Detroit Local Historic District (02/17/2003), National Register of Historic Places (08/01/1996)
Post World War II urban renewal redevelopment project
A successful urban residential development in Detroit, Michigan, Lafayette Park holds the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe designed buildings in the world. The Park’s skyline is defined by three tower apartment buildings; on the west side sits of the development is the 21-story Pavilion Apartments high-rise, and to the east the twin apartment high-rises Lafayette Towers West & East. Additionally, the Park contains one and two-story townhouses: 24 single story courthouses with private gardens and 162 two-story townhouses. The development, located in the lower east side of Detroit, was sited on a former African American slum known as “Black Bottom" (named after the color of the area's soil), was intended to rejuvenate the area as a middle-class mixed-race community. As a community, the Park was planned so that there were many walkways and recreational green spaces with no through-traffic roadways, making the automobile abide by the landscape.
The structures are classic examples of the Miesian International Style. The apartment high-rises’ facades are emphasized through the repeated rhythm of their aluminum framed glass cladding panels, which are uninterrupted by interior structural columns. The townhouses share the same aesthetic, with a typical two-story rectangular block consisting of 10 repeating 10-foot wide units. Each unit, also rectangular in plan, is characterized by floor-to-ceiling aluminum framed glazing set within the black steel structural skeleton. The end units in the 10-unit block have terminating walls made with beige colored brick. The townhouses are also sited 4 feet above the parking grade, allowing for unrestricted views and deemphasizing the automobile’s presence. Recreational facilities, greenways, an elementary school and a shopping plaza exist in the Park as well.
c.1956 - c.1963
The apartment high-rises of Lafayette Park can be thought of within the design timeline of Mies’ evolution of the curtain wall, specifically how the curtain wall relates to the building’s structural columns. Both Lafayette Towers and the Pavilion Apartments have uninterrupted glass and aluminum curtain walls, separated from the structural concrete columns recessed inside the building. Structural differences between these high-rises are the delineation of the structural bays and the framing units to which they are bound by. Differing from typical I-beams, the Pavilion Apartments use back-to-back “[“ channels between bays, allowing a strong vertical line to be read through this specific use of construction materials. Additionally, the structural bays of the Pavilion Apartments are 11.5 x 10 feet, half the typical 21 x 10 foot cladding the Lafayette Towers employ. Conversely, the steel skeletal structure of the townhouses is explicitly expressed, running flush with the aluminum framed glazing and brick terminating walls. The profiles of the I-beams protrude outward and visibly define the perimeter of each 10-foot unit. Lafayette Park catalogs multiple examples of how Mies considered his treatment of exterior cladding.
Lafayette Park stands out as one of the few successful urban renewal redevelopments in the United States. It replaced a former slum with an attractive apartment and townhouse complexes that accommodated new modern tastes, a suburban sense of landscape, and an urban proximity to neighbors, shops, schools and downtown Detroit. It has historically appealed to middle-class residents of varying ethnicities and has maintained this character from its completion to today. Property values have increased appreciably and have remained stable, an impressive fact given the steady decline of population and real estate in its surrounding Detroit context. As a continuously prosperous urban renewal redevelopment, Lafayette Park represents the ideal combination of a Modern aesthetic and socioeconomic balance.
Lafayette Towers and the Pavilion apartments are Modernist examples of high-rise structures in the International Style. The two and single story townhouses (or rowhouses) are regular and modular in appearance. Each unit is 10 feet wide and is expressed as such through the exterior steel frames, each with aluminum framed glass infill. The 10-foot wide glazing bay is divided by steel at the floor slab and is further divided by regular stretches of sliding sash windows below larger pieces of glass. The interior design does not follow the regularity of the exterior; party walls are irregularly placed from the first to second floors and actually divide particular bays against what the exterior regularization would suggest. This is expressed through neighboring entrance doors set within the same bay. The aesthetic language of the rowhouses articulated the language of prefabrication, although they are not strictly so. Both the Pavilion Apartments and the Lafayette Towers have uninterrupted glass and aluminum curtain walls which clad the building from the 2nd to 20th floors. The first floors reveal the concrete and steel columns, painted white, to give the high-rises a weightless visual balance of structure holding the above mass. The Pavilion Apartments’ bays are half the typical 21 x 10-foot panels, at 11.5 x 10-feet, while the Lafayette Towers uses the typical size. This discrepancy changes the rhythm of elements between the two projects.
Lafayette Park is the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe architecture in the world and represents a successful urban renewal development. Its combination of Caldwell's landscape design and Hilberseimer's planning make it a rare and progressive example of total community planning.
Detroit's Lafayette Park is a beautiful example of a successful architectural, urban and community development. While the surrounding areas of the park and Detroit have fallen on hard times, Lafayette Park has maintained its integrity both aesthetically and as a stable multiethnic community. As the largest collection of Mies van der Rohe architecture in the world, the Park represents Modern ideals of structure and form as the backbone of a prosperous urban renewal development and should be recognized for its planning, landscape design and continuously thriving neighborhood.
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