America’s most influential industrial architect, Albert Kahn

As America’s most influential industrial architect, Albert Kahn revolutionized the health and safety conditions of early twentieth-century factories and worked closely with Henry Ford to implement his vision of the assembly line at the Highland Park and River Rouge automobile plants. Kahn pioneered the use of reinforced concrete, non-intrusive steel structures, natural ventilation and glass building skins to respond to the changing functional needs of the American factory. His pragmatism, ability to listen to the needs of the client and experimentation with innovative building technologies resulted in a new industrial architecture, which inspired the development of European Modernism by Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Hugely versatile in his design capabilities and strongly interested in historic architecture, Kahn also produced many commercial and institutional icons in Detroit and at the University of Michigan, including the Fisher Building, Detroit Athletic Club, General Motors Building, Hill Auditorium, Angell Hall, William L. Clements Library and Burton Memorial Carillon Tower. This most prolific of American architects built over 2000 projects in his lifetime, including 521 factories in Russia between 1929 and 1932, and in 1938 was constructing 19% of all architect-designed industrial facilities in the United States. When he died in 1942, he had signed defense contracts totaling $200 million for the construction of the Willow Run Bomber Plant and naval bases in Honolulu, Midway Island, Puerto Rico and Kodiak, Alaska, among other war-time facilities.

Born on March 21, 1869 in Rhaunen, Germany, Kahn spent much of his childhood in Echternach,, Luxembourg. His father Joseph, an itinerant teacher and rabbi, came to the United States in 1879. Joseph’s wife Rosalie and six of their children joined him in 1880 and lived in Baltimore, Maryland for a short time before settling in Detroit. Albert was the oldest of eight children in the Kahn family and showed brilliance as a pianist at an early age. Due to the family’s economic hardship, Rosalie advised him to take up a more practical line of work, although she arranged for him to take drawing lessons from the German sculptor Julius Melchers. Kahn completed his formal education after the seventh grade, when he left school to supplement the family’s income with odd jobs, including the position of office boy at the architectural firm of John Scott. At the dedication of George Mason’s Masonic Temple years later in 1923, Kahn showed his sense of humor when he told the story of being fired from this first job in architecture. To increase his meager income, he worked in a stable before leaving for the office every morning and would arrive at the firm smelling like the horses. He surmised that “most of the men had a very keen sense of smell and I literally got on their olfactory nerves.” [1]

After this employment failure, Melchers referred Kahn to the Detroit architectural firm of Mason and Rice in 1885. Here the 26-year-old George Mason recognized his brilliance and promoted him from the position of office boy to draftsman, despite Kahn’s handicap of color-blindness. Years later, Kahn expressed his gratitude to Mason for his tutelage, recalling that he and the other apprentices admired George’s “indomitable energy, his enthusiasm, his nice criticisms, his general helpfulness, his keen interest in us, his innate ability and his own superior draftsmanship.”[2] In 1887, Mason assigned Kahn the job of laying out the famous 660-foot-long porch of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island Over the ten years that he remained with Mason and Rice, Kahn worked on numerous commissions, including designs for Hiram Walker in Windsor, Ontario.

While working for Mason and Rice in 1891 at the age of 22, Kahn won a $500 travel scholarship, awarded by American Architect and Building News , to study in Europe for a year. He met Henry Bacon, Jr. in Florence and traveled for four months through Italy, France, Belgium and Germany with this young architect, who would later design the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Years later, Kahn said of Bacon, “to me he proved not only a splendid teacher but a real friend whose kindness and stimulating influence I have treasured ever since.” [3] It was during this period of educational travel that Kahn developed his love of Palladio and a wide range of historic architectural styles which inspired many of his own later residential, commercial and institutional designs. When he returned from Europe, Kahn was promoted by Mason to chief designer, and in 1892, he turned down a job offer from Adler and Sullivan to fill the position of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had just been fired from the Chicago firm.

In 1896, Kahn married Ernestine Krolik, the daughter of a successful dry goods merchant who was a client of the young architect. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Ernestine was a talented gardener and interior designer, who often advised Albert on matters of colors and fabrics. When speaking of her parents, their daughter Rosalie Kahn Butzel said years later that “they complemented each other wonderfully.” [4] Albert and Ernestine had two other daughters, Lydia and Ruth, and one son, Edgar. “Eddie” became the first scorer and captain of the University of Michigan hockey team and, from 1949 to 1971, served as the innovative chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Michigan Hospital (designed by his father in 1919).

Kahn left Mason and Rice in 1895 to found Nettleton, Kahn and Trowbridge with two of his colleagues from Mason’s office. The new firm was known for its design of Children’s Hospital on St. Antoine Street, financed by Hiram Walker in 1896. When Alexander B. Trowbridge left Detroit to become dean of the College of Architecture at Cornell University in 1987, the firm was renamed Nettleton and Kahn, until George W. Nettleton died in 1900. Kahn then joined with George Mason briefly, producing the Palms Apartments (1901-1902) on Jefferson Avenue and the initial design for the Pantheon-inspired Temple Beth El (1902) on Woodward Avenue. The Palms project represented Kahn’s earliest experimentation with reinforced concrete structures, which would soon revolutionize his design of American factories.

By 1903, Kahn had joined with a talented designer to form the firm of Albert Kahn, Architect, Ernest Wilby, Associate. Wilby practiced with Kahn until 1918 and made a major contribution to the innovative designs of the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant in Dearborn (1908-09) and Hill Auditorium (1913) and the Natural Science Building (1917) at the University of Michigan. 1903 was also the year that Kahn’s brother Julius became chief engineer of the firm and began his ground-breaking collaboration with Albert on the use of reinforced concrete in industrial design, which would have global impact. Albert had helped educate Julius, who received his B.S. and C.E. degrees at the University of Michigan. Having served as an engineer for the U.S. Navy and the U. S. Engineering Corps from 1896 to 1903, Julius brought technical expertise in structural design to the firm. Thus began Albert’s revolutionary practice of joining the multiple disciplines of architecture and engineering under one professional roof, just as he would incorporate multi-functional operations into his subsequent designs of assembly-line factories.

Kahn’s first factory built of reinforced concrete in Detroit was Building Number 10 for the Packard Motor Company (1905). In 1903, Henry Joy had commissioned Kahn to design an automobile plant on 40 acres on East Grand Boulevard. The first nine buildings which Kahn produced on the site were of conventional, nineteenth-century, timber construction, which caused mills to be prone to fire and impeded production because of the need for numerous structural posts. After experimenting with and perfecting his “Kahn system” [5] of reinforced concrete in the University of Michigan Engineering Building (1903), Julius collaborated with Albert on the structural design of the two-story Packard Building No. 10 using this innovative technology. The Kahn system soon revolutionized the design of factories nation-wide because reinforced concrete buildings were more fire-proof, vibration from large machinery was minimized, assembly floors could be more open and flexible through the use of fewer columns and larger double-hung window openings permitted more natural light and ventilation for workers. Packard Building Number 10 was so technologically advanced that it attracted the attention of tourists, who flocked to the site, and, most importantly, Henry Ford.

Ford approached Kahn in 1908 to build an automobile plant for the manufacture of his Model T automobiles on a new 180-acre site in Highland Park, when it appeared that his first two factories were becoming obsolete. Thus began a long-term partnership between two geniuses: Ford, who foresaw the futuristic advantages of assembly-line production, and Kahn, who “found aesthetic values in the forms engendered by new techniques and functional considerations.” [6] In implementing Ford’s vision over the next 34 years of their collaboration, Kahn completed over 1,000 projects for the Ford Motor Company, with the “Crystal Palace” [7] at Highland Park being perhaps his most famous.

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