Making the grid feel lived in: a conversation with Placement about ‘Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies’

November 28, 2012 · Print This Article

The new book Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies: Lafayette Park, Detroit is something unexpected:  an architecture book that’s as much about people as it is about buildings. In the case of Lafayette Park, the buildings tend to hog the spotlight, as most of them were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (The neighborhood contains the largest collection of his work in the world.)

Built between 1958 and 1965, Lafayette Park, just east of downtown Detroit, is both a local and national anomaly: an urban renewal project that was actually, by most measures, successful, it has remained racially diverse and economically stable since the beginning. The Mies-designed portion of the development includes 186 cooperatively-owned townhouse and courthouse units made of glass, steel, and brick, as well as three aluminum and glass high-rise apartment buildings: the monolithic Pavilion and the twin Lafayette Towers. Over the years, as designed, the neighborhood has remained both affordable and economically mixed. The townhouses are largely inhabited by middle-class homeowners, while the glass-walled towers provide an unparalleled urban living experience for working class Detroiters and young professionals.

Townhouse building (left) and Pavilion (right). Photograph by Corine Vermeulen.

Thanks for the View, published last month by Metropolis Books, has been a hit in Detroit (and elsewhere). Its humanism is refreshing, as is the unassuming way it approaches its subject — namely, what it’s like to live here, and how people actually inhabit these idealized spaces over time. It contains interviews with and essays by current and former residents, abundant photos (including a series by Corine Vermeulen, previewed in the New York Times in 2010, of residents posing in their distinctly decorated homes), and a host of surprising, digressive features, like several illustrated pages depicting the few dozen bird species that call the park home. It’s at times funny, poignant, obsessive, revelatory, and beautiful. The experience of reading it is a singular pleasure, and, as I enthused last month, I’d recommend it to anybody.

The book’s editors are Danielle Aubert, Lana Cavar, and Natasha Chandani, who call themselves Placement. They are all graphic designers who met in grad school at Yale. Aubert lives in Lafayette Park, originally in Lafayette Towers and now in a townhouse. Cavar is based in Zagreb, Croatia; Chandani’s in Brooklyn. Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies is their first professional collaboration.

I live in Lafayette Towers, and when Thanks For the View came out locally in mid-October, Aubert, Cavar and Chandani were all in Detroit and came up to my apartment for a conversation about making it. Diana Murphy, their publisher from Metropolis, also joined us, and was generous in providing some valuable context for the project.

On the couch: Lana Cavar, Natasha Chandani, and Danielle Aubert. Diana Murphy is in the mirror. Photograph by Matthew Piper.

It was a rainy, cloudy morning, so I was able to keep all the blinds open and show off the view of the skyline and the wind-whipped Detroit River. (I do in fact thank Mr. Mies for the view, in all seasons, daily.) We drank tea, laughed a lot, and chatted about the book and the neighborhood for about an hour. An edited transcript of our conversation follows, divided into three sections: Content, Design and Printing/Publishing.

Danielle Aubert, Natasha Chandani, and LP resident/architect/book contributor Noah Resnick will be giving a talk about Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies at the Graham Foundation in Chicago tomorrow, 11/29, at 6:00 pm.

 

CONTENT

Matthew Piper: Did you always know this was going to be a book? There’s such a crazy mishmash of content here, including reproduced online exchanges and images that range in size from full-page spreads to thumbnails. It feels like a lot of this could live comfortably in other formats, whether online or off.

Natasha Chandani: No, the original idea wasn’t a book. When we started getting content and doing research, we had no idea what form it would take. We didn’t put a form to it until at least a year into collecting research and contributions. Then, at that point, we couldn’t edit so much of it out that it was a small thing. It started growing and then we realized, OK, this is going to be a book. This was about a year into the project. But we were open to whatever form it might take, especially since we weren’t paying contributors.

Danielle Aubert: Our primary goal was to collaborate on something because Lana’s in Zagreb, Natasha’s in New York, and I’m in Detroit. We’re friends and we like working together. We thought, “Let’s do a magazine, and maybe we’ll make it about places.” We’ve all moved around and we all feel sort of alienated wherever we go, but also at home wherever we go. We’re all interested in how places affect your work, the things you think about, and who you interact with. That was the original idea, and we thought, “Well, we’ll do a magazine, where one issue will be about one place and the next issue will be about another place.” So the folder that we have, the shared folder, still says, “Issue 1: Lafayette Park.” The whole time, we were like, “OK! We’re still working on Issue 1!” But then we also kept thinking, “OK, but what’s Issue 2 going to be?” So it was going to be a magazine, but that just seemed –

Lana Cavar: I don’t think we’re magazine people.

DA: Yeah. Well, we all make books, actually. I mean, Natahsa’s worked on magazines, but-

LC: It’s just the way we approach content — we’re much too thorough for a magazine, you know? I wish we knew how to be more light hearted! Like, two day project, boom, done. But the moment we started, it was like, “Well, there’s this, and this, and also this,” and we just kept going deeper and deeper into the content. We soon became aware that it could not just be a magazine.

DA: There was a moment, I remember it pretty clearly, about a year ago, when I was on sabbatical and I had this big stretch of time, and I was like, “OK, we better finish this book.” But we had all this content in these giant folders, with all subfolders full of all this stuff, and we had all these contributions…. We were really struggling with the content, and having all these doubts, too, because we weren’t sure how the pieces fit together. And we just started making folders, like: Wildlife. Walks. Celebrities. We were thinking in terms of chapters at that point, I think.

NC: I think a big sort of structural thing that we decided halfway through the process was, OK, contributions is one big chunk, but we were doing all these other projects too, like the walks and logging the climate, that we were either authoring or working with people in the community to complete. [The sections Chandani's referring to, "Four One-Mile Walks" and "A Record of Nine Days Spent Keeping the Climate Under Control in a Corner Apartment," are both exactly what they sound like. It's a very straightforward book.]  They were all these small things that didn’t require ten pages, and that was a big challenge: to include stuff but not drag it out more than it needed to be. With some of the content, we realized that we really only had a caption for it. There’s no more to tell, really, but we didn’t not want to include it because that’s part of the story. There was a point where we were going back and forth: “Should we kill all this, does it not fit in?” I think once we figured out a system to include everything, that’s when it started taking shape.

“Authentic and Original,” an inventory of original townhouse fixtures.

MP: It has a nice rhythm as a result, with these brief interludes separating longer sections.

DA: And once we did that, we found even more content. We started calling those pages–

NC: “Bastard pages.”

DA: “Bastard pages!” That was Lana’s term.

Diana Murphy: Gee, I never would have guessed that….

DA: But then really, as soon as you had that category, you could fill in all theses things, like the Easter egg hunt and the bench and all that. ["The bench" refers to a brief interlude about a bench, below, at which several townhouse residents gather regularly to "talk about all the problems of the world and never solve any of them," according to resident Barbara Matesa.]

The Bench. Photo by Vasco Roma.

DA:  Then we had longer pieces that we sort of shrunk down into bastard pages. And then, also, working with Corine’s photos: We had all these sort of spectacular photos [of townhouse and high rise residents in their homes], which were actually kind of a challenge because they were all so seductive and so interesting. We wanted to showcase the photos, but at the same time we didn’t want the book to just be about photographically representing people. We wanted people to be speaking. We had a lot of conversations about this, about representing people through photography exclusively, and wanting to keep the voice of the people involved. That was also a challenge: how to give the photos the space, but at the same time not make a glossy coffee table book full of photos.

Beverly Gibson and Richard Worobec. Photo by Corine Vermeulen.

Will Kennedy and Jasmine Ahuja. Photo by Corine Vermeulen.

MP:  Lafayette Park includes several buildings designed by other architects, local architects, that are quite distinctive, modern, and interesting in their own right, and that are a big part of life here. [These include the 1300 Lafayette high rise by Gunnar Birkerts and the one-story Chateaufort Place Townhouses by Lorenz & Paski.] Were you ever tempted — and I understand this would have been an entirely other project — to take a closer look at life in some of these other developments, too, or did you always know it was just going to be Mies?

NC: Well, for us — what we focused on was just so much. We could have even gone on in more detail with just the things that we picked, with only Mies’s buildings.

MP: Right. Well, it feels, as a reader, like the content that you did include could easily just grow exponentially, forever.

NC: We did, actually, talk a lot initially about covering stuff on the periphery. Like: what happens outside this little area?

LC: Well, we did think quite seriously about it, and that’s what we ended up kicking out: content about the [nearby] shopping plaza and school, for example [both of which are Miesian in style but not actually designed by Mies]. For a long time, we wanted to include, and we even went to make some project about, the food store there. Also, at some point in our research, the school was supposed to close, so we definitely wanted to do something about that: interview people at the school, have a photo shoot with kids in the park, and so on. But then we decided that we had to — well, fortunately, the school didn’t close, otherwise we probably would have gone for it. But even for the plaza, we just decided we had to stop at Mies and not go any further, because like you said, it could just go on forever. Plus, logistically, it’s very difficult to approach communities completely from the outside.

DA: I do sometimes feel apologetic when I talk to people from the 1300 or Chateaufort about the book. In terms of integrating the whole community together, it would have been nice to bring in some of those people. There are a lot of interesting thinkers and artists living in those places. But the thing we kept pushing was to bring in the Mies high rises, because people in the townhouses tend to talk about “the neighborhood” when they’re just referring to the townhouses.

Lafayette Towers. Photograph by Corine Vermeulen.

DA: We had a lot more close access with the townhouses because I was living there, but we would have liked more of the towers. We also felt, though, when we were organizing the content, that the towers section kind of makes sense for the way the towers exist as a community. We have more of these short interviews and short quotes because, we thought, in a way, that’s how you know people in the towers.

MP: Oh, that’s great. Elevator conversations!

NC: Exactly.

 

DESIGN

MP: Let’s talk about the design of the book. Could you discuss some of your decision-making in terms of typeface, layout, how you decided to put everything together?

NC: The typeface on the cover, Stymie, is from the Lafayette Towers sign. The sign is all caps, and the cover text is all lowercase, but it’s the same typeface.

The cover.

The sign.

LC: Also, when we started thinking about design for the first time, here in Detroit, we made a little research on some Detroit publications from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. We were also looking at books that were published around the same time as when the buildings were built, just to analyze some of the modernist concepts going on during that time. We were thinking a lot about the way Mies structured the buildings, with a very simple grid, very simple gestures. I mean, it’s a modernist principle that was very much applied in graphic design at the time, as well. So we were looking at these things, and trying to keep that modernist concept, but sort of re… –I hate this word “reinvent,” I don’t think we reinvented anything– but maybe making some small moves to play around with it.

DA: Well, I feel like it was to make the grid feel lived in, not so stiff — the way it feels to live here.

LC: Yes, so we didn’t really stick to the grid, we tried to move things around to try to break the grid. But also, some typographical decisions were really kind of taken from old Detroit ‘zines.

DA: Yeah, we found all these art publications from the ’60s and ’70s. There was that one that also used Stymie. What were they called?

LC: Detroit Arts, or something.

DA: Detroit Arts? The issue we were looking at had a picture of Warhol on the cover.

LC: Well, it was a great process. We were photocopying a ton of the material in Wayne State [the Detroit university where Aubert teaches] for a few days, maybe even a week, and then cutting it out and working in a way that you don’t normally work these days, since the computer. We were looking at the grid, scaling things up, scaling them down, looking at the mess, and trying to figure out how to translate it into something organized. And then, of course, many things that we liked, we had to abandon, just to simplify it.

NC: What remained is more a testament to the content. The content was so varied. The systems had to be so simple to accommodate the different categories of content that we were creating. So I think a lot of stuff got stripped down in order to strike a balance.

DA: Originally we were designing it with a motley assortment of type to correspond to the motley assortment of content. And then we actually showed a preview copy to one of our best critics from grad school, this graphic designer Armand Mevis in the Netherlands, and he saw it and at first, said, “Oh, this is great, I love it.”

LC: But then he said, “I have a few comments about the design,” and we were like, “What? What are the comments?”

DA: He said, “You guys, really, it’s kind of a mess. I don’t understand what you’re doing.”

NC: And I think really that was a function of us all working on the same file, and working so quickly, to finish the preview copy for the deadline, but then also there was the underlying fact that the project was quite complex, having all these different pieces of content fitting into this thing. We took his comments pretty seriously.

DA: Yeah, that was good. But I remember, there was a moment when Lana and Natasha were working on the book during these two weeks when I wasn’t really active, and they eliminated this typeface, I think it was Century Schoolbook, and when I came back to it, I was like, “Hey! Bring that back!”

LC: I remember that. She came in and said, “What happened to our file?! You guys! Did you guys remove the font?”

DA:  All the sudden it was all Helvetica!

LC: Well, there was a big discussion about Helvetica. Actually in the ’50s, Helvetica was not so much in use, it only came after. It actually bloomed in late ’60s and early ’70s. From the ’70s on, it kind of became corporate America. We actually started with serifs, and had a very serif-heavy book because we were kind of replicating that model from the ’50s and early ’60s. But it just felt so retro in a way we didn’t want it to feel. I was actually watching the movie Helvetica, here in Detroit, and I just told them, “We’ve got to do the whole thing in Helvetica.” Even if everybody’s doing everything in Helvetica now.

NC: But when you look at the book, I don’t think it feels very Helvetica-heavy.

LC: Well, we used a lot of Helvetica italics.

NC: That changes it, yeah, but there’s also the texture and the imagery, not just photographic, adding to the texture of the type and changing the tone of the book, making it less cold.

MP: On that note, one of my favorite things is the first eight pages of the book, this kind of crazy, careening collection of images. It’s kind of an exhilarating mess, and so not Miesian. I love it. The images are just flying off the page, and it made me immediately so happy when I opened the book.

DM: That was the very last thing they did.

LC: That was the hardest thing in the book.

MP: Really? Why?

Easter egg hunt on the meadow in the townhouses. Photo by Vasco Roma.

NC: We had most of the rest of the book figured out, and at that point we were like, OK, what do we want to do with the intro? How do we want to introduce this place, its exteriors? Do we want these hero shots that we don’t really have anywhere else? Do we want exteriors with people? Who’s going to take those photographs? An architectural photographer? An amateur? Corine? We went back and forth, and then finally we realized: our book is not about these glorified images. It’s about people. So we basically asked people in Lafayette Park to contribute images, and we got thousands.

DA: We got about 4,000 images. People don’t edit! Friends dropped off discs with 200, 300 images, 100 of which were all taken out the same second-floor window. It was incredible.

LC: But we really wanted to have a collection of photos that would have a different focus than what a professional photographer would take. You know, the pink sky, kids, weird angles, snow. If an architect would ask for photos of his work, that’s not what he would want. We wanted photos that showed how people actually take pictures of this place.

DA: We also had to cut back a little bit. There was a point where we were like, “Do we need the pink sky and the flowers and the rainbows and the flowering crab apple trees?”

DM: Not to mention the kids.

DA: I know, the kids. I kept trying to put my nephew [who also lives in Lafayette Park] in. “Are you sure you don’t think that’s a cute picture?”

LC: No kids and no cats, please.

MP:  There have to be so many photos of Lafayette Park cats around. I know I have like twenty-five.

NC: We had to fight Danielle not to put in a picture of a cat.

DA: It was my neighbor Andy’s cat looking out the window! I thought, “This is perfect for Thanks for the View, Mr. Mies!”

 

PRINTING/PUBLISHING

MP: Can we talk a bit about the printing and publishing process?

Diana Murphy: You know, the book was printed in Zagreb, and Lana went on press. This was [Danielle, Lana and Natasha's] only requirement of us, that we not print the book in China. That’s where all illustrated books are printed these days because it’s just so much cheaper, and they said, “Please, can we not do it?” Lana had printed in Zagreb before and we said, “OK, we’ll check it out.” And it worked out, financially. It was more expensive than China but cheaper than the US or western Europe, so we did it, and Lana really carried the weight on that part of the process. But it was worth it.

MP: How many copies did you print?

DM: 3,000 copies. When we started out we thought we were going to do 1,500.

DA: No, you said 200 the first time!

NC: I thought you said 500.

DM: OK, yeah, I forgot about that. Well, I just totally loved this thing from the moment I saw it. I thought it might be a tough sell to my colleagues, especially the salespeople, but everybody got it immediately. I didn’t have to sell it all.

MP: Well, it feels so new. I think the fact that you aren’t architects, that you’re graphic designers — when I was reading, I kept thinking, “More people who don’t specialize in something should write books about it.” It’s so fresh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an architecture book like this.

DM: There isn’t one. I can tell you, I’ve been publishing architecture books for 30 years. There is no other book like this.

DA: I’ve known Diana for a few years and I thought we should ask her for advice, but I never really thought our book was right for Metropolis because it’s so fringe. I didn’t think it would fit. It doesn’t look like what we could see coming out of a publisher.

DM: It totally fits!

NC: But you took that leap. We talked to other publishers and the constant comment we kept getting was: “It’s not really an architecture book, it’s not really an art book. We have to fit in on some shelf and it just doesn’t fit.” Friends tried to connect us with publishers and they all said, “Its interesting but — how do we market it?”

DA: At one point, we were thinking about inviting scholars to contribute essays. I thought, “If we have an authoritative essay in there, then people would have to get it, because there’s such-and-such an essay, which becomes authoritative information that people can then cite.” But I’m glad we didn’t do that. With the way it came together, we were able, instead, to turn people into authorities of their own lived experience.

DM: I liked the hybridity of it. We did have discussions at DAP [Distributed Art Publishers]:  Is this an architecture book? A graphic design book? Even a kind of sociology book? In the end, you have to pick a shelf. You have to pick a category. We went with architecture, but it’s also really a graphic design story, with graphic designers taking the role of the author. It’s also an artist’s book, so carefully crafted. That’s what I loved about it, that it’s so rich in dimensions.

DA: Our response among architects, even in the neighborhood, has been really positive. I think architects like to feel like that their profession is understood by other people.

LC: It’s interesting, because it’s hard to imagine an architect hiring somebody else to do a book like this about their project. But then once it’s out there, they actually appreciate it. I think they really appreciate seeing how interested people are in it. You can tell they’re really excited to see such a book about architecture. But somehow they can’t let go of the glossy, sleek images they like of their buildings.

NC: I think this also came from the fact that we’ve all worked on books or magazines about architecture. At some level, we’re all interested in this content, but the way it’s delivered, it just seems so inaccessible. It’s to another architect. As a graphic designer, yes, I’m interested in it, but I don’t like the delivery or tone in which the story is told. And what you said, that we’re not specialists, that’s the bottom line. If we were specialists, we’d have had preconceptions. You’d think, “No, don’t talk to that person. He’s not the expert, this other person is.” But we just went to anyone who would talk to us!

DM: That’s the beauty of this. That’s why this book is so brilliant. The usual process of writing a book is, you do a lot of interviews, then you filter it, take what people said, and turn it into your own words. But this is giving a voice to people who actually live here. It’s a democratic approach to making a book. And when you think about what the intent of Lafayette Park was, it was meant to improve the quality of life for people in a city, and so the book just represents all these aspects of what daily life here is. It completely carries through with the intent of the place from the beginning.

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