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Thanks for the View, Mr Mies

If the modernist architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe does it for you, you might like this lovely book, Thanks for the View, Mr Mies (Thames & Hudson), by Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar and Natasha Chandani.

I've been meaning to write about the book since it was published late last year: it's about Layfayette Park, an area in downtown Detroit that has the highest number of van der Rohe buildings in the world.

The low-rise 'Townhouse' part of the development, which also features two tall blocks, 'Lafayette Towers. Photograph courtesy of Fritz Klaetke (whose late father, Frank, is the cool-looking guy in the picture).

But it is an architecture book with quite a difference – as it's as much about the people who live inside the buildings, as it is about the beautiful design. And those people aren't your stereotypical design nerds who've paid over the odds to live in a classic mid-century building, but everyday people with all sorts of different tastes – not interiors-magazine pzazz. And the book is warm and fascinating as a result. 

Unless specified, all photographs here are by Corine Vermeulen 

Photograph by Vasco Roma

As the authors explain: "Most architectural publications glorify iconic architecture like Mies van der Rohe’s by showing photographs of buildings, mainly from the outside, and barely furnished interiors with hardly any people in them. Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies shows life in Lafayette Park from the inside out, taking the point of view of its homeowners, tenants, and staff — people with long-term, intimate knowledge of living with Mies.

While much has been written about Mies’s life and work, Lafayette Park has received relatively little attention. In this book we examine the way this utopian mid-20th century urban renewal project has successfully survived and adapted to present-day conditions in Detroit."

I interviewed one of the co-authors, Danielle Aubert (pictured in her Lafayette Park apartment, below) to find out more...

Co-author of Thanks for the View, Mr Mies, Danielle Aubert, in her Lafayette Park home. © Corine Vermeulen

You live in Lafayette Park... was it van der Rohe that drew you there?
I used to live in from the Lafayette Towers (the high-rises) but have now moved into one of the two-storey townhouses. I've been in the neighbourhood since 2005. I knew very little about Mies's architecture beforehand – I knew he was famous for buildings like the Farnsworth House, the Seagram building, and for his affiliation with the Bauhaus, but I was not especially an architecture buff. When my partner and I moved to Detroit we thought we'd check on the Mies buildings because it was the first time either of us had had a chance to live in modern architecture. The rental rates were reasonable, the building was clean and safe, and convenient to downtown, so we moved in.

Residents Catherine, Karen, Sharon and Jerome © Corine Vermeulen

Why does Lafayette Park have so much Van der Rohe?
Mies was brought in by Chicago-based Herbert Greenwald, who was the developer for Lafayette Park in the 1950s. Mies, urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, and landscape architect Alfred Caldwell were all in Chicago at the time teaching at IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology). The land that would become Lafayette Park had become available as the result of a destructive urban redevelopment scheme that resulted in the razing of a neighbourhood called Black Bottom and the creation of a stretch of highway through downtown.

Pauline and Joe © Corine Vermeulen

Bill © Corine Vermeulen

Tony © Corine Vermeulen

Marsha © Corine Vermeulen

How did you and the other authors meet and come up with the idea for the book?
We met in graduate school at Yale, where we studied graphic design. We all moved to different cities (Detroit, New York and Zagreb) and were looking for a project we could work on together. We decided to make a magazine – something quick – about different places, starting with Lafayette Park in Detroit. About a year into it we realized it would be a book, not an issue of a magazine.

What, as a resident, feels unique about van der Rohe's designs?
The windows!

Why didn't you only include the more designer-y interiors?
Because this is more representative of the interiors in Lafayette Park. Many people who live in Lafayette Park like Mies's architecture but would prefer a comfy sofa over a Barcelona chair.

Best thing that happened through doing the book?
We met a lot of really nice people. We had a good time putting together the series of email conversations on wildlife in the neighbourhood.

Also, we put a book together largely remotely (from our respective cities) which we wouldn't have imagined doing a few years ago. Since we were editors and designers in the project we were in control of all content and design – where things went, what stayed in and how it looked – something that is a luxury for designers.

Favourite parts of the buildings?
The tunnel connecting the basements of the townhouse units is pretty cool. Kids can visit each other in the winter time without having to put coats and boots on.

What are you each working on next?
We are planning to work together on a book about a skyscraper called the Vitic in Zagreb.

I love this section of the book, that features all the little van der Rohe details for everyday living – the reverse coat hanging system (top right on right hand page above) is nice. Love the pull-down hob, too.

Read more and enjoy additional images of these beautiful buildings on the authors' website, Placement Publication. Buy the book here.

You might also be interested in the Mies van der Rohe Society... or this post about Modernist architecture in Lego. There was also a few years ago, a photography exhibition about the residents and interiors of the 1967-built Ethelburga Estate in south London by Mark Cowper that's worth checking out – you can still see the images here.

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