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Detroit Distilled

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How the city's modern past could inspire its future

Lafayette Park. Photo by Alexandra Lange via <a href="">Instagram</a>.
Lafayette Park. Photo by Alexandra Lange via Instagram.

Lafayette Park, Detroit, is one of my favorite places in America. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with landscape architect Alfred Caldwell and planner Ludwig Hilberseimer and built by Chicago developer Herbert Greenwald between 1956 and 1963, Lafayette Park consists of 24 single-story courtyard houses (with two to four bedrooms), 162 two-story attached co-ops, and three high-rise rental buildings, the Pavilion and the two Towers. The high-rises are silvery, the courthouses nestle behind buff brick walls, and the co-ops are framed in black steel with windows edged in stainless, providing material variety within the vertical and horizontal grids. The 78-acre site was declared a National Historic Landmark this summer.

But Lafayette Park is more than a design fetishist's paradise. Its location and its landscape suggest ways of living in a city that are totally current, and its residents (many there for decades) are better linked to the rest of Detroit than the district's self-containment might suggest. Detroit's future may lie in building out the spaces between the structures it already has, making connections, not architecture.

Although originally marketed as a "suburb within the city," Lafayette Park is not for those who need their own yard, an enclosed garage, a great room. The ensemble is the great room, and someone else takes care of the yard. In a 2012 book on the complex, Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies, Marsha Music writes, "it is really less like a suburb than a distillation of Detroit itself into the tree-lined leafiness of its old, stately neighborhoods. The skeletal Mies structures are a condensation of the city's Arts and Crafts, Tudors and colonials into the bare-bones essence of home."

Photo by Alexandra Lange via Instagram.

Lafayette Park. Photo by Alexandra Lange via Instagram.

Lafayette Park is the rare urban renewal project that worked and still works. Born out of the tragic destruction of the majority African-American Black Bottom neighborhood, Lafayette Park has remained mixed-race and mixed-income (thanks to the three adjacent Mies-designed rental towers). While two of those towers went into foreclosure in 2012, the core of the complex has remained stable throughout Detroit's emergence from bankruptcy.

When I posted photos of Lafayette Park in fall color, several commenters focused more on the Caldwell trees than on the Mies buildings. The co-ops front medians that combine lawn, planting beds, 60-year-old trees, and play equipment. A hedge provides some privacy for the front dining areas. The parking, which is split into small lots, some public and some for residents only, is sunk three feet below the level of the front doors so that, from a seated position, you can't see the cars. The designers arranged the site plan so that children could walk from their houses to the adjacent public school (not a Mies), located at the end of the large open public park known as Lafayette Plaisance, without crossing a street. A shopping plaza next to the school is less successfully integrated into the complex, but boasts a rare walkable grocery store.

When I asked Neil McEachern, the 25-year resident giving me a tour, why it works, he had the one-word answer architecture critics long to hear: design. The combination of low- and high-rises. The strict arrangement of private spaces, the generous organization of public landscape. The acknowledgement of, but not capitulation to, the car. This last is important, as attitudes toward the car are changing even in Detroit. McEachern points to several overflowing bike racks at the base of The Pavilion. If you live in Lafayette Park you could bike almost anywhere in the flat, 7.2-mile city core in less than half an hour—weather and construction permitting. And people do. The city now boasts 170 miles of bike lanes (the first six-block protected lane was installed this summer). Slow Roll Detroit, a Monday night cyclist meet-up, is now in its fifth year. This summer, Detroit got $1M in funding for a bikeshare program; nearby Ann Arbor, a much smaller city, already has one. Though explicitly not designed as a car-free environment, Lafayette Park's location makes it an ideal urban base for one. A model, despite its disruptive past, that Detroit could build a sustainable future on.

The neighborhood pages of Detroit Future City, a 2013 framework for decision-making developed for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, are peppered with images of Lafayette Park. It turns up specifically in the section on Urban Green Neighborhoods as a real-world example for the integration of housing with landscape: landscape at the scale of private or community-run yards and gardens, but also the scale of public greenways and parks. At Lafayette Park both kinds of open space were integrated into Caldwell's design from the beginning—the distillation Music described that shifted the individual backyard of a traditional neighborhood layout to a communal front plaisance.

Photo of Lafayette Park by Alexandra Lange via Instagram.

Detroit director of city planning Maurice Cox has described the city as a no-growth or slow-growth environment: it has more houses than population, and home values are low. Planning for the immediate future should benefit those who have stayed in their homes, rewarding them for paying their taxes, but doing more about the thousands of gap-tooth empty lots than mowing them. How do you turn that land back into an asset? He has proposed yoking more stable areas of the city to those with high vacancy rates, and developing a shared landscape plan for the ensemble. Could neighborhoods of single-family houses, now missing many from their once-neat rows, be made whole through landscape planning: an urban farm here, a forest there, a looping trail?

The DFC report proposes giving individual vacant lots to neighbors to maintain and create community amenities—bonfires, swim-mobiles, markets, farms—while larger parcels could be used for greenways and city-wide recreational amenities. The palette of suggested landscapes is bigger than lawn or productive garden plot: there are urban meadows, wooded trails, water retention ponds, forests. Urban agriculture has received a lot of coverage as a balm for legacy cities' open space, but that requires more commitment than many want to make. The proposal offers a greater variety of levels of engagement with the outdoors, on the part of both residents and the city itself.

This summer, I wrote about Buffalo, which suffered some of the same job loss and economic disinvestment as Detroit but is now leveraging its historic architecture to create new places to live and work in the center city. Detroit, which is as rich in 20th century architecture as Buffalo, may reach that stage, but at present stabilization is the focus. Thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted, Buffalo already has connective tissue, now maintained by a partnership between the city and the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy. Detroit still needs that connective tissue, and reframing it as a green city might be the first effort I've seen to retrofit such a system. (Detroit does have two Olmsted landscapes, but neither is integrated into the central city. Belle Isle, which the state is now controlling under a 30-year lease, is a pleasure island badly in need of investment; Elmwood Cemetery is well-maintained but fenced.) I'll admit I'm a sucker for the romance of it all. Planting a forest five minutes from downtown. Or living next to a pond a bike ride away from a world-class museum. Time will tell whether urban farming is possible to scale, as it takes so much individual initiative and effort. Detroit's landscape needs to show that it is being cared for in a variety of other, lower-maintenance ways.

Just to the east of Lafayette Park lies the Dequindre Cut (right; photo by Alexandra Lange), a present-day sunken greenway that connects the past perfection of Lafayette Park and the attached, open-plan houses of neighboring Chateaufort (Lorenz & Paski, 1961-63) to that future vision. From Lafayette Plaisance all you can see of the cut is the tops of the trees; from up in the easternmost Tower, you should be able to see the whole two miles, from the Detroit River to Eastern Market. The first section of the cut opened in 2009, the final two-thirds of a mile should open in December. Dequindre Cut is, McEachern jokes, "Detroit's version of the High Line." But less fancy.

The contrast between Caldwell's dense, hierarchical design and the loosely planted edges of the Dequindre Cut is instructive. It would be foolish to lay out a public greenway in the Caldwell manner (at Lafayette Park, each co-op has its own landscape committee, often led by one of the many design professionals in residence) but that doesn't mean that the cut doesn't have a strong system of its own, designed by SmithGroupJJR. Trees along the upper slopes soften the edge and act as a subtle flag that something's happening below street level. Mown berms keep sightlines clear from the paved pedestrian and bike path, lined with streetlights and emergency callboxes. The concrete piers of demolished overpasses are foliated in a different way: with preserved graffiti, adding the color, texture, and changeable scale one might also get from bedded plants—but year-round. The graffiti must act as a landmark for frequent users of the cut. It's easy for linear parks to feel endless, but you could navigate by the tags.

The Detroit Greenways Coalition has bigger plans. The Dequindre Cut should eventually be part of the 26-mile Inner Circle Greenway, also being planned by SmithGroup, looping around central Detroit and passing through Hamtramck, Highland Park, and Dearborn. The city is currently in negotiations with Conrail to acquire a key 8.3-mile section of right of way that, during automakers' glory days, served the historic Ford Model T plant in Highland Park. The latest round of Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grants gave money to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to restore a Louise Nevelson sculpture and relocate it to the Cut or the Riverfront.

Read more:
Cranbrook's Golden Age: How a Freewheeling School Changed American Design
Detroit's Art Deco Masterpiece, Like Its City, Is Poised for Reinvention
What It Means To Shop in America's Underdog City
30-Year-Old Folk Art Project Remains a Constant in a Changing Detroit
Detroit's Creative Enterprises Engage With Miles of Vacant Land

Downtown Detroit is centered around Grand Circle, a remnant of Augustus B. Woodward's 1805 plan, which sent broad avenues spoking across the largely unsettled territory away from the river. Detroit's original colonists, French farmers, had clung to the banks, creating long, narrow farms like piano keys. Driving Detroit today, it's easy to shoot outward on one of those avenues, including Michigan, Grand River, Woodward, or Gratiot, but to walk the two miles between Midtown and Corktown is an obstacle course of freeways and parking lots. The 3.3-mile M-1 Rail streetcar line now under construction along Woodward will make car-free communication between New Center and downtown that much easier, but only reinforces that processional push. (At the moment, the dug-up road is inhospitable to bikers.) The Greenway would cut across the grain, connecting neighborhoods between spokes; eventually, advocates hope there will be protected bike lanes along all of the spoke roads as well.

Lack of connectivity has been a problem for Detroit from the Woodward plan on. The city's planning history is one of starting over, again and again, as each new urban power builds its own center, from the French on the riverfront to Woodward's Grand wheel, from the City Beautiful-era Cultural Center around the Detroit Institute of Art and Wayne State on Woodward Avenue to New Center, where General Motors had architect-to-the-automakers Albert Kahn build them a tower (now Cadillac Place) in 1922.

Industrialists kept calling them centers, too, even as they proliferated and cannibalized: Eero Saarinen's General Motors Technical Center, hailed as "the Versailles of Industry" when it opened in suburban Warren, MI, in 1956, at the center of nowhere; the Postmodern castle known as the Renaissance Center, back on the river, where General Motors moved its executives in 1996. Bucking this tradition, when Wayne State consolidated its operations in the mid-1950s, it wisely chose a site adjacent to the museum and the Cass Gilbert-designed Detroit Public Library, and asked local architect Minoru Yamasaki to plan a campus on the existing urban grid. Today, the neighborhoods adjacent to this real center of art and intellectual activity have been the most resilient; Midtown, just to its south, has become a center of new housing and retail development. As with Lafayette Park, good modern planning created a stable oasis, one strong enough to support new development and connected to the rest of the city via bike lanes and, in the future, both the greenway and streetcar. The trick will be to strengthen the neighborhoods within the ring, incorporating the greenway into their traffic patterns and creating destinations around and within the city outside the historic centers.

The hollowing out of the city in recent years emphasized existing and underlying gaps: as buildings were demolished, the physical distances house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood grew. Drive to the east side today, and one can gaze at blocks of buildings seemingly cut adrift. Some version of the Urban Green Neighborhood would give those areas back a structure, and attach them more firmly to stable, even growing sections of the city, providing access to food, to jobs, to recreation. Lafayette Park is not just a model because it stayed whole, but because the landscape knit it together. Citywide initiatives like the Dequindre Cut and the Greenway offer one way of lassoing strength to strength, bringing up the neighborhoods in between by making them part of a whole—a green, relatively compact, bike- and pedestrian-friendly whole, with paths that crisscross in a neighborly fashion instead of carrying you inexorably outward.

· Critical Eye archive [Curbed]
· Cranbrook's Golden Age: How a Freewheeling School Changed American Design [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]