Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is a name that needs no introduction to midcentury modern design enthusiasts. In October, the New York Times visited nine coop units in Lafayette Park, the complex of Mies-designed townhouses in Detroit, Mich., and the first urban-renewal project in the country. Here in the low-key Midwest, homeowners were asked to discuss daily life within a modern design master’s work and responded with a mix of reverence, enthusiasm, nonchalance, and complaint. Curbed National contributor Sarah F. Cox sat down with one of the folks the Times didn't get to, Toby Barlow, an ad man, author, and Detroit advocate, whose home in Lafayette Park was once featured in Dwell. Barlow moved from New York some 3.5 years ago; herein, he talks about what it's like living where he does.
Curbed National: So, why do young people come to this neighborhood? Is there a cachet of living in a Mies van der Rohe house for young people? You certainly can’t do it in most cities.
Toby Barlow: Right. It is not a huge cachet; more than cachet, it's just fun to say. It has entertainment value. When I first moved, it felt like the neighborhood that time forgot. It felt that somehow, in its sort of perfection, people here were shielded from the news that the entire city of Detroit was falling apart. This was middle-income housing; it wasn’t supposed to be anything special. It’s perfectly landscaped and it does not feel like a fortress; there are no fences. When you discover it and walk around in it, you're captivated by it. So it was sequestered in some way from the story of the city and I think that sort of protected it.
CN: What's stronger: the design of the community or the design of the individual homes?
TB: The design of the individual homes has to be the stronger feature. They're very open homes. They're super thoughtful and are not straight-cut pieces; we're not living in a shoebox. They're interlocking puzzle pieces so you feel, intuitively, that you're living in something more interesting. There is just a level of thought that Mies and his team put into this place even though it seems exceptionally simple. There are so many smart nuances, like the tunnel where you put your garbage, the way that the hooks are put into the closets, and the tucked up area of the wall (by the window) that hides the curtain rods. There’s also the exposure and natural lighting.
CN: Would you say Lafayette Park a more design-conscious community?
TB: Yes and no. A lot of the newer people that have been moving in here are more design conscious. There are a lot of people that live here that don’t really know or care who Mies van der Rohe was. Nor should they, necessarily. There are people who decorate their apartments with a sense of style that matches the architecture and then there are people that load it up with Victorian furniture that they got from their grandmother. And the astonishing thing is, from the coop meetings, when you go from house to house from month to month you really get a sense of the breadth and variety of styles that people have here. Which is nice. I would hate to live in the world’s largest modernist museum.
CN: What changes did you make when you moved in?
TB: My partner at the time was a really brilliant woman names Keira Alexandra, whose grandfather was an architect in Hawaii named Vladimir Ossipoff and she has just sort of genetic brilliance about design. We put in the cork floor and this tile [in the kitchen]. The biggest thing we did, which the coop board needed to approve, was that we widened the [kitchen] doorway by six inches. On the personal side, it's funny because Keira really made this place so it is strange living in a place that is someone else's vision. But she did an amazing job.
CN: Do you have any design critiques of the house?
TB: Not really. The walls are maybe not as thick as I’d like them to be, but that's OK, too. It’s maybe a little comforting in a city like Detroit to know that somebody is next door. You don’t feel isolated and it makes you live a bit more of a conscientious life.
CN: In your opinion, based on living here, does Mies Van Der Rohe deserve his fame and reputation as an architect?
TB: When I moved to Detroit I wasn’t an architecture enthusiast. I looked online and I saw that Lafayette Park was a block from the freeway and I was like, “no fucking way.” I knew Mies buildings in New York and Chicago but I did not know that much about him. I knew the reputation of the Bauhaus but hadn’t really considered myself an enthusiast. So then I was driving around looking for apartments and on a whim I came over here and immediately felt at home. So for me that is sort of what happened. There was a distant appreciation and then there was an encounter and the encounter was an emotional one, not an intellectual one. So anyone who gives you that, you appreciate. Living here and noticing the details over time has only enhanced that sense of how special he was.
Editor's note: After publication, we learned of a fatal shooting in Lafayette Park. Curbed National sends its condolences to all affected residences and their families.
· Mies van der Rohe's Residents Dole Out Awesome Reviews [Curbed National]
· Mies van der Rohe, Lafayette Park [Dwell]
· Doug Coombe [Flickr]
· Living Rooms With a View [NYT]