Detroit: Remembered Dimensions

Janine Debanné speaks to the residents of Detroit’s Lafayette Towers.

August 1, 2008

The mental maps presented here belong to a project of research and documentation that was conducted between 1997 and 2001. The time that has passed since they were done makes writing about them a mental mapping exercise in itself.

I became acquainted with the field of Cultural Geography and the geographer’s approach and tools for studying the built world after several years practicing and teaching architecture. In particular, I became acquainted with the geographers Dr. Jean-François Staszak and Dr. Béatrice Collignon and together we explored the meeting point of Architecture and Geography in a symposium, and later a conference, on domestic spaces. In contrast to my own training which had taught me to design and rehearse spaces destined for the future, these geographers were uninterested in affecting the built realm. The orientation of their task — to read and analyze existing environments as they are practiced – was opposite to that of the architect.

Both geographer and architect can benefit from intersecting their typical points of entry into built environments, and Mies van der Rohe’s masterful residential development at Lafayette Park, Detroit (1958 – 1963) provided an ideal subject for study. The dwellings at Lafayette Park are not ordinary; Mies grappled with their dimensions down to the last inch. As a result the dwellings are endowed with a deliberate precision, and even, a sense of tension and extreme-ness: doors extend to the ceiling; windows expand to fill walls that in another architecture would have surrounded them. The dimensions are repetitive and rhythmic throughout the project, giving rare architectural cohesion to the buildings and park.

I borrowed the geographer’s tool of the mental map to scrutinize Mies’s designs from the dwellers’ perspective. This device promised to record the architectural dimensions of dwellings as they were received, lived and remembered by their inhabitants. For my part, I hoped that mental maps of Lafayette Park dwellings would have as much to say about Mies’s architecture as about reception and remembrance of the intimate spaces of a person’s life.

The drawings were requested at the end of interviews that put questions in a free flowing conversation about the individual’s apartment or town house. Lafayette Park combines cooperatively owned town and courtyard houses, with longer-term dwellers, and three rental apartment towers named the Lafayette Pavilion and the twin Lafayette Towers, in which the residency cycles were typically shorter. My work focused on the apartment towers where the compact planning posed questions of Miesian dwelling most sharply. At the time of my study, part of the Lafayette Towers apartments was occupied by government subsidized tenants, thus giving an unprecedented racial and class diversity to their vertical communities. In this unique situation of social hybridity, questions of how Mies’s architecture was received could be studied across social boundaries.

Mental map of Detroit drawn by a female resident who worked at a downtown florist

The mental maps were requested of people not in the habit of drawing house plans, or of drawing at all. Participants usually apologized ahead of time for the “mistakes” they would make in drawing their apartment or townhouse plan, and for “not knowing how to draw.” By alluding to a flat surface, the term “mental map” suggests the architectural plan, and most participants interpreted the task by producing plan representations. The sheet of paper presented to the interviewees was square, so as not to taint the maps with directionality. In cases where drawings were done inside apartments, participants were asked to keep their eyes on the paper, and not to look around for visual refreshers. Other maps were made outdoors, on the grounds outside the townhouses or in the park. In some instances, interviewees drew the maps during interviews conducted in my own Lafayette Towers apartment.

Familiarity with conventions of architectural drawing allows the architect to circumvent the questioning process involved in making representations, but those unfamiliar with the representational codes must invent notations as they go, in the act of drawing and remembering. These inventions were spontaneous, the product of a real-time negotiation with the pen, the sheet of paper, and what the interviewee perceived as their own skill level (one chooses ways to draw based on perceived ability to draw certain things, and avoids drawing things deemed too difficult to achieve).

Mental map of the ground floor of a townhouse, by the artist who lives there with her husband

In the case of the Miesian residences, there is an added complication: they are by no means conventional residential spaces. An open plan is neither easy to occupy, nor to draw. Mies’s dwellings posed challenges both to inhabit and to map. Mies’s open plan is replete with “extra inches.” A 5 foot planning module and 20 foot structural grid means that all of the apartments in the Lafayette Pavilion and Lafayette Towers possess a room 20 feet wide. The smallest of the apartments, called an “efficiency apartment” is essentially comprised of a room 25 feet deep and 20 feetwide (the length of four windows), in which there is a kitchen, washroom, closets and a storage space. Larger apartments increase by 10 foot (2 window) increments that correspond to bedrooms. A 20 foot wide room is too large to inhabit conventionally; a comfortable seating arrangement only requires a portion of this width, leaving residual spaces all around. These spaces called for a dynamic and inventive process of inhabitation. With what to fill these inches, materially, and how to invest them spiritually, were the fundamental questions each newcomer faced. In fact, as dwellers struggled to draw their dwelling from memory, they often also recounted their own process of familiarization and appropriation of the Miesian open plan. The narrative dimension of the process was also recorded on video.

The wall of glass presented another challenge. Some maps simply labelled the glass wall with the word “window,” while others attempted to convey glass by modulating the pen line. One well-annotated line drawing omitted the envelope altogether; the furniture and walls drawn as single lines float on the page in a striking depiction of the feeling of living inside a glass curtain wall.

Taking further cues from the practices of Geography, my study recognized that the act of dwelling is expansive: dwelling takes place not only in homes, but also along a network of places outside. The act of dwelling is of the order of a landscape, which is why domestic space, an old topic for architects, has recently become of interest to geographers. In addition to maps of their dwellings, I thus also asked interviewees to produce a mental map of “the city they live in.” Because the Detroit Metropolitan Region possesses strong distinctions between suburbs and inner city neighborhoods, it was important that the question not define the city in advance. Vagueness here is a deliberate method. The pair of mental maps revealed how people lived inside their Miesian home and how they perceived and identified with their surroundings. For example, the spare interior of a Wayne State medical student was accompanied by a map of Detroit that showed only the freeways leading from the Lafayette Towers to Wayne State University. In contrast, an African- American woman who worked in a downtown florist shop produced a mental map of a well defined interior, and a map of Detroit resembling a diorama, that recorded the city’s cardinal divisions (using the local nomenclature –West Side, East Side, Downtown and Southwest Detroit), her place of worship, the Detroit river and border with Canada. Maps of long-time inner city residents, usually African Americans, were more detailed – demonstrating a stronger engagement with the downtown, and greater familiarity with traveling on surface roads rather than on the morphologically independent freeways.

The apartment mental maps speak of dwellers’ memories of spaces, on one hand, and provide evidence of how the space was practiced on the other. Whether tentative or bold, made of sketchy or assertive lines, these drawings, “liveability barometers” of sorts, provide an incontrovertible statement on the architecture. In turn, the mental maps of the surrounding city provide insights into what the dweller might have felt or identified with as they gazed through their expansive   wall of glass, over the captivating and mysterious landscape that is Metropolitan Detroit.

  • Interview with a White female interior designer in her late fifties, from the mid-West, residing in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lafayette Towers: “ I have more stuff than most people so I was trying to figure how to control it because it feels like you need to do that here. I like it. I think this place is fabulous, if I could move this building to Ann Arbor I would just do it. I mean I don’t love Detroit, I mean it’s not bad, but it’s not Chicago, it’s not New York, it’s not Toronto, it’s not Paris, it’s certainly not London. ”
  • Interview with a student of South Indian heritage in her mid twenties who had moved to Detroit from California ten years prior, and who was at the point of moving out of the Lafayette Towers to live closer to her university: “[…] This was pretty big for me because I just have a sleeping bag, I don’t have a bed […] so I kind of felt really weird being in a huge room with just my desk and a sleeping bag and I had my TV there but that was just it.” “I always loved evenings, nights. I never closed the blinds. I loved sitting over there watching the river and the lights. I used to call my friends and talk on the phone and say I’m sitting here and I can see Canada.” “Moving out here from a three-bedroom house in California […] I feel like I’m coming into a…let’s say 1600 room house, and I have a small room in this big house […] that houses all the individuals, and I feel like I’m just one of them. I think that to survive in a new state [the State of Michigan] I’ve had to have that mentality that I’m just an individual in a great community of people […] I’ve had to remember that just to get through the days because I’ve gotten kind of lonely here […] it does place me somewhere. I belong to this community, even though I don’t know very many of the people.”
  • Interview with a White interior designer in his fifties, residing in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lafayette Towers: 
    • Q. What do you think about the architecture of your apartment?
    • A. I’ve had the place wired so for instance you can turn on one light and the whole room goes on and off and that goes for most of the rooms …you have to have special lighting with this kind of living because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see outside. I did up-lights so there’s very little light that’s reflected in the window that way you can see your view.[…] The two things I don’t like: I’d love to have a balcony and of course the air conditioning heating system is really totally inadequate in this building. And I think that if the building were run as Mies van der Rohe originally had planned it then it would function a lot better… One thing I notice is odors. I get someone else’s cooking smell.
  • Interview with a 45 year old male African American resident of the Lafayette Towers, whose rent was governmentally subsidized.
    • Q. Tell me what you think of the architecture and the architect who designed it.
    • A. (…)First I thought the architect was “whacked” as the kids say, crazy, just crazy because I couldn’t figure why one switch was here, and why this was over there, and why this plug was here, and why this is here, and it didn’t fit, but then I went to my neighbour’s house and he had everything… See I didn’t have furniture. And he did. And he put everything in its place, the way was – the way it was supposed to be. AndI was like wow. Wow. This is amazing… Everything is mathematically, equated (…) measured up for each and everything to go in its proper place, scientifically. The way this apartment is. And I was like yeah, the table go there, the couch go there, this area is for looking out the window, this area over here he had all his mechanical apparatus, his radio and T.V. (…) Let me give you an example, they got a light switch over on the wall, and that light switch turns on the TV, and a lamp over on that table turns on the power for the right side, you hit that switch and it cuts on the power, and I was like, wow, now someone had to sit down and really think about that. I mean why walk in the dark at night —- you can at least hit the button, that’s dandy, that’s dandy
    • Q. What was the difference between living here and living in the projects?
    • A. Well first I see, it’s a different quality in materials itself. Okay that is brick and that is confinement, that’s what I’m receiving, brick and the way that it’s designed it’s like closed quarters, jail like type thing. Now Lafayette Towers is mostly glass and thin metal and that is like “out of jail,” you know what I mean, in other words, you’re in a palace, and that is the difference between the two. And if you’ve ever been in one you KNOW what I’m saying: that’s no place to be somebody.
  • Interview with a female Wayne State University student in her early twenties, of Indian heritage, who took advantage of the student discount then offered by the Lafayette Towers.
    • Q. Why did you choose to live in the Lafayette Towers?
    • A. It was in a decent price range, $460 with the student discount. […] I didn’t have to take any back roads to get to Wayne State [University]. […] It was all decorated with furniture and it was so beautiful. The management was just so friendly. It had a lot nicer furniture than I have. And I can’t hear any one here, which is so different from Ann Arbor in the student dorms. When I was in Ann Arbor the apartment there was $1170 and there were three of us but the condition of it was just so different. How do I use the space? I normally like sitting on the floor against the bed with pillows. I have a clip board. The problem is when I’m tired I fall asleep so when I have to work I sit at a table. Entertainment: one friend at a time.
    • Q. Do you like living in Detroit?
    • A. Detroit: I guess there’s some really nice places. You just have to find them. Nice things surrounded by the ghetto parts. You just have to be brave, you know.
    • Q. Can you tell me about your mental map of your city?
    • A. [Interstate highway] 94 comes through Detroit, it doesn’t really hit Woodward [Avenue]. 94 connects to Jackson, Michigan, and Ann Arbor. […] And I guess what I did was mostly go with places that I knew of: like if you take [Interstate highway] 75 South, you could get to Somerset Collection [v] and of course I know how to get to 75 to Warren to the School of Medicine, there’s the University Bookstore, and taking 10 to Lafayette. […] I started more with Detroit and Windsor, and then 94 to Detroit. […] I know highways really well. I don’t know streets…I seem to know freeways.

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