Mies van der Rohe, Lafayette Park

Mies van der Rohe, Lafayette Park

By Sam Grawe
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.

The apartment towers at Lafayette Park.


Lafayette Park's two-story townhouses are configured in a U-shaped formation.

To see more images of the project, please visit the slideshow.

A one-story villa in Lafayette Park.

In 2006, Alexandra and Barlow moved to Detroit from Brooklyn (where Alexandra still lives and works part-time). The couple where heartbroken after losing a bid on a pristine townhouse, but they consoled themselves with a thoughtful renovation. Alexandra worked with contractor Joe "Schmoe" Proper from Lafayette Park Renovation to restore and update the home.

In the living room, a pair of Tree coat hangers by Michael Young and Katrin Petursdottir for Swedese contrast with the live foliage outside.

Because the original kitchen had been removed, Alexandra made the decision to widen the gallery-style room by ten inches. Floor-to-ceiling glass makes for ample natural light in the eating area, while the Vitra wall tiles provide a contemporary touch.

A Richard Schultz outdoor set for Knoll looks at home indoors thanks to some faux fur, and an Alexander Girard Environmental Enrichment panel does its job on the rear wall.

Residents are allowed a small swath to plant gardens. "A lot of credit is due to the landscape architect," says Barlow, and "Mies's floor-to-ceiling windows make the spaces feel open, while at the same time the canopy of trees makes you feel protected. It's a private, quiet, green oasis within spitting distance of the freeway, and you'd never know it."

The floating staircase is a decidedly elegant synthesis of form and function. "It's one of the reasons we wanted the townhouse" (as opposed to a villa), says Alexandra. The details are oddly reminiscent of the George Nelson Steel Frame desk in the office upstairs.

Despite an orderly exterior appearance, the townhome's upper floor plan is not strictly rectangular; it tessellates to create a wider and more livable space. The two front rooms act as an office and a guest room.

Alexandra and Barlow enjoy a leisurely Alpine morning in bed underneath a quilt by Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate Abigail Newbold.

Colorful posters from the traveling exhibition "Shrinking Cities" channel possible mantras for a 21st-century Detroit.


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