Lafayette Park: Living in Ordered Exhibition

An architect describes living in the Detroit neighborhood designed by Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Alfred Caldwell.

The achievements of a postwar generation that brought to professional design practice a vigorous sense of mission — at once artistic, cultural, and political — are more evident than ever. In an ongoing and occasional series, historians and critics offer new assessments of modern masters.

Lafayette Park, Detroit [Photo by Vasco Roma]
Melissa Dittmer in her townhome in Lafayette Park, Detroit. [All photos by Vasco Roma]

As a graduate student in New York City, I sat for hours fascinated by the overweight and confident nudist across the street. My apartment overlooked 109th Street and the windows faced north, offering some protection from the sun’s revealing rays. My neighbor’s south-facing apartment didn’t enjoy this same protection, and the windows were rarely shaded. On the rare occasion that we didn’t meet in passing during the day, I could always count on an encounter of sorts in the wee hours of the morning. I’d have stumbled home from studio, hungry and exhausted but still wired from Cuban coffee. I would lie in bed, in the dark, with the curtains slightly drawn to observe the windows across the street. And there I’d see my naked rotund neighbor, standing in his well-lit kitchen, drink in hand.

The ability to observe the private lives of strangers from the windows of my home is one reason why I’ve chosen to reside within a dense urban fabric. I am not a voyeur: I do not receive sexual satisfaction from watching the daily lives of others. But I do like to imagine the many meaningful “relationships” I have created with people that I will never meet or even recognize on the street. Urban planner Ethel Sheffer, quoted in a New York Times article entitled “Window Watchers in a City of Strangers,” explains it this way: “One doesn’t always know their names, but it’s a connection of some sort and it becomes part of the fabric of your life. The density and the closeness, even if it’s anonymous, create a sense of intimacy.” 1

As I understand it, this means that we were all in it together: the nudist alcoholic, the over-tired urban design graduate student, and all the other strangers who happened to live on 109th Street between Broadway and Riverside Drive.

Lafayette Park, Detroit [Photo by Vasco Roma]
Marsha Music.

Lafayette Park, Detroit [Photo by Vasco Roma]
Toby Barlow.

Designed Theatricality

Then my husband and I decided to move to Detroit. And thus began my year-long panic attack. Where were all the people? Where was the density, the sense of connection with strangers? Where were the animated stories I’d imagine as told through the voiceless pantomimes of my unaware neighbors?

But we were committed, so we began to scout the successful Detroit neighborhoods: Rosedale Park, Green Acres, Indian Village, University District, East English Village, Brush Park and, finally, Lafayette Park, the 1960s development created by master planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, landscape architect Alfred Caldwell and architect Mies van der Rohe. Both my husband and I had completed our undergraduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology School of Architecture when Caldwell was still a professor there. We basically lived in Mies’s Crown Hall, and we were accustomed to the idiosyncrasies involved in inhabiting his concept of universal space. We knew Lafayette Park was the place for us. We purchased a two-story townhouse.

Soon we settled into a slightly monotonous and very grownup routine. I awoke first each morning to get ready for my job as an architect at a local firm. I took my breakfast downstairs on the living room couch, curtains opened to the morning light. It didn’t take long to notice that I wasn’t the only one whose life followed that daily pattern. Our neighbors across the Meadow also enjoyed breakfast in their living room. Another watched CNN each morning at 7 sharp. Taking the dog out for our daily morning walk, I observed neighbors walking on treadmills or shepherding their bleary-eyed kids from the breakfast table to the station wagon. Dinnertime offered similar routines in reverse.

I am comforted by this consistency; but there is a difference between my window-watching in New York City and in Detroit: here in Lafayette Park I am observing the routines of people I’ve come to know well. These people are not strangers. They are my friends, neighbors, colleagues. Our routines reinforce our relationships to one another and our status as a community. More important, these images of community have come to represent Lafayette Park to the surrounding neighborhoods and the city of Detroit.

Jane Jacobs famously described the “ballet of sidewalk life,” the ways in which citizens and strangers artfully negotiate the same stretches of pavement. In Lafayette Park we are not strangers. Each day we participate in creating an animated communal collage of live performances which can be seen through the walls of our residences — through the lens of modern architecture. To live in Lafayette Park is to live in a constant state of theatricality. The master plan, the architecture and landscape design combine to create a multitude of voyeuristic portals, of viewing frames that project our lives to our neighbors, and our neighbors’ lives to us. And these portals produce meaningful relationships between residents and the community, which helps account for the fundamental success of Lafayette Park.

Lafayette Park, Detroit [Photo by Vasco Roma]
Neil McEachern.

Lafayette Park, Detroit [Photo by Vasco Roma]
Hilary Robie.

The Urban Settlement

Prior to its opening in the 1960s, the developers of Lafayette Park crafted specific marketing campaigns that aggressively targeted urban entrepreneurs, young professionals and first-time home buyers. Even back then the development had significant challenges to overcome. As one reviewer noted:

In the urban murk around Detroit’s strangling downtown there is something new. Here, in a few blocks torn from the slums, sit a 21-story apartment slab and 21 sets of row houses in a classically peaceful arrangement. … The 70 families who, by the end of last month, had moved into the pioneering one-story courthouses and the two-story townhouses of Lafayette Park were themselves pioneers. 2

Half a century later the same demographic is targeted; it’s just a new generation of urban pioneers buying into Lafayette Park. And while the architecture remains the same, minus a few detailed interventions, Caldwell’s landscape has reached maturity. Functioning as a barrier between the residents and I-75 and East Lafayette Street, the lush perimeter of planting allows only two formal entrances into the development, ensuring that all vehicular and pedestrian traffic is vulnerable to residents’ gaze. Symbolically, the pioneers have circled the wagons.

In his master plan, Hilberseimer relied on the concept of the settlement unit: a semi-autonomous entity at pedestrian scale positioned within a plan in which discrete building typologies are isolated from one another and linked via an open landscape. Lafayette Park’s designers emphasized the settlement unit in various ways that now fortify residents and confuse outsiders. For starters, the buildings are nearly identical, distinguished only by orientation and placement. Every two-story townhouse looks like every other two-story townhouse. All the one-story courthouses look alike. Signage and wayfinding seem intentionally misleading. Residents often tell stories of houseguests getting lost during their first unchaperoned walk around the grounds.

Complicating both the confusion of visitors and the sense of theatrical performance, the front and back walls of the buildings are glass, so residents rarely need to use interior lighting during the day. Trees and adjacent buildings reflect off the glass, making it impossible to view the interiors from outside. The architecture thus works to the defensive advantage of the residents, who have unobscured views of pedestrians who in turn cannot see anything within; in this way strategic juxtapositions of architecture and landscape create a feeling of safety critical to the quality of life in Lafayette Park, and which generates a shared sense of intimacy that fosters community.

Lafayette Park, Detroit [Photo by Vasco Roma]
Noah Resnick, the author’s husband.

Ordered Exhibitionism

And then the sun sets, the interiors are illuminated, and the roles are reversed. Objects become subjects, subjects become objects, and everyone is on display. But along the public pathways the townhouse entrances are screened by 6-foot-tall hedgerows, carefully planted trees and holly bushes. Pedestrians can see the illuminated rooms, but they cannot observe anything — any resident — in detail.

Unexpectedly, it’s at the rear of the townhouses where the real performance takes place. At the center of Lafayette Park, two rows of townhouses back up to one another, separated by a mere 200 feet of public open space. Nicknamed “the Meadow,” this space is illuminated by the light that spills out of the adjacent homes. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls underscore each inhabitant’s sense of presence within the community. Neighbors are able to assess each other’s domestic settings, to track the lifestyle patterns of those nearby. If the patterns are altered, neighbors notice. And in this ordered exhibitionism there is reassurance. Nobody is anonymous, everyone is engaged.

By creating simultaneous conditions of private anonymity and public grandeur, and then blurring the boundaries, Mies in effect organized a universal camaraderie for the residents of Lafayette Park. To be sure, the sanctioned voyeurism of the architecture is not wholly responsible for the settlement’s safety and social harmony. The awareness of community surveillance is also reflected in the co-op ownership system. Those who buy property in Lafayette Park are really buying into a financial corporation, in which the value of your shares is determined by the price of the real estate. During the application process, you must willingly submit your personal life and history to potential future neighbors, from whom you seek approval. The co-op board crafts its own community, member by member, just as the designers crafted the way the community interacts.

Before we moved into our townhouse in Lafayette Park, we felt certain that our first home improvement project would be to install window shades, thereby establishing our ownership and protecting our privacy. We felt driven to publicly stake a claim on our own personal property. Four months later, spontaneously and almost haphazardly, we hung some inexpensive IKEA curtains solely to mitigate the cold draughts. Whenever the weather permits, we keep our curtains wide open — partly because my older son loves to fall asleep watching the locust trees, but mostly because we see this to be a social signifier to the community: we are engaging, we are welcoming.

About the Series: Modern Masters

In an ongoing and occasional series, historians and critics assess the vigorous achievements of a generation of modernist practitioners.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from a chapter in Thanks for the View, Mr Mies, edited by Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani (Placement), recently published by Metropolis Books . The residents photographed above are all contributors to the book.

Melissa Dittmer, “Lafayette Park: Living in Ordered Exhibition,” Places Journal, October 2012. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 10.06.2012 at 17:25

    I think the thing forgotten in Tom Wolfe's slam of modern architecture is the degrees to which proportions, light, warmth and people are factors in its kinetic beauty. The pictures and text clearly demonstrate the degree to which that is true.
    I wonder if only a certain type of person can live here: a type of extravert--maybe one who is more trusting of others. Are there any nudists at Lafayette Park?
    Though I also wonder about the issue of safety. How different the development would have been if it were raised up on columns, or would that destroy the connective tissue?

  • 10.17.2012 at 15:03

    The unvoiced culture place or more intimately the personal culture or psyche of the building's user is a big driver of expectation and outcome. I personally don't buy the co-operative crafting of culture idea, the uber-hubris of intentional communities have the same trajectory as idealized "machines for living". They will be junked and rediscovered.
    A user's expectations will thwart the any intention of design. Regarding transparency and public views: My Mom lives in a rural paradise with the windows covered, in case Bambi might leer. Vancouver B.C. is a glittering display of public exhibitionism, in full detail, and a few miles south in Seattle, the shades are drawn. Structural veils to articulate privacy are overcome like Arte Johnson on Laugh In peeping through a bush. Could we live in the open with some ritualized expectation of civility like the full-monty modesty of a Japanese bath? Once upon a time, in London, a flasher’s expectation was the worst that could happen is a bobby would bean you with a club. Now with the escalation of violent expectation you will be shot. Expectations have changed, the focus has shifted from intimacy with the eternal cat and mouse domestic drama, in imperceptible increments. We are like a frog in a boiling pot, fully accepting of caricatures like Tom and Jerry, degrading into CSI. In the paranoia of American residential architecture fenestration as necessity and connection to others is now more akin to a glory hole.
    Lafayette Park is celebrating a fond remembrance of more optimistic times. I for one adhere to the see no evil philosophy of living in public with my pants down.