about Contemporary Practices
A month or so ago I gave the kick-off talk at the Building Enclosure Council National Symposium, taking a very quick and dirty look at two kinds of history of building enclosures. I have had a keen interest in building enclosures since I co-chaired the Technology Conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture with Andrew Vernooy in 2001, which we titled “Building Skins: Where Design and Technology Meet”.
One of the first projects I did in my career was an addition to a 19th century stone house in Austin that had 20-inch thick limestone walls. I really admired that old house with its single-material walls and high thermal mass that actually performed beautifully without insulation or a vapor barrier.
As I have traveled I have admired a very long lineage of single-material walls. Ancient stone or brick walls acted as the structure, thermal barrier, and enclosure as well as interior and exterior finish. I love the ruins of the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa in central Turkey where massive stone walls constituted virtually all construction—from dwellings and markets to gigantic ramparts. Another great example is Machu Picchu in Peru, which is made almost entirely of carefully crafted stonework.
Centuries later, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cass Gilbert designed Battle Hall at UT Austin with very similar construction. Its walls are just one thickness of stone all the way through, but they have performed very well both aesthetically and thermally for more than a century. Even when air conditioning was added, Battle Hall’s high thermal mass has helped keep it temperate even during our hot Texas summers.
There is a second history of walls that conceives of them as layers of various materials, each of which accomplishes a particular function. Early versions of this can be seen in Roman buildings, like the Pantheon, that have a structural core faced with very different materials for the inside finish and the outside skin.
Over the last 20-30 years we have become very adept at making walls out of layers with many materials where each material is performing a separate role: one for structure, one for insulation, one for water-proofing, one for vapor barrier, another for interior finish, and another for exterior finish. We are interested in getting the best performance out of each material with its own specific characteristics. The coordination of so many materials may not be so great, with different people doing each installation, often months apart in the building process. A lot of glitches can happen at the intersection of those various materials, and the result is often not perfect.
Might we get equal or better performance out of fewer materials? We have experimented with this idea in several projects we have done at Page, learning lessons from older single-material walls. At the Torcasso residence, located in New Mexico, we used only rammed earth for some of the walls. They are thick and solid and that single material provides everything needed: structure, vapor barrier, insulation, interior finish and exterior finish.
In Austin, we designed a small office building for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates. It features thick, unreinforced concrete walls, which serve as both the structure and the environmental barrier, and we used the walls’ thickness to significant thermal advantage.
I am not a building science nerd, and I certainly continue to be interested in walls made up of layers of materials capped by a rainscreen. However, it also seems appropriate to explore another longstanding genre of wall construction that optimizes simplicity of construction and high thermal mass.
When I travel, I love to just hang out and observe urban life – how cities support the predispositions of their residents and how city dwellers embrace their environments. I’m happy as a clam watching how crowds behave and spying on urban pedestrian life. Such was this case a couple of months ago when I visited Quebec City. I kept asking myself: why is it so enjoyable to be in a place that has great street life? Why is it so pleasant to be in an environment where people are just doing an amalgamation of everyday activities?
I was in Quebec City for a few days of business meetings and was impressed by its street life in the old part of the city. I had been there decades ago and had fond memories of this compact little bit of urban life that had, if anything, improved through the years.
I have a long history on the subject of street life. When I was right out of school, I was hired by Stanford Anderson at MIT to assist in his extensive research project on the subject. We did meticulous observation, mapping and analysis in Paris and Brooklyn Heights (which were very positive examples) and in downtown Washington DC (where things were pretty much falling apart). The research led to Stan’s remarkable book, “On Streets”.
I was 24 at the time, and was mesmerized by how societies have – for centuries – made these complex crucibles of cultural interaction we call streets. Being in Quebec made me think about what’s happened in the 40 years since those days at MIT. In 1973 – apart from San Francisco and New York City – we had pretty much given up on street life in the U.S. and nobody wanted to hang out in the city. Car-dominated culture, the suburbs, and TV were being regaled as creating a death knell for urban pedestrian life.
Now there is a remarkable resurgence of urbanity even in many places that are surprising—like Austin. But I think we still have many lessons to relearn from cities that never lost their urbanity, some in North America, like Quebec City.
One afternoon in Quebec City, I witnessed a remarkable bit of urban theater – the quick transformation of a single street in the old quarter. In a period of 15 minutes it went from a car street with a sidewalk to a 100% pedestrian corridor with generous outdoor social settings/restaurants and no cars. The photos here show the quick installation of planters and rails and the relocations of the pedestrian path they provoked. With these modest interventions, what was needed as a car route during business hours became a festive pedestrian party space in the evening. It is these kinds of subtle design moves that contribute to making urban spaces that are truly successful and engaging.
St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles and many others places are now trying to rejuvenate the kind of urban life that has been continuously present in Quebec City all along. How did we lose it in so many North American cities? Was it really the TV of the Marshall McLuhan era? Curiously, we now have far more technology than McLuhan anticipated and yet more people are hanging out enjoying urban life. Maybe it’s because we all really need to be in-person social creatures. Even with the ease and mobility of today’s social media, people are still drawn to public places.
In the 1970’s, Charles Moore wrote an article called “You Have to Pay for the Public Life,” in which he hailed Disneyland as one of the best experiences of public life in the United States. Moore’s piece was both humorous and biting. Now urban life is reappearing everywhere. We need to be encouraging, celebrating and provoking more of this direction as best we can.
In a March 2014 blog, I discussed the construction and design of the new University of Texas Pan Am Performing Arts Center in the Rio Grande Valley. Now the building is complete and this spring saw its first concert. Following a punch list that was accomplished over the summer, the complex has opened full blast this fall.
There are two things I particularly love about this project. First, it is very much a campus building. Houston architect Ken Benson designed the UT Pan Am campus in the 1970s, and it has something of a bizarre history. Benson grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and was inspired, not only by the local south Texas vernacular (which produced an impressive collection of distinctive brick buildings), but also by Lou Kahn’s brick buildings in the similar hot, humid climates of India and Bangladesh (see images, below). The fact that I was familiar with and admiring of both the regional vernacular of South Texas and Kahn’s buildings in south Asia may have been one of the reasons we got the job. From the very start we were inspired by the very unusual context of the UT Pan Am campus.
In order to re-establish the Arts Complex and bring it up to current performance standards we removed two buildings and restored two others around an existing courtyard. We also added an entirely new structure that includes a 1,000-seat performing arts auditorium, and four rehearsal halls–one each for band, mariachi jazz, vocal, and orchestra (as illustrated in floor plan, below).
The new complex feels great on the campus: it creates a prominent and contextual gateway that the campus never had before. This also gives a particular significance to the arts. The seminal idea for the complex was to make big masonry volumes - much like Kahn – with bold, strong openings. The openings are here are more lyrical than elsewhere on campus in deference its occupants.
The second thing I love about the building is the sequence of movement through it. Both reading the plan and in actual experience, one readily understands the slow transitions – both in terms of space and scale – that develop as you move through the building. There is an exterior layer of deep, welcoming porch with a broad wood soffit that is beautifully detailed and executed. Inside it, a second layer of lobby space wraps around the very strong brick volume that marks the performance hall.
The next layer, inside the brick volume, is full of passages to seats on the upper levels and is lit dramatically from above. The center of all these donut layers is the hall itself, which is full of warm word and rich color. The acoustics are fantastic. The entire space is highly tunable and can be altered according to music type.
Behind the main performance hall, on the campus side, are the rehearsal halls–four solid brick “ducklings” nested up against the big brick volume of the main hall. UT Pan Am was already well known for its music program. The new building will allow it to take another leap forward. The new complex serves not only students and faculty, but also neighboring communities. It will be the home of the Valley Symphony Orchestra directed by Peter Dabrowski.
Several weeks ago, I hosted a reception at my loft in Austin for Jhane Barnes, the very well known fashion designer. I greatly admire her clothing and sense of design and was delighted to have an opportunity to talk with her for a bit before the event. Combing through my closet earlier, I had found two outdated, thoroughly worn pieces, among the clothes I had that were designed by her: one a vest, the other a winter sport coat. These were clothes I should have stopped wearing years ago, but I like them so much I just cannot not retire them.
I didn’t know much about Jhane the designer (just her great clothes), and I didn’t know anything about her as a person. But I learned a great lesson about design in talking with her. Any kind of designer is so much better if they’re deeply research-oriented, regardless of what industry. Jhane’s work is technically superb; it’s not just about a look. She’s always searching for new tools, new methods and techniques. She’s all about how the design product is made.
One of her distinctive design characteristics is the quality of the fabrics she uses. When Jhane was young, she got a loom and learned the art of making fabric. In her studio she gathered lots of different looms and tested weaving techniques that she could show to the mills that would produce her work.
Jhane always emphasized comfort and how a piece of clothing would sit on your body. Her manufacturing process had to be strongly economy-driven. How the piece was made, sources for fibers and dyes and what all this would cost became driving forces. Additionally, Jhane’s company had to consider where a product was going to be made, allowing for manufacturing variations by country. All of this makes me realize how much the clothing design industry is like the architectural design industry where one has to be very concerned about building and construction materials, production and costs.
What Jhane does and what good architects do are not all that different. I was impressed by how strong her roots are in her industry and how much depth there is to what she does. She pretty much left the men’s fashion scene in 2013; now she’s designing fabrics, flooring, furniture, eyewear, and socks, among other things. We discussed flooring and how much research she does in terms of finding manufacturers. Again, she’s using those same skills she developed as a fashion designer. Just as she had done when she started in fashion design, Jhane transitioned to other design arenas by doing tons of research. She had to learn all about furniture making and floor making and eyewear making, etc.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with Jhane Barnes as a true designer: someone who is constantly searching, has big ideas and is ambitious for the quality of the products she works on. I admire that immensely!
I’m always struck by the list of credits in movies. I love the way that everyone who contributes to the success of the film gets acknowledged. Making a building requires the same kind of complex collaborative enterprise as making a movie, yet for some reason, we have this crazy convention of crediting only a single architect by name.
I’m writing an article for A+U about the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth with the title: “Architecture is a Team Sport.” The University of Texas at Austin owns all the working drawings for the Kimbell, and we had an exhibition of some of them in Battle Hall last fall.
Duane Manning, the guy actually responsible for 90% of the drawings when he was a young architect, came to the opening. I was making the remarks there and commented about what a pity it is that he had not been recognized earlier for his contributions to the building.
This made me think about other people I’ve met over the years who also played critical roles in the creation of this amazing architectural landmark. So I went back through all my files on the Kimbell and tried to piece together some of the people and roles as source material for the article in A+U.
Richard Fargo Brown had an enormous impact on the design of the building. He was the first director of the Kimbell well before there was any architecture associated with it. He wrote a program for what he wanted in the museum that is an uncanny prediction of the building to come. Brown was the one who specified much of how the building would be articulated in its final form – that it should be low, flat and symmetrical, that it should be day-lit (in part by courtyards), and that its construction should be expressed explicitly as an important part of its architecture. “In the end that’s what we got,” he said.
Brown added, “Lou Kahn listened.” One must give credit to Brown for his vision and also to Kahn for his embrace of that inspired vision. The Kimbell does not have tall, monumental spaces like Dhaka, Exeter or the Yale British Art Center that Kahn typically loved at that stage of his career; instead, it was low and flat and modest, which is exactly what Brown conceived.
In the A+U article, I focus on one particular element of the Kimbell–the inventive skylights at the tops of the vaults and their reflectors. During the design phase, Marshall Meyer, a real leader in Kahn’s office, showed an early conceptual sketch to Kahn who liked it and presented it to the client. Richard Kelly, a lighting designer, changed both the general shape of the reflectors and the material they were made out of (from glass to perforated aluminum). The precise shape and performance were computer-modeled and revised again by Kelly and Isaac Goodbar. The perforations didn’t work well in the first two mock-ups and Frank Sherwood in Preston Geren’s office, associated architects on the Kimbell, resolved the problem by suggesting the perforations appear in some places but not others. The result is the magical light that really defines the experience and is a signature element of the Kimbell. It is hard to call this just a “Kahn” detail.
The point of the article is that architecture really is a team sport, and we should acknowledge that fact more than we do. The truth is that all buildings have many, many people seminally involved in their creation. Why are we so hell-bent on singular attribution? Why don’t we credit everyone in greater detail? At Page, we alphabetically list everyone on our website who was involved in a particular project. It is an explicit way of saying we’re all in this together.
Recently, I experienced a sort of cosmic convergence of unrelated things happening. First, an 18-year old undergraduate student came to my office to discuss an essay he’s writing about a building of his choosing that he admires. He chose the Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW). Initially, I thought that was a dubious selection, but he explained beautifully what he admired from a lay perspective.
He was in awe of how the airport gets tens of thousands of people into and out of the facility and deals with their associated needs every day–routing them just where they all want to go, funneling them through security, feeding and entertaining them and connecting them with their air routes. He also understood the complexity of fueling systems, maintenance, equipping, baggage conveyance, security requirements and other infrastructure needed to support the aircraft end of the operation.
He got it that DFW is not flawless, but he found it quite phenomenal that it managed to handle all it has to deal with: baggage, food, people, planes, trucks, fuel, supplies, power, parking, police… The list goes on.
Hearing this through the eyes of an 18 year old, I thought, “Of course, DFW is really impressive in terms of what it accomplishes. Why aren’t we constantly more impressed when building manage these herculean tasks?”
The very next day I was at DFW for an AIA jury to select the Latrobe Prize recipient this year. The jury convened at the airport because jurors were flying in from all over the country. We met at the Grand Hyatt, located smack in the middle of Terminal D. You fly in, work, stay and fly out. This is not my favorite way to travel, but I did not have any say this time.
As it turns out, the topic of this research prize is resiliency. In response to the post-Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy world, the prize received proposals discussing how to withstand the impacts of climate change, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other calamities. Having read all the proposals, and having focused intently on resiliency, suddenly a snowstorm hit the airport. This mini-calamity was certainly not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but it was an unusual weather event in an area that typically doesn’t get much snow.
I was pretty blown away by how well DFW handled the challenge. My flight, like many others, was canceled, and I was seven hours late leaving for Austin. Many people were stranded overnight. The airport issued cots, and I noticed all of the food operations seemed perfectly capable of serving the many more meals they were called on to deliver. All of the myriad issues pertaining to interface with ground transportation also seemed to operate admirably. I’m watching how civilized this all was, and it struck me: this is invisible resiliency at work.
Maybe we, as architects, have lost perspective on how fundamentally we are constantly called upon to build in resiliency–maybe not at the scale of a flood or hurricane, but certainly for an unexpected snowstorm. It was the combination of the student making me re-examine DFW, the Latrobe Prize making me think about resiliency, and then observing snow at DFW that made it occur to me: this is something that really matters in the way we do architecture every day!
We are constantly called upon to make buildings as bullet-proof as possible—especially some particularly demanding building types like a hospital, an airport, a stadium, or a mission critical facility. These are building types we frequently deal with in our practice at Page, and their complexity and demanding performance challenges are actually quite exhilarating to deal with as designers and as a delivery team.
Our new addition to Austin Bergstrom Airport is an excellent example. We are adding a front-door pavilion to the airport (see images, below) where people will come in, go through security, have coffee or lunch and proceed to their gate. The addition is above a complicated international customs floor as well as the loading dock, which handles all the moving in and out of supplies for the entire airport. The new addition resolves a complicated puzzle, and it has to do so keeping worst-case scenarios in mind. Without being so conscious of it, we were working hard to create the kind of invisible resiliency we have come to expect of buildings in the 21st century.
In a data-driven world, why don’t we, as architects, gather more data about the performance of our buildings—particularly in the form of post-occupancy evaluations? Wouldn’t it be a potent tool for advocacy of the importance of our profession if we could demonstrate the positive impact of what we do in a language our culture is accustomed to using?
Our office recently conducted a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of 2400 Nueces, a student housing complex at the University of Texas at Austin. Completed in 2013, the 13-story building was developed by EdR in partnership with UT and includes academic spaces, study spaces, recreational and fitness facilities as well as UT’s International Student Offices. Of the current residents,132 answered the POE questionnaire which addressed all sorts of issues about their satisfaction with the building–what was done right, what fell short, and what they would recommend.
From that survey, four key findings emerged:
1. A full 26% of respondents said their GPA went up since moving to 2400 Nueces. A primary goal in designing the building was to create a fun, wonderful place to live, but not Animal House. Much of the student housing the West Campus, where the project is located, is notorious for environments that are not conducive to work and study. Along with EdR, we paid a lot of attention to making a place where social life is tempered by an emphasis on good live/work environments. For example, we intermingled various unit types so that the 4-bedroom units (which tend to be dominated by the more raucous male population) would not be clustered on one hallway and reinforce a “party” lifestyle. Diverse neighbors tend to temper extreme behaviors.
2. Another question asked, “How about your friendships – are they better, the same or diminished compared to other places you have lived?” Here, 44% said their social relationships were better. This is what college is about: friendships and connections. How does a building support these? In part, through making all of the shared/social spaces great places to hang out and interact—mixing in single-loaded corridors and outdoor passages, creating memorable social and recreational spaces with great views and good indoor/outdoor access. At 2400 Nueces those places where casual encounter occurs generally have good daylight and ample space for sticking around and not just passing through.
3. When asked, “What effect has living in 2400 Nueces made in your life compared to other student housing”, a resounding 67% said it made their lives better. Many of the respondents stated they like the strong architectural character, the large windows and the colors of the building.
4. And, tellingly, in response to the question, “Would you recommend 2400 Nueces as a place to live with at UT”, a full 100% said Yes.
This specific POE gave us some very positive responses and, thus, some evidence to take to the next project about the potential for architecture to make lives better. But even if the news it not so good, it can often be very instructive and a tool for learning how to make our buildings more supportive and productive.
EdR is one of the most enlightened developers of student housing in the country. They have done an impressive job both in building and operating 2400 Nueces, and the survey supports that. Our office will benefit from their expertise and from the POE’s assessment of its impact in designing future student housing projects.
I had a crystalizing moment at the Texas Society of Architects convention in Houston last week. On Friday afternoon I attended the recognition ceremony for Newly Registered Architects that was held in a lovely historic church a few blocks from the convention center. I had been part of initiating this ceremony as president of TxA last year when we did the inaugural event of this sort in a fine old church in downtown Fort Worth. It was great to see this new “tradition” continue, and I hope it lasts well into the future.
Getting registered as an architect is a long and daunting process that requires a great deal of persistence and perseverance. Yet it is really important for anyone wanting to be truly successful in his or her architectural career.
We had a good crop of newly register architects in our office at Page this year and I had encouraged some of them to attend the ceremony, even though it required travel to Houston and time away from the office. I was delighted that four of our folks showed up, and I was genuinely proud to see them recognized in the ceremony that was led by Val Glitsch, the current TxA President.
I am jazzed about all four of these young architects. Delvin Jackson works in our Dallas office, and I had gotten exposure to him when I was lead designer on the UT Dallas Visitors Center where he was part of the team. A University of Houston graduate, Delvin worked in Houston for several years after graduation and has been with us at Page for eight years.
I have been working very closely with Diana Su on the new UT System Replacement Office Building in Austin for the past six months or so. She and I have been through many, many refinements on the building’s skin, and we are still at it. Before she came to work for Page she worked for several years for Miro Rivera, and before that I knew her as a student at UT Austin.
I got to know Bill Huie a bit even before he became a grad student in the School of Architecture at UT. He was already both a Plan II and a Law School graduate from UT and he was thinking about coming back for another degree. Bill was one of our very top students in his era, doing residency with David Chipperfield in London and winning a big national ACSA competition during his last semester. He worked for a couple of other Austin firms before coming to Page fairly recently.
Matt Leach was in my graduate seminar at UT his first semester of grad school after doing undergraduate work at Georgia Tech and working for Mack Scogin Merrill Elam in Atlanta for a little over four years. I latched onto him as quickly as I could, and Matt was my TA for multiple semesters in both of my undergraduate classes. He has been with us at Page for three and a half years during which I have worked closely with him for the whole time on projects like the Austin airport expansion and the new Dell Medical School at UT.
After the ceremony the five of us, along with another former student and Page colleague, Paul Bielamowicz (who had been elected the day before to be President of TxA in 2016), walked a few blocks down the street to The Grove restaurant in Discovery Green–one of our design projects–to have a drink.
This was the crystalizing moment—the realization that it does not get much better than sitting around a table in a beautiful spot (that we helped make) with an amazing group of talented, committed people, talking about things we all care about and love and celebrating life’s sweet successes.
While in Michigan recently, I paid a visit to two new and strikingly different museums, both designed by well known architects: the Broad Museum by Zaha Hadid at Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan Art Museum by Allied Works. After visiting both, it reminded me why it’s important for architects to find opportunities for work that are sympathetic to what they do.
Located on a primary thoroughfare that runs by the campus, the Broad Museum is relatively small and it sits on its site as a pristine object, almost as a piece of sculpture would — like a really big Calder. The buildings around it are traditional campus buildings and the Broad creates a stark contrast to all of its neighbors. It’s a very constrained site, so it could probably never grow. It will likely always be the object it is.
As one would expect of a Hadid project, it’s a very aggressive design– angular and full of drama. It is totally “in your face”, and this seems about right for this type of museum which is all about “in your face” contemporary art.
Inside, one of the galleries is long and thin, with a mix of light and dark spaces that would certainly not readily accommodate a pre-conceived show very well because the space is so particular. The piece that is in there is gorgeous–a really long, thin assemblage of denture-making materials that is just perfect in its spot. It was clearly made for its location and allowed the artist to play off of the eccentricity of the space. The architecture seems to be leading and the art within is reacting. Hadid’s work is good for that: her buildings are strong and demanding and the artist is responding well.
There are few neutral zones in the building so art needs to be commissioned and made specifically for the spaces to really work. I think it would be difficult to show anything but contemporary art there. A conventional exhibit might be lost or overwhelmed. This is a museum that’s meant to provoke a response, and it is one kind of legitimate museum architecture.
At the University of Michigan, it’s an entirely different experience in the substantial recent addition to a large pre-existing museum building. This distinguished institution has an extraordinary established collection full of history and tradition. Here the architecture, designed by Allied Works, needs to give way to the collection. The architecture is orderly and quiet, and the art, which is beautifully displayed in light-controlled spaces, is resonant. The architecture is respectful of the art and is often deferential to it. The extraordinary art collection that represents centuries of values and ideas is not about to change itself and accommodate the building.
I have great respect for this building. It is an elegant, impeccably detailed enhancement to a splendid university campus. It fits into the context of the existing building and the larger campus gracefully, but without being cloying or invisible. It has a real presence; it is certainly not egocentric or just about itself. It acknowledges beautifully both the world around it and within it.
I am delighted that the people at Michigan State understood that what they were doing was creating a provocative event that artists could play off of and respond to. They got the right architect for that task.
I am also glad the people at University of Michigan comprehended the value of their campus context and their distinguished art collection and got an architect who would respect that and make a strong building that had the confidence to support a larger and longstanding enterprise. They got the right architect for that as well.
I have been on a number of architect selection committees where the institutions did not understand the importance of finding an architect whose work would be sympathetic to their organization’s mission and values. It is not just important to get good architecture, but it is also important to get the right architect.
I love to revisit significant architectural projects over and over in their mature years to see how they are working and how people are using them. Alvar Aalto was fond of saying he wanted his buildings to be judged by how they looked after 50 years. I think that is a good yardstick.
I had that opportunity to do the 50+ year test recently when I spent a morning walking around Lafayette Park in Detroit, designed in 1956 by Mies van der Rohe. I first saw this multi-block neighborhood with a large section of townhomes and three residential towers 25 years ago and was really impressed at the time because it was in impeccable shape—nicely inhabited with great ethnic diversity. At the time, Detroit was still a relatively thriving city with several great neighborhoods in the ring around downtown where Lafayette Park is located.
Seeing the city again now is an entirely different experience. Many of the neighborhoods around Lafayette Park have not fared well at all; in fact, a good number have been demolished. Others have been abandoned and boarded up. There are some house owners still putting up a valiant effort with tended lawns and a struggle to look respectable, but the houses behind are unoccupied. There are deep signs of struggling all around downtown, but when you go into Lafayette Park and it looks amazingly intact and healthy.
Mies’ design followed Le Corbusier’s concept of towers in a park within a city, and clearly this notion has succeeded here. Everything is handled remarkably well. The parking is submerged three feet so as to minimize the awareness of cars. They are visible for surveillance sake; just not as prominent. There is a nice playground for kids. All the vegetation has grown in and matured in three tiers — tall trees for deep shade, lower flowering trees for color, and ground-hugging shrubs and grasses that give a soft, lush quality to the place. The buildings are quiet, black steel with contrasting clear anodized aluminum windows, all built to a consistent, repetitive standard throughout the development.
Lafayette Park is a co-op neighborhood with multiple legal entities that help to maintain standards and upkeep. While it’s not true mixed-use, there is a Mies-designed shopping center close by. What’s particularly rewarding is to see how well everything is tended; there’s obviously a strong sense of pride among the people who live here. One of the co-ops installed new thermal pane windows several years ago to replace the original ones, but did it very carefully so as to keep the design integrity. Views from the units are out to well-defined green spaces and maintain “eyes on the street” for most of the public realm. The one- and two-story townhouses have relatively small rooms, but mostly are large enough to accommodate families. Some of them have attached parking spaces, and some have shared parking. Many have outdoor courts although most outdoor space is common, not private.
I met a guy while walking around who had lived in Lafayette Park for 16 years. He’d been a school principal, now retired, and he talked about how great it is to live there. It’s a stable, popular neighborhood where property values have actually increased, and it’s a place where people know their neighbors. His unit has modest spaces, but the views outside to the gardens and to comings and goings of his neighbors are generous and beautiful. The unit is zoned perfectly for living privately while being part of a larger community. A small but significant example of careful functional planning: one goes downstairs to an inner hallway that connects all units where the trash is tidily stored in bins until it is removed on collection day.
I came away from Lafayette Park with an incredibly positive impression. Have we been too quick to condemn modern planning and urban design principles that emphasized the virtues of light, air and connection to nature? Have we bought into the urbanism touted by Jane Jacobs to the exclusion of other equally appealing patterns? (It is precisely those street-oriented mixed-use neighborhoods of three- to five-story brick buildings that are dying in other parts of Detroit.) Is Lafayette Park just the sort of middle ground between hardscape urbanism and leafy, sprawling suburban neighborhoods that might achieve a genteel density that we need to be achieving today?