|Photo by Marvin Shaouni|
If you're unfamiliar with Detroit's Lafayette Park, the singular, mid-century modern neighborhood just east of Greektown, you're not alone. Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit, an indispensable new book about what it means to live there, includes an elegant essay by resident Marsha Music in which she describes the neighborhood as "hidden in plain sight."
That's partly a nod to the abundant glass that helps define the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He designed 162 rectilinear, two-story townhouses, 24 one-story courthouses, and three high rises built there between 1958 and 1963, all of which feature his trademark window walls. From Lafayette Blvd., it's easy to overlook the glass, brick, and steel houses, nestled unassumingly in mature greenery. Even the soaring, skeletal, 21 and 22 story high rises can be pretty inconspicuous, thanks to the subsequent proliferation of the International Style. (Minimalist glass towers may still catch the watchful eyes of architecture buffs, but the years have somewhat dulled the striking, "Behold: The Future!" quality they once possessed.)
Music's phrase is also a reference to Lafayette Park's relatively low profile in architectural and design circles worldwide. Though it isn't mentioned much, much about the development is notable. There are Mies' buildings, of course, the largest single collection in the world (take that, Lakeshore Drive!). Then there's the work by the other members of the design dream team who were brought to Detroit from IIT in Chicago to execute the park: planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, who oriented the entire development around the 19-acre, prairie style Lafayette Plaisance, and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, whose contributions, including the park, have grown over the years into a lush, "absurdly bucolic" urban environment. Lafayette Park is, in fact, the most fully realized "settlement unit" mutually envisioned by these three designer-philosophers in the world.