October 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking for Detroit's Lafayette Park, an 78-acre mixed use development not far from the city's waterfront that has proven an enduring success even as much of the city around it fell into deep distress.
Lafayette Park is the product of a team of four that gravitated around Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. First, there was developer Herbert Greenwald, who also took the risk to build Mies's 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments, arguably the first modernist residential high rises. There was Mies himself and two of his IIT colleagues, the great landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, and Ludwig Hilberseimer, the planner who taught with him at the Bauhaus, and who followed him from Germany to teach at IIT.
Lafayette Park brought together these four men at the peak of their powers. It could be said to the one place where Mies, who had been steeped in socialist theory while in Germany but built his American practice on well-heeled patrons, actually married his art to social conscience. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Lafayette Park is the way it turns today's conventional wisdom about planning on its head. The development shears off the basic street grid, and personifies Le Corbusier's concept of the Radiant City, a series of tall skyscrapers set amidst abundant parks largely isolated from through streets. It's a basic matter of faith these days that these are all terrible ideas, but at Lafayette Park, they worked, and have continued to work for half a century.
Via PLANetizen, here's a great article from the Detroit Free Press by its architectural critic John Gallagher that tells the story. What is now called the Mies van der Rohe Residential District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There's also a book, Lafayette Park Detroit, edited by Charles Waldheim, who will be speaking this Wednesday, September 27th on landscape urbanism at a Chicago Architectural Club session, which will also include Sprawl author Robert Brueggman, at 6:30 P.M. at the Ispace Gallery.
Oh, and at Lafayette Park, a three bedroom condo can still be had for $135,000.,