A New York Transplant Remakes One of Mies van der Rohe’s Coveted Townhouses in Detroit
"I think of the project as a love letter rather than a biography," says designer Bryan Boyer of his restored Ludwig Mies van der Rohe townhouse in Detroit. Indeed, the New York transplant’s take on the Bauhaus master’s legacy, which includes updates like a state-of-the-art kitchen, is more an homage than a reproduction.
Built in 1960, Bryan’s home is one of 186 units and three apartment towers that Mies designed for Lafayette Park, considered by some the first urban renewal project in the United States. Although it’s just a stone’s throw from downtown, the 78-acre co-op has sprawling lawns, allées of honey locusts, and an enduring sense of community that has persisted over the years, despite the city’s changing fortunes. Some of its early residents still live there.
Bryan credits Mies’s clean, modern design for the enclave’s longevity. But the 1,450-square-foot, two-bedroom townhouse that he and his partner, Laura Lewis, bought in 2015 hadn’t held up well over the years. A 1980s remodel had introduced some very un-Miesian touches, like a parquet floor, a glass-bowl sink, and, worst of all, an all-red bathroom.
Before changing anything, Bryan, a partner at architecture firm Dash Marshall, visited the Museum of Modern Art’s archives in New York to study the units’ blueprints. Rather than turn his home into a museum piece, he was curious how Mies might have designed it differently today. "Our research helped us to make decisions based on what felt acceptable within Mies’s architectural universe, but was contemporary enough to be comfortable," he says.
The Lafayette Park townhouse’s kitchen felt particularly outdated. "Conceptually, it wasn’t the heart of the home," says Bryan. "They didn’t have the same ideas about socializing that we do today." Slotted into a central block on the ground floor alongside a bathroom and a closet, the kitchen is bookended by two wing walls—partitions with slender four-inch extensions that jut out at the ends to create irregular corners—with the living and dining areas on either side. The space is so narrow that its original design featured a fold-down cooktop, similar to a Murphy bed.
"The spaces are small and interconnected. it’s like one of those flat, sliding-block puzzles where you rearrange the squares to see the full picture." Bryan Boyer, designer and resident
Co-op rules precluded Bryan from altering the scale of the kitchen, but he was able to bring in open shelving and modestly sized appliances. Every inch was considered, even the small gaps between the redesigned kitchen and the wing walls. "Leaving that line of shadow between the old and new parts was our way of paying respect," says Bryan. The dark green marble countertop isn’t original, but the stone matches a variety that Mies used in other projects around the same time.
As he pored over the archives, Bryan spotted characterful details that Mies had either nixed or been unable to realize. A curtain separating the entryway and dining room in some of the drawings, for example, was missing in the built version. Bryan and Laura liked the idea and had a saffron curtain strung up.
"Our research helped us to make decisions based on what felt acceptable within mies’s architectural universe, but was contemporary enough to be comfortable." Bryan Boyer
After the project ended, Bryan really did pen a letter to Mies, which he posted on Dash Marshall’s website. It begins "Dear Mies," and in it he explains the logic behind his modifications and expresses his admiration for the old master’s handiwork.
"Our absolute favorite part of the project is the special closet rod that you designed," Bryan writes, referring to the metal bars that are bent into an odd, backward-J shape. The closet rods are found all over Lafayette Park, but seem not to exist anywhere else in Mies’s oeuvre.
Bryan’s best guess is that Mies designed these unusual details because Detroit’s advanced manufacturing capabilities made it possible to produce them. Bryan kept the rods, stripped off decades of paint, and powder-coated them different colors. He writes in his letter, "We can’t help but think of this as a chance to hot-rod a piece of the house, which seems like exactly the right thing to do in Motor City."