What Lies Within America’s First Urban-Renewal Project

What Lies Within America’s First Urban-Renewal Project

By Sam Grawe / Photos by Raimund Koch
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 designed by Mies van der Rohe in the 1960s—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 now flourishes with new life.

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

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."  

In 2006, Alexandra and Barlow moved to Detroit from Brooklyn. The couple was 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.

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. 

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

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.

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.

"It's a private, quiet, green oasis within spitting distance of the freeway, and you'd never know it." –Barlow

Residents are allowed a small swatch of land 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."

The floating staircase is a decidely 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 town home'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.

"Detroit is a blank canvas waiting for some more visionaries like Mies." –Barlow

Colorful posters from the traveling exhibition "Shrinking Cities"—that ran from 2002 to 2008—channel possible mantras for a 21st-century Detroit.


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.