High-rise superblocks and identical clusters of row houses set apart from the urban grid have been much maligned as some of the major wrongdoings of modernism, but Detroit's Lafayette Park—the first urban-renewal project in the United States—tells a vastly different story. Within a sprawling, decentralized city that has suffered near-disastrous decline, this racially and economically diverse enclave just northeast of downtown has not only aged gracefully but today flourishes with new life.
Residents Keira Alexandra and Toby Barlow are two of Lafayette Park’s (and downtown Detroit’s) most fervent supporters. “San Francisco doesn’t need us,” says Alexandra, a graphic designer, “but Detroit does.” Barlow, who is the executive creative director for the Ford account at JWT and author of the epic poem Sharp Teeth, wryly notes, “Detroit is a blank canvas waiting for some more visionaries like Mies. People describe it as being dangerous, but they don’t describe Malibu as being dangerous, and it’s always on fire. That seems pretty dangerous to me. And Arizona is always on the brink of running out of water. That seems dangerous too.”
Within the minimal shell of Mies van der Rohe’s design, the eclecticism and vibrancy of Alexandra and Barlow’s renovated home is all the more apparent. Hand-me-down furniture, friends’ art, shelves stuffed with books, assorted ephemera, and lots and lots of telephones shape a creative and relaxing environment. The couple also appreciate the diversity of Lafayette Park’s residents. When asked if their neighbors care about living in a building by a Bauhaus master, Alexandra replies, “Only a handful at best. Besides, too many people who know what the Bauhaus was would make boring conversation at the cocktail parties.” “Bow what?” Barlow adds.
To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.