From Mies, For Detroit The Non-Contextual: Fiction Of Modern Architecture

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My days in architecture school were filled with words of wisdom about locality, contextuality, and connectivity towards whatever present within a radius of probably 60km. Everything must be considered: people, plants, animals, environment, history, economy. Everything. Otherwise, a design might not be successful nor attracted the right market.

Upon the aforementioned principles, then a polemic begins, the lack of rooms given to students to experiment and exercise ideas freely, especially the ones related to Utopist ideology. The dream of Utopia, they say, is the pinnacle of the non-contextuality, born by the many unsatisfied hearts of aristocrats and academics by how the ‘real world’ is working. Thus, inserting utopist ideas into the student’s perspective might stretch their view on projects they will be designed in real life, thus decrease the rate of successfulness of their architecture and urban designs.

Even if students get a chance to do such interesting exercises, never in their wildest dreams that designing a project based on a non-contextual utopist dream would be manifested into a real project in the future. The idea of disregarding many local elements and basing a design on the assumption of what we deem good is sounded dangerous enough in the academic world. The current teaching – and the ‘real world’ – demands objective designers who take clients’ well-being into priority. Eventually, putting a pure utopian dream and ideology into some three-dimensional forms is just a fictional drawing we made to fulfill the school’s credits.

More discouragement in developing these non-contextual designs (might or might not be based on utopian ideas) was told informally amongst people in the industry. Only the designs backed by a strong political power and resourceful funding would manifest into a reality. Interesting enough, we find it rare to find the phrase “political power” and “resourceful funding” printed in books and journal. It did not appear even on the footnotes.

In reality, whether we like it or not, these two subjects are the key points in realizing the non-contextual and further the “fictional utopian designs”. Bandung, for example, only when an architect and urban designer, Ridwan Kamil became its Mayor then the city could get the long-needed improvements in the built environment.

Power and money are the top “must need items” for architects and planners who are hoping for their non-contextual and utopian designs to be built. Whether the designs are based on a locality or two-century-old idealism, it does not matter. Take the example of China. Over the last three decades, power and money help the construction of ambitious and non-contextual designs of ghost cities all over China. It Includes the famous Ordos in Inner Mongolia[1], the Manhattan duplicate or Yujiapu Financial District in Binhai New Area near Tianjin[2], and Meixi Lake City.

Watching images of these ghost cities feels like reading an imaginary tale that of The Matrix, minus Keanu Reeves. Let say minus all the humans. I even doubt Agent Smith(s) will be willing to make these cities as his headquarters. Visually, there is nothing wrong. Everything is constructed beautifully and precisely as planned, following the very rules of modernist urban design. But, the non-contextuality made the design failed, as people were reluctant to move there. No income resources, no attraction, no whatsoever.

The modern mega-scale ghost cities were built in the middle of nowhere, disregarding the potential and issues of the locations or region. No economic activities, no social interaction, and no reason for people to live there, thus, no humans in sight in the ghost cities. But does it matter? No. Until present, China is still building new ghost cities despite the lack of inhabitants, failure of its national economy, and the acknowledgment of “missteps” from its planners[3]. The government’s higher-ups still demand it be built in realizing the dream of civilizing the rural areas and put people in a better environment. Hence, the money keeps pouring in.

Power and money could also bring forth a seemingly simple idealistic, non-contextual project into reality. Take Lafayette Park in Detroit for example. It is the ultimate example of how non-contextual – yet applauded as successful in The States – a neighborhood design can be towards its host city. Be it from the perspective of political power, financial, even design.

First, Lafayette Park is sited strategically next to downtown Detroit. It was initiated with a showcase of unfair political power. More than 140,000 low-income African American dwellers (mostly manufacture worker emigrants) were razed and relocated from Black Bottom area to make space for Lafayette Park urban regeneration project[4]. Riots were inevitable back then. It was even said thatLafayette Park and other urban regeneration projects responsible for the riots happened across Detroit one or two decades after. It was said to be one of the projects responsible for helping to further distribute racial discrimination and segregation[5]. But then the issue died down, as the existing dwellers of the area were forcedly and sparsely sent out to public housings around Detroit neighborhoods. The razed was forgotten over time as if it never happened. Sounds all familiar, it happens in almost every capital cities around the world.

Second, it was erected gracefully at the mercy of both federal grant and municipal budget. It was not even a fully titled public housing; mostly was co-op type. So, for the government to take the burden in becoming a financier sounded a little extraordinary. But USA was in the height of urban regeneration implementation in post-World War II era, which is the similar program as the one who threatened Jane Jacob’s beloved neighborhood. Moreover, this financial control had further become an understandable justification for the government to agree on the design team’s proposal of un-American-like modern utopist concept. This was turned into a dream-like state that any designer would ever wish for; liberty to employ and direct their own concept and idea, flat and empty site, and financially guaranteed.

The financial security (and recommendation) successfully brought in Herbert Greenwald, a Chicago-based visionary real estate developer. Described as a mentor by Mies van de Rohe, Greenwald then asked the architect himself to join his team and responsible for designing Lafayette Park. Mies was putting his very signature international style architecture in Lafayette Park. Hence, it becomes the biggest collector of Mies’ buildings in the world.

Row houses (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

Row houses (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

In the midst of Detroit’s typical mansion-styled landed houses, Mies offered the Detroit citizen to stay in cold, modern, glass high-rise apartment. Many voiced out their doubts in this seemingly odd invitation. However, the Lafayette Park residents eventually loved these “out-of-place” buildings. They cited that the views offered from the units’ floor-to-ceiling windows were one-of-a-kind and the interior neutral design invited creativity from its residents. Those who could find Mies true intention all along chose to stay in in the high-rise apartment (and Lafayette Park) for a long time[6].

Lafayette Pavilion Apartments (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

Lafayette Pavilion Apartments (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

Next, Mies brought in his colleague Ludwig Hilberseimer, urban planner and fellow lecturer in Illinois Institute Technology (IIT). Hilberseimer played a key role by offering the idea of housing taxonomical clustering or “unit settlement” as the main concept in the project. He grouped the housing typology as high rises, row houses, and courthouses, which connected together by the beautiful natural landscape designed by Alfred Caldwell. The display of Garden City Movement concepts was very apparent here, not to mention the utopian dream which emphasizes the importance of urban and nature to coexist together peacefully.

Townhouses and The Landscape in between (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

Townhouses and The Landscape in between (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)


A closer look, this type of design was deemed as unfit for Detroit by many; fenceless community, barrier-less residential quarters, and open layout. It was somewhat the exact opposite of Detroit’s nature and reputation: crime-ridden city decorated with economic fallacy. More concerns were thrown into the shade afterward, as Downtown Detroit was left by its inhabitants out of fear of the ever-increasing drug-related crimes.

The Townhouses (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

The Townhouses (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

What everybody failed to predict at the time was the non-contextuality of Lafayette Park design – layout and architecture wise – is what makes it successful. It brought in its targeted main residents: a multiracial, multigenerational, economically-diversified community. Lafayette Park’s progressively bold layout and futuristic look attracted similarly open-minded and visionary residents from a variety of classes and circles. The openness of Lafayette Park further governed their open-mindedness into a more advanced behavioral and interaction pattern. The residents became a close-knit community that friendly towards and take care of each other.

Staircases (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)

Staircases (Source:, 2008, photo by Raimund Koch)


Friendly neighborhood and community watch were just several examples of how good this community are and how much they love Lafayette Park. Their devotion and admiration towards Lafayette Park even gone to the length of holding an exhibition of Mies’ architecture collection there. Also, even composing the most elaborate “post-occupancy assessment” book called “Thanks for the View Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit” presenting history, memorabilia, testimonies, and facts about their beloved neighborhood. This successfulness then further assessed by academia through the book “CASE: Lafayette Park Detroit, Hilberseimer/Mies van der Rohe” with Charles Waldheim–a professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design – as editor.

The dream of democratic leveling in a city famous for its crime and inequality through a plain-looking, fenceless housing complex sounded like a make-up fiction written by a dreamy third-grader. But, Mies van de Rohe had proven that a non-contextual, utopian design might actually work in breaking the bad nature and image of its host city, thus helping it to heal in the process. Of course, please, do not leave out the political power, funding, and timing that came as ingredients in making this idealistic design to life.

[1] Ordos crowned as the largest ghost city in China, housed futuristic-styled architecture enveloping its premium real estate (including Ordos 100, villas designed by 100 prominent architects from all over the world). Photo series on Ordos, captured by French photographer Raphael Olivier, take us inside into the grandeur architecture of Ordos while missing the essential element: human.

[2]Yujiapu’s planning was said to be very inspired by the world-famous Manhattan borough and initially built to be one of the new economic centers in China. It is one of three objects captured by Chicago photographer Kai Caemmerer for his “Unborn Cities” series which depict the eeriness of empty urban landscape of China’s ghost cities formed by tens of skyscrapers.

[3] In an article published by Al-Jazeera ( and written by Steve Chao titled “Inside China’s ghost towns: Developers run out of money”, one of the government agency did make a rare admission about many planners’ in China have made “monetary missteps” in planning these new urban environments. Most of the ghost cities’ construction processes are now sit idle due to national economic decline and capital shortage from the developers.

[4] Lafayette Park Development, as part of the bigger Gratiot Park Redevelopment, became fast-tracked projects due to Mayor Albert Cobo favor, flourishing oppositions concerned of the neglection of public housing projects.This housing shortage especially affected most Black Bottom residents which were low-income households (Goodspeed, 2004).

[5] In the book “Thanks for the View Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit”, editors Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani restated the finding of several parties that linked the Black Bottom raze in 1950 and its residents’ relocation to a demographically unbalanced neighborhood to the riots culminating in 1967. Due to the aforementioned shortage of public housing, many families temporarily relocated to a more prominent white families neighborhood, thus further sparked the increase in racial segregation and even resulted in physical rejection or altercation (Da Via, 2012).

[6] The display of creativity was perfectly captured also in the aforementioned book through series of photographs, displaying various appealing interior design from its residents: starting from the sleek international design, exotic tropical island design, to the 2000’s trendy, eclectic shabby chic.

Laras Primasari
Laras Primasari lulus dari Arsitektur ITB tahun 2010, lalu memulai karirnya sebagai penulis di IAAW dan ELLE Decoration Indonesia sambil berpraktik sebagai arsitek. Setelah dua setengah tahun menulis, ia memutuskan untuk memperdalam ilmu real estate dan rancang kota di UNSW Australia. Saat ini Laras bekerja sebagai penulis lepas dan asisten akademik di almamaternya di Bandung. Ia sedang tertarik untuk mendalami topik hyperdensity serta studi cross-genre antara real estate dengan morfologi kota.