and professionals, as it continues to be. As such, Mies was not able to use the highest quality finishes, as he commonly used in his other projects. The walls and ceilings are plaster and the floors are carpet or vinyl tile. The walls of the basement are exposed cinderblock. In order to attract the buyers at the price point desired, Mies compromised on materials, but made up for it with the elegance of the units’ views, layouts, and amenities.

Description provided by LaLuce Mitchell