Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Making the grid feel lived in: a conversation with Placement about 'Thanks For the View, Mr. Mies'

(originally published 11/28/12 in Bad At Sports)

The new book Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit is something unexpected: an architecture book that’s as much about people as it is about buildings. In the case of Lafayette Park, the buildings tend to hog the spotlight, as most of them were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (The neighborhood contains the largest collection of his work in the world.)

Built between 1958 and 1965, Lafayette Park, just east of downtown Detroit, is both a local and national anomaly: an urban renewal project that was actually, by most measures, successful, it has remained racially diverse and economically stable since the beginning. The Mies-designed portion of the development includes 186 cooperatively-owned townhouse and courthouse units made of glass, steel, and brick, as well as three aluminum and glass high-rise apartment buildings: the monolithic Pavilion and the twin Lafayette Towers. Over the years, as designed, the neighborhood has remained both affordable and economically mixed. The townhouses are largely inhabited by middle-class homeowners, while the glass-walled towers provide an unparalleled urban living experience for working class Detroiters and young professionals.

Thanks for the View, published last month by Metropolis Books, has been a hit in Detroit (and elsewhere). Its humanism is refreshing, as is the unassuming way it approaches its subject — namely, what it’s like to live here, and how people actually inhabit these idealized spaces over time. It contains interviews with and essays by current and former residents, abundant photos (including a series by Corine Vermeulen, previewed in the New York Times in 2010, of residents posing in their distinctively decorated homes), and a host of surprising, digressive features, like several illustrated pages depicting the few dozen bird species that call the park home. It’s at times funny, poignant, obsessive, revelatory, and beautiful. The experience of reading it is a singular pleasure, and, as I enthused last month, I’d recommend it to anybody.

The book’s editors are Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani, who call themselves Placement. They are all graphic designers who met in grad school at Yale. Aubert lives in Lafayette Park, originally in Lafayette Towers and now in a townhouse. Cavar is based in Zagreb, Croatia; Chandani’s in Brooklyn. Thanks for the View, Mr. Miesis their first professional collaboration.

I live in Lafayette Towers, and when Thanks For the View came out locally in mid-October, Aubert, Cavar and Chandani were all in Detroit and came up to my apartment for a conversation about making it. Diana Murphy, their publisher from Metropolis, also joined us, and was generous in providing some valuable context for the project.

It was a rainy, cloudy morning, so I was able to keep all the blinds open and show off the view of the skyline and the wind-whipped Detroit River. (I do in fact thank Mr. Mies for the view, in all seasons, daily.) We drank tea, laughed a lot, and chatted about the book and the neighborhood for about an hour. An edited transcript of our conversation follows, divided into three sections: Content, Design and Printing/Publishing.

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