Monday, January 24, 2011

005: Lafayette Park (An Example in Collaborative Design)

Lafayette Towers (Kompot Photo)

Lafayette Park is regarded as one of the most successful urban renewal projects, not just in the city of Detroit (where it is situated) but throughout the United States. The success of the project relies heavily on the project’s ability to retain both its inhabitants and high property values in an area where vacancy and foreclosure are pervasive. Lafayette Park remains one of the few continuously effective neighborhoods in Detroit today. This status has caused many academics (including Charles Waldheim, Kim Halik, and David Spaeth who calls the park, “nothing less than a working model for future urbanization…”)[1]to site the project as the exemplar of housing redevelopment in a “shrinking city”.  The success of Lafayette Park can be attributed most significantly to the collaborative efforts of its contributors. The planner (Ludwig Hilberseimer), architect (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), landscaper (Alfred Caldwell), developer (Herbert Greenwald), and even local city government were each influenced by the work of the others and therefore the project can be described as truly interdisciplinary. The nature of this collaboration and the effects on the outcome of the project, as well as the major misgivings of the project, are summarized in the following essay as a brief outline of what many purport to be a roadmap for future housing projects.

Existing “Black Bottom” building fabric overlain with Lafayette Park building fabric.
(Charles Waldheim)

The project began as the “Gratiot Urban Renewal Project” in 1946. After World War II, the city had an interest in cleaning up what it determined to be “slums” characterized by as Alexander Garvin describes in The American City: what, what doesn’t as, “[lacking] running water, central heating, private baths, indoor toilets, or some other feature considered necessary to the health, comfort, and safety of its residents.”[2] The area was at the time referred to as “Black Bottom” (a reference to the soil conditions at its founding) and was largely populated by black single-family homes. The federal housing act of 1943 provided the city with $4.3 million for redevelopment. The razing of the area, considered to be the “heart of the black community”, and the subsequent lack of affordable housing made available to the former residents were cited as instigating factors in the Detroit Riot of 1967. [3]

  Greenwald and Mies van der Rohe
(LIFE Magazine)

To its credit, the city’s intent for the Gratiot Urban Renewal Project was to implement a series of public housing developments which would relocate all of the displaced residents of “Black Bottom. From the projects inception until 1960, some sort of public housing was considered essential to the project. Public opinion at the time, however, led by the president of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther, believed that the project was being conceived as a “’containment area’ for the Negro people” and advocated (to the tune of $10,000) that a citizen’s committee be formed to direct the project to integrate amongst the socio-economic classes. [4]

The committee, formally called the “Citizens Redevelopment Corporation of Detroit” (CRCD), encouraged by a new federal housing act in 1954, which guaranteed mortgage insurance for private developers willing to invest in blighted areas, put the project out to bid. After receiving an impressive proposal from Cities Redevelopment Inc., a company owned by Herbert Greenwald and his partner, Samuel Katzin, the CRCD decided to give the entire project to the sole developer.[5] Greenwald was responsible for bringing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (with whom he had worked previously) and Ludwig Hilberseimer (with whom Mies worked at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago) to the project. Another affiliate of IIT, Alfred Caldwell, was brought into the project as the landscape architect, and by 1956 the project was entirely in their hands.

 Elementary School, Lafayette Park
(The American City)

Greenwald came to the project proclaiming that, “the city is damned but by no means doomed,” and enthusiastically, “Let’s rebuild it.” Jerry Herron, an English professor at Wayne State University and resident of Lafayette Park, is not alone when he claims that without Greenwald and his, “single-minded dedication to urban redemption” the park would not exist.[6]  Greenwald strongly believed in an urban environment that would be continually populated during significant portions of the week. His approach to development followed the philosophy put forward by Jane Jacobs, although her ideal neighborhood was less contained. Greenwald knew that the number of residents the park would house would be insufficient to patron the supporting retail and infrastructure he envisioned. He and Hilberseimer worked to restructure the old 19th century grid of the neighborhood to create large superblocks at the periphery of which they located the retail, school, and other community buildings.[7] In this way, Greenwald intended to create a porous boundary between the park and the surrounding city.  Alexander Garvin has called Greenwald, “the real genius” behind Lafayette Park and, “perhaps the only one who understood all the details,”[8] and Detlef Mertins claims, “…it was Greenwald’s ability to bring various interests together that led to its realization.”[9]

Site Plan, Lafayette Park

With financial backing and conceptual support from Greenwald, Hilberseimer was able to pursue his vision of the modern city. Influenced largely by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City as well as Henry Wright and Clarence Stein’s plan for Radburn in New Jersey[10], Hilberseimer hoped to create a development whose boundaries did not exceed a walking distance of 15-20 minutes. In this radius one would have access to the necessary communal, cultural, and hygienic institutions.[11] As Mies describes in introduction to Hilberseimer’s 1944 book The New City: Principles of Planning, Hilberseimer based the spatiality and temporality of his work in the processes of everyday life:
 [Hilberseimer] knows that cities must serve life, that their vitality is to be measured in terms of life, and that they must be planned for living. He understands that the forms of cities are the expression of existing modes of living, that they are inextricably bound up with these, and that they, with these are subject to change. He realizes that the material and spiritual conditions of the problem are given, that he can exercise no influence on these factors in themselves, that they are rooted in the past and will be determined by objective tendencies for the future.[12]
At Lafayette Park, Hilberseimer relied heavily on the popularity of the suburb to attract potential residents. His use of the cul-de-sac was an attempt to overcome the isolation often created in modernist superblock plans[13] and he worked with Mies to distribute the low and high-rise housing to create “suburban enclaves” and a central community park.[14]

  Glass curtain-wall façade without balconies.
(Dwell Magazine)

Adalberto Del Bo describes Lafayette Park as, “an extraordinary, though little known, piece of work that derives from Hilberseimer and Mies van der Rohe working together in their full maturity.”[15] The two worked together closely, not only on the spatial relationship between the buildings, but on many parts of the project including the complex structure of interior spaces, the relationship of the buildings to the ground, and the relationship of the building to daylight. Of the relationship to daylight, Hilberseimer believed that each room in the house should be afforded with at least four hours of natural light each day.[16] Mies was able to satisfy this request with a combination of spacing between the buildings, floor to ceiling windows, and tessellating upper floor plans that made the rooms wider and more livable.[17] Mies’ work at Lafayette Park shows intent to obscure the economic differences of the inhabitants thus creating an integrated living environment. The 5’ planning module and 20’ structural frame allow for apartments of various widths while maintaining apparent democracy amongst the inhabitants.[18] The curtain wall and the elimination of balconies make it so that one cannot distinguish one apartment size from another. Residents are made to exit the building and use communal spaces to enjoy the outdoors. One resident described living in the apartments as if she lived in, “one room of a 1600 room house.”[19]

 Floor-to-ceiling windows provide day-light. (Dwell Magazine)

Mies’ glass façades also create a voyeuristic tendency amongst the inhabitants at Lafayette Park. The floor to ceiling windows allows the residents to partake in what Jane Jacobs called the “ballet of sidewalk life.” Melissa Dittmer describes the park and its place in Jacobs’ description of everyday city animation for rogueHAA a critical design blog:
In Detroit’s Lafayette Park, the residents are not strangers. Rather, each day the residents perform a synchronized animation, live performances through the lens of modern architecture. For, to live in Lafayette Park is to live in a constant state of theatricality, the pre-designed and very deliberate exhibition of both resident and visitor. The masterplan, architecture, and landscaping strategically combine to create a multitude of voyeuristic portals, view frames that project the lives of every resident to one another. Designed within a multiplicity of physical and temporal scales, these portals produce meaningful relationships between the residents and their community, resulting in fundamental success of Lafayette Park.[20]
Dittmer comment on the strategic combination of the masterplan, architecture, and landscaping creating “voyeuristic portals” can find evidence in various physical forms throughout the complex. Mies and Caldwell used the glass façades to create a direct relationship with nature allowing the landscape to enter into the building and opening perspectives onto the natural surroundings, but the most acute realization of voyeurism at Lafayette Park remains the complex relationship between domestic and communal spaces created by Mies and Hilberseimer. These relationships produced as one long-term resident of the park describes, “a real sense of community,” where parents could, “collectively watch over us… Most of the kids that grew up here turned out well. We are freethinkers, part of the political intelligentsia and academia. We contribute to society.”[21]

 Voyeurism in Lafayette Park
(Designed Theatricality)

Although much of the credit for design of Lafayette Park is contributed to Mies (as it is the largest collection of his buildings in the world) or to Hilberseimer (as a noted planner), Alfred Caldwell may have contributed more to the project than we know. It was Caldwell who made the site plans and the aerial perspectives depicting Hilberseimer’s ideas which allowed the vision to become reality.[22]  As Caroline Constant describes in her essay for CASE: Hilberseimer/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit entitled, “Hilberseimer and Caldwell: Merging Ideologies in the Lafayette Park Landscape”, Caldwell and Hilberseimer were equally affected by each other’s approaches to urbanism and design.[23] Where Hilberseimer was coming from a German ideology based in modernist urbanism which would lead to “architecture with a broad relevance for the industrialized world”, Caldwell had been instructed by Jens Jensen in the Chicago Prairie School of Landscape Design and sought “landscapes situated to their particular locale.”[24] As a result of his work and study at IIT, Caldwell progressed from a more Wrightian design style to one that was more Hilberseimer/Miesian. And correspondingly from working with Caldwell, Hilberseimer took a more ecological approach in his urban designs.[25]

  Hidden parking and tri-level landscaping.
(Dwell Magazine)

At Lafayette Park, Caldwell’s plantings helped to take the “edge” off Mies’ typically harsh international style. His three layers of canopy provide layers of cover and openness which afford the residents both space and protection. The first layer of the gardens is the canopy of the locus trees which dapple the lighting, provide extra acoustic shelter in the summer, and provided for organic sculpture when not in leaf. Below the canopy of the locus trees are the flowering trees; pear, dogwood, magnolia, and lilac provided for various colors and textures throughout the year. The hawthorns make up the last layer of planting and keep the space underneath the canopy open while helping to obscure the visual presence of the parking lot along with Mies’ sectional drop of 2.5’.[26]  The landscape includes front lawns and secluded yards, tree lined areas of direct circulation, and broad expanses of grass.[27] At the townhouses, each resident is allowed a small swatch of land to plant a garden, where as the residents of the apartment buildings share communal outdoor spaces as stated earlier. Caldwell espoused the use of local plantings at Lafayette Park in hopes of engendering the “specific spirit of the Midwestern landscape.”[28] Caroline Constant, again, gives us insight into Caldwell’s intents for Lafayette Park suggesting that his description of the buildings at Eagle Point Park could equally apply to the Detroit project and proves the collaborative nature of that intent, “the merging of Nature and Architecture, resulting in a kind of mysterious continuum of light and shadow, a wavering of reality, a world of glimpsed and undefinable [sic], uncertain and mesmerizing.”

Resident watering garden at townhouse.
(Dwell Magazine) 

The combination of strategies employed by the designers at Lafayette Park contributed to an urban housing project that even today remains one of the most economically and racially diverse areas of Metro-Detroit. Much of the success of the project is attributed to Mies whom is the most lauded designer amongst the three, and it is to Mies that we can attribute credit for the park being named to the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the people living in the park today, however, do not know or do not appreciate the development’s relationship to its famous designer. What they appreciate are the collaborative efforts and the quality of detail and construction that make the apartments, townhouses, and villas livable.[29] They appreciate the modernist style for its use as a blank canvas for individual style and the attention to detail given to simple things like the placement of a light switch.[30] But the other designers should be given equal credit for the success of their design. Hilberseimer succeeded in creating a “walkable” community with a close relationship to the elementary school, community clubhouse, and the hugely popular Eastern Market. Caldwell was successful in his own right as well; given his small budget at the time he could only invest in sparse seedling plants, yet over time the landscaping has developed into a lush oasis in the city which is subversive to the modernist architecture but by no means dominated by it. [31]

 Resident’s design aesthetic at Lafayette Park
(Dwell Magazine)

Successful as the project is terms of design, it must contend with two major misgivings. First, the project as a whole failed to adequately relocate the more than 7,000 low-income black families that were evicted from the “Black Bottom” neighborhood in the 1950s. The project failed to achieve the same density as the original neighborhood had with single family homes. Although Lafayette Park is one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods of Detroit today, the economic realities of the time meant that very few low-income families could afford to live in the park regardless of their race.[32] Second, the project today is described as an “enclave”, an “oasis”, or an “island” in the dilapidated and deteriorating landscape of Detroit. Lafayette Park fails to maintain the porous border that would allow for it to contribute economically or culturally to the rest of the city. Hilberseimer’s hope was to create a self-sufficient entity with its own economic system which residents outside of the park itself could contribute; in the end however, the park is entirely dependent on the greater metropolitan area economically. [33]  (And in Detroit, this more often than not means outside of the city limits.) Residents of the park find it difficult to attract and maintain small businesses, even as basic as a grocery store, given Detroit’s economic depression. One of the reasons for the lack of reciprocity at Lafayette Park may be attributed to the untimely death of its financier Herbert Greenwald. After he was killed in an airplane crash in 1959, Mies, Hilberseimer, and Caldwell left the project, and the rest of the park was continued piecemeal by various architects and planners abandoning Greenwald’s original vision for an integrated garden city.

 Suburban enclave in Detroit, Lafayette Park

The success of the agents at Lafayette Park can be attributed to the collaborative efforts of the team as a whole. The need for each one of these contributors is evident in projects less successful that were done singularly or with only one or two of the designers. Greenwald and Mies worked on the Colonnade Project in Newark, New Jersey without the efforts of Hilberseimer and Caldwell with much less success.[34] The austerity of a project without the landscape genius of Caldwell can be felt at the IIT campus designed by Mies with Hilberseimer’s influence. The nature of this collaboration, however, makes it difficult to ascribe the project to any one of the designers, and this has left the project in relative obscurity. It has only recently come to the forefront of our attention because of the interest in the pervasive problems of post-industrial cities like Detroit and the vast investment of knowledge and design ingenuity that is being given to these “shrinking cities.” It is exactly this collaborative effort between government, private developers and the various designers working together on projects like Lafayette Park which can be the catalyst to new urban redevelopment in cities like Detroit, if we mind the misgivings and ignorance’s of the past.

Lafayette Park, Detroit

[1] David Spaeth, (1988), “Ludwig Hilberseimer’s Settlement Unit,” in In the Shadow of Mies, Pommer, Spaeth and Harrington, eds., p.64.
[2] Alexander Garvin, (2002), The American City: what works, what doesn’t, (New York: McGraw-Hill) pp. 23-25; 256-259.
[3] Farley, Reynolds, Danziger, and Holzer, (2000), Detroit Divided, (New York: Russell Sage Foundation).
[4] Robert Mowitz and Deil Wright, (1991), “History of Lafayette Park”, in Detroit Perspectives, Wilma Wood Henrickson, ed., (Detroit: Wayne State University Press) pp. 463-472.
[5]Garvin, p. 24.
[6] Jerry Herron, (2004), “Real Estate: Buying into Lafayette Park,” in CASE: Hilberseimr/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, Charles Waldheim, ed., pp. 55-61.
[7] Garvin, p. 25.
[8] Julia Vitullo-Martin, (2007), “The Biggest Mies Collection”, the Wall Street Journal.
[9] Detlef Mertins, “Lafayette Park: Collaboration in Order”, in in CASE: Hilberseimr/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, Charles Waldheim, ed., pp. 11-17.
[10] Charles Waldheim (2004), “Introduction; Landscape, Urban Order, and Structural Change”, in in CASE: Hilberseimr/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, Charles Waldheim, ed., pp. 19-27.
[11] Garvin, 256.
[12] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Introduction,” in Ludwig Hilberseimer, The New City: Principles of Planning, (Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1944), xv.
[13] Caroline Constant, (2004), “Hilberseimer and Caldwell: Merging Ideologies in the Lafayette Park Landscape”, in in CASE: Hilberseimr/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, Charles Waldheim, ed., pp.95-111.
[14] Robert Levit, (2004), “Afterword: The Persistence of the Picturesque”, in in CASE: Hilberseimr/Mies van der Rohe Lafayette Park Detroit, Charles Waldheim, ed., pp. 135-141.
[15] Adalberto Del Bo, (2006), “Creating Order out of the Desperate Confusion of Our Time”, in Arie Graafland, Leslie Jaye Kavanaugh, and George Baird, eds., Crossover: architecture, urbanism, technology, p.614.
[16] Garvin, p.258.
[17] Same Grawe, (2009), “Mies van der Rohe, Lafayette Park”, Dwell.
[18] Jacqui Alexander, (2008),”Detroit: Life Between the Gaps”, Post Magazine, issue 2, vol. 1.pp.10-12.
[19] Janine Debanné, (2008), “Remembered Dimensions”, Post Magazine, issue 2, vol. 1.pp.17-21.
[20] Melissa Dittmer, (2010), “Designed Theatricality”, rogueHAA.
[21] Maureen McDonald, (2006), “A Modernist Jewel; planned neighborhood takes a look at its history”, Crain’s Detroit Business. Vol 22. No. 34.
[22] Mertins, p.11.
[23] Constant, p.100.
[24] Ibid, p. 96.
[25]Ibid, p.100.
[26] Dennis Archambault, (2007), “Modern Life in the Park,”in Model D,
[27] Garvin, p.25.
[28] Constant, p.107.
[29] Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani, (2010), “Living with Mies; Living Rooms”, New York Times.
[30] Debanné, p. 20.
[31] Levit, p.135.
[32] Mowitz, p.472.
[33] Levit, p.135.
[34] Vitullo-Martin, (2007). 

1 comment:

  1. Super job with this excellent illustrated analytical essay! Thanks! - JVM