Modernist architectural pioneer Mies van der Rohe traced his roots to Bauhaus-era Germany and many of his best-known projects can be found in Chicago. But if you want to see the world’s largest collection of his works, head to Detroit.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe constructed one of the nation’s earliest urban renewal projects, Lafayette Park, between 1956 and 1959, just blocks from Detroit’s downtown. The development spans 78 acres and was designed with the goal of replacing the tumbledown Black Bottom neighborhood with one aimed at efficiently and comfortably housing a growing post-war middle class.
Mies’s Lafayette Park project includes 186 residences. Single- and two-story townhouses sit beneath three soaring glass and concrete apartment towers, and all of the neighborhood’s residences encircle a 13-acre public park known as Lafayette Plaisance. The leafy green space includes playground equipment, wide-open lawns, and plantings that feel cool and shady in summer and explode into color in spring and autumn.
For lovers of midcentury design, Lafayette Park feels like the architectural mother lode—and there are a number of ways for visitors to explore.
Touring the architecture Mies buffs can download a self-guided walking tour of Lafayette Park from Michigan Modern, an organization that documents and promotes the state’s contribution to U.S. modernism. But for many architecture-minded visitors, the preferred introduction to Mies’s Detroit comes via the Detroit Experience Factory (DXF). A 90-minute guided tour of the neighborhood helps sort out which modernist buildings were the master’s designs and which merely followed his lead, a practice common here in the years after his departure. Tour guides speak about the larger topic of architecture in Detroit and provide close-up views of a neighborhood that simply isn’t easy to see.
A network of circuitous streets and cul-de-sacs skirts Lafayette Park, effectively keeping out all but those who have a reason to be here. Meandering pedestrian-only walkways link townhouses and the Lafayette Plaisance with a modernist elementary school and retail center. Hawthorns and rhododendrons soften the stark brick and glass edges of Mies’s boxy buildings, and tidily trimmed shoulder-high bushes serve as privacy screens for those trademark floor-to-ceiling windows.
“So many people tell me they’ve driven past Lafayette Park without ever seeing it,” says DXF guide Ian McCain, who occupied the neighborhood himself from 2015 to 2017. “That was by design.”
For a project intended to house as many people as affordably and as comfortably as possible, Mies relied on his signature open architectural design. Kitchens, dining areas, and foyers ran continuously into one another, unobstructed by interior walls. Stairways were constructed without risers, the better to offer clear sightlines. Glass curtain walls at both ends of the units made the narrow spaces appear larger than they actually are and blurred the lines between outdoors and in.
“Even the parking lots are set four feet below grade,” McCain points out. “When you look out of these massive windows, you barely even see the cars. The emphasis is on nature.”
It’s yet another advantage of touring Lafayette Park with DXF: Walking tours are conducted by locals like McCain, who know firsthand what it’s like to live in Lafayette Park.
Other architectural footprints Mies van der Rohe wasn’t the only modernist giant who left his mark on Detroit. The same architectural pilgrims who come to The D in search of Mies often stay on to explore works by Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames, all of whom lived and taught at metro Detroit’s Cranbrook Academy of Art.
They also seek out works by Minoru Yamasaki. Best known as the architect of New York’s original World Trade Center, Yamasaki constructed many of his most prized buildings in Detroit. DXF often combines Mies- and Yamasaki-themed city tours, taking visitors to the latter’s Michigan Consolidated Gas Company (today known as One Woodward) and several Wayne State University buildings, including the much-admired McGregor Memorial Conference Center.
But for many lovers of midcentury architecture, it is Mies van der Rohe’s verdant Lafayette Park that offers the greatest surprise. Here, visitors struggle to shoot photos, so thick is the neighborhood’s foliage. And the canopy of maple trees is so dense, the only audible sound is the wind rustling in the trees. It’s a remarkable phenomenon in a city best known for its manufacturing prowess and in a neighborhood just three blocks away from the always-busy Fisher and Chrysler Expressways.
“I often hear Lafayette Park described as a suburb within the city,” says Ian McCain. “Here you are, surrounded by all of this traffic, and you can’t even hear it.”
Lafayette Park was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 2015. To learn about Mies van der Rohe in Detroit visit MiesDetroit.org. To book a tour with DXF, visit DetroitExperienceFactory.org.
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