Ruined. Blighted. Misconceived. The vocabulary we commonly use to describe Modern architecture–and housing in particular–is overwhelmingly negative. But is it possible that critics of Modernism tend to focus on failures simply because they’re more obvious and often more compelling?
A new book titled Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies, provides a vivid postmortem (or, actually, a pre-mortem) of an unsung success of modern architecture located in a city full of exemplary failures: Detroit. Nestled in a leafy neighborhood adjacent to downtown, Lafayette Park is a collection of high rises and townhouses designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1962. As Detroit suffered the roller coaster of the 1970s and ’80s, the community has remained conspicuously healthy and diverse–a mix of old and young, black and white, professional and creative. In short, it’s a holy grail of 20th-century Modern architecture.
A few years ago, three graphic designers named Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani moved into one of the townhouses and started an impromptu case study. The trio kept a detailed record of their experiences in Lafayette Park, conducting interviews, soliciting essays, and commissioning local photographers to capture the community. Their work makes up the meat of the book.
Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies is the kind of post-occupancy study that every great building deserves but few receive. It’s technical in parts, surveying the structural and environmental failures and successes of Mies’s designs. But it’s also incredibly personal, giving us a fine-grained look at the social ecology of the neighborhood. We learn about Lafayette Park’s pool parties, its dedicated amateur stewards, its wildlife, its barbershops, even the unfortunate birds that frequently die after flying into the windows. A major theme is diversity: Mies’s white-box apartments enable a culture of individualization that bred enthusiastic and loyal residents. “So often interiors are designed to match a home’s exterior,” Aubert writes. “But in the case of Lafayette Park there is a vibrant, diverse community of people who live, for instance, with all kinds of furniture or none at all. Some homes are clean, some are messy. Some are full of kids, or pets or cardboard boxes.”
The authors come back to race and identity again and again over the course of the book’s 300 pages. Lafayette Park sits on land that was once a neighborhood called Black Bottom (for its dark soil), a vibrant community of African-Americans and immigrants. Black Bottom was razed in the 1960s to make way for the city’s rapidly expanding highway system, and Lafayette Park popped up nearby. Yet the expected story of eviction and class tension is conspicuously absent. Instead, a long-time Lafayette Park resident who grew up in Black Bottom calls the community a “phoenix” that sprang up as a refuge amidst the struggles of the time. “The peace here may be a reward for having the commitment and audacity to maintain an integrated community in one of the most segregated cities in the United States,” writes Marsha Music. “God is certainly in the details, as Mies would say.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how Lafayette Park escaped becoming the familiar nightmare of high-rise urban blight. It easily could have crumbled under poor maintenance and cheap materials, but a group of longtime residents committed to maintaining it. It could have suffered the same structural problems and spatial handicaps as other icons of modern housing, but thanks to the collective intelligence of Mies, urban planner Ludwig Hilbersheimer, and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, it didn’t. It could have become as racially segregated as any other area of Detroit, but thanks to a combination of factors ranging from its proximity to downtown, to its historical pedigree, to its community of friendly neighbors, it avoided that, too.
It seems this kind of success–the complex kind that stretches back 75 years, involves huge buildings, volatile economies, and thousands of residents–is a bit like cooking. You don’t find success by following an exact recipe. Rather, you avoid failure by finding a balance of ingredients, over the course of thousands of tiny readjustments, that suits the tastes of many.
Buy the book here.