Albert Kahn papers   1896-2014
full text File Size: 2368 K bytes | Add this to my bookbag

 

Biography

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 color and fabric selection. 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 1877, 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.

The Highland Park main assembly building (1910), with the first mechanized assembly line, was a four-story, concrete structure, 840 feet long. Through the use of imported steel-frame, floor-to-ceiling sash, Kahn further improved the health and safety conditions of the American factory. Over the next five years, Kahn added a 5-smokestack power house, an administration building with a frieze of glazed tiles, other assembly buildings and steel-framed atriums between the structures. Gravity conveyances and overhead, traveling cranes in the atriums moved raw materials down the four levels of the plant to the final assembly-line area on the first floor, where 700,000 Tin Lizzies would be produced by the year 1917. In its stunning simplicity, its innovative use of steel, brick and glass and its new aesthetic principle of form following function, the Crystal Palace is thought to have inspired the work of Walter Gropius in his 1914 Faguswerk [8] and influenced the development of European Modernism.

When the Highland Park automobile operation outgrew its site, Henry Ford purchased 2000 acres on the River Rouge in 1917 and commissioned Kahn to design and construct what would become the largest manufacturing complex in the world. The design of the River Rouge plant cemented his reputation as the father of American industrial architecture. In the first assembly Building B, where Ford produced the Eagle Submarine Chaser for the U. S. Navy, the continuous moveable assembly line was further perfected in a one-half-mile-long, one-story, steel structure, which was economically and quickly built for the World War I military operation. Here the first steel, saw-tooth roof and glass and steel sash cladding were to become the hallmarks of Kahn's innovative industrial work.

Although Kahn expanded the Ford Motor Company Rouge River plant with more buildings to house the cement, motor assembly, open hearth and pressed steel operations in the early 1920s, his 1922 Glass Plant on the site was "the building of greatest significance, both in terms of Kahn's career and in the larger history of industrial architecture." [9] The steel cage construction, saw-tooth roof and glass curtain walls, while breathtakingly minimalist on the exterior, provided the flexibility and open space to perfectly accommodate the manufacturing processes on the interior. This architectural icon within the most renown industrial site in the world changed the form and function of American industrial architecture at home and abroad and inspired the work of other architects, engineers and artists.

Kahn certainly recognized the aesthetic values in his "beautiful factories," [10] as he called them, although he would not have had the historical perspective at the time to understand the impact of his designs on the emerging Modern movement. In his characteristically solution-oriented way of thinking, he expressed his views on industrial architecture in a 1940 speech to the New York Society of Architects:

The simpler the exterior the better it is, as a rule, for are we not quite agreed that a straight forward and direct expression of the function of the structure is an important element in all architecture, even the purely monumental; that proper proportions, effective grouping and good outline may be produced at no increase in cost; that these are infinitely more desirable than elaborate ornamentation, no matter how well executed. [11]

As a result of his breakthrough industrial work for Ford, Kahn received commissions to construct 150 major buildings for General Motors Corporation and many for Chrysler. He also produced manufacturing facilities for companies which were turning out clothing, textiles, food, cement and other products. His reputation for building efficient plants on-time and under-budget caused his office to grow to 400 staff members by 1920 and to bring in more than $1,000,000 of work a week. By 1939, Kahn's office, with a staff of 600, was constructing 19% of all architect-designed industrial facilities in the United States, his Chrysler Dodge Half-Ton Truck Plant (1938) in Warren, Michigan, being among the best known. Mies van der Rohe was inspired by Kahn's Glenn L. Martin Company aircraft assembly building (1937), with its 135,000-square-foot, column-free work area, spanned by the longest, flat-roof trusses ever used in a building.

By 1929, the famed collaboration of Henry Ford and Albert Kahn on the River Rouge Plant had come to the attention of the Russians, who admired their efficient accommodation of industrial design to the principles of mass production. Representatives of the Amtorg Trading Corporation came to Detroit to propose that Kahn become the consulting architect to the Soviet Union in the initiation of Stalin's First Five-Year Plan to industrialize his nation. Between 1929 and 1932, with Kahn's brother Moritz at the helm of the his Moscow architectural/engineering office, the firm produced 521 tractor, steel, auto, airplane and chemical plants for $2 billion, the largest architectural design project in the firm's history. [12] Twenty-five professionals from the Detroit firm set up the Moscow office and trained over 4,000 Soviet engineers, architects and other personnel. The tractor factories at Stalingrad and Cheliabinsk were two of the largest plants built under Kahn's supervision. The Stalingrad plant, designed with a 1300-foot-long assembly area to produce 40,000 tractors a year, was constructed in a record six months. The factory was later the site of the pivotal battle of Stalingrad, where the Russians were victorious over the Germans and turned the tide of World War II.

One of the reasons for Kahn's world-wide reputation in industrial architecture was his ground-breaking establishment of a non-traditional, multi-disciplinary firm of designers, mechanical and structural engineers, cost accountants and job managers, who could provide the full range of design/build functions in-house. Through this collaboration of professionals within one firm, Kahn could make construction more efficient and less costly for clients. He had raised factory design to a legitimate level of architectural practice and years later would recall:

When I began, the real architects would design only museums, cathedrals, capitols, monuments. The office boy was considered good enough to do factory buildings. I'm still that office boy designing factories. I have no dignity to be impaired. [13]

The final chapter in Kahn's industrial architecture career focuses on his contributions to America's "Arsenal of Democracy" [14] during World War II. Between 1914 and 1917, Kahn had constructed the first hangar building ever built at Langley Field, the Ford Eagle Shipbuilding Factory at River Rouge and the majority of the country's World War I naval bases and army airfields. In the last three years of his life, his firm took on the bulk of the U. S. Defense Department's contracts for World War II, totaling $200 million. These included naval bases in Alaska, Hawaii, Midway Island, Puerto Rico and Jacksonville, Florida. Kahn also constructed the Chrysler Tank Arsenal (1941) and numerous airplane factories, the largest of which was the 70-acre Ford Motor Company Willow Run Bomber factory (1943) at Ypsilanti, Michigan. Willow Run was Kahn's last industrial project for Ford. The B-24 Liberator bomber was produced here in a 4,000,000-square-foot, artificially lighted assembly plant to guard against the threat of night attack. This was the world's largest industrial facility, producing one bomber every 24 hours. In 1942, just before Kahn's death, the American Institute of Architects presented him with a special award, the citation for which read:

Master of concrete and steel, master of space and time, he stands today at the forefront of our profession in meeting the colossal demands of a Government in need. [15]

Kahn's greatest significance in architectural history is his design of technologically innovative industrial buildings of "utmost simplicity, rational construction, functional efficiency and a striking expressive aspect.[16] However, he is also renowned for changing the skyline of Detroit with his institutional, commercial and residential buildings of exceptional merit. Fifty of his buildings in the city and environs have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, honoring the exceptional breadth of Kahn's design repertoire. It was in his non-industrial work that he showed himself to be a keen student of historical architecture, having sketched many works of antiquity and later centuries during his European travels. Many of his residences, synagogues, bank buildings and office structures pull from classical, Italian Renaissance or English Tudor and Georgian sources. He showed versatility and innovation in his pairing of industrial-style reinforced concrete and steel structures with an historic aesthetic in many of his buildings.

Even before designing Packard Number 10 (1905) for Henry Joy, Kahn was experimenting with reinforced concrete in the design of the Palms Apartment House (1902) on Jefferson Avenue with George Mason. He used industrial steel trusses to support the dome of another early work, the Temple Beth El (1903) on Woodward Avenue. This oldest synagogue building in Detroit was inspired by the Roman Pantheon, a photo of which was framed over Kahn's desk. Its severely altered French Classical facade is now the Bonstelle Theater of Wayne State University. Kahn's design versatility is also seen in his National Theatre (1910) on Monroe Street. Here he collaborated with his chief designer Ernest Wilby to bring together Baroque, Moorish and Beaux-Arts elements in an imaginative, terra-cotta building, which was breathtaking when the lattice-work twin-towers were illuminated at night.

Kahn's residential work also demonstrated his design versatility and ability to combine structural innovation with historical architectural elements. In his own house on Mack Avenue (1907) and in other residential commissions for captains of industry, Kahn showed a penchant for English Domestic Revival and Tudor styles, as seen in George Booth's Cranbrook House (1907), with its use of Arts and Crafts detailing and Pewabic tiles. The later English Cotswold-style mansion of Edsel and Eleanor Ford in Grosse Pointe Shores (1929) is considered one of his finest residential designs. Here Kahn used industrial-style concrete for the floors and steel roof trusses, but faced the building with traditional sandstone. The roof stones were split by expert English craftsmen who were imported to Detroit for this project, along with the materials.

Kahn's facility with a broad palette of historical styles influenced his design of many of Detroit's commercial and institutional icons, which contribute to the character of the city even today. His famous Detroit Athletic Club (1915) was inspired by the New York work of McKim, Mead and White and by Rome's Farnese Palace, which Kahn toured and sketched in 1912. The Italian Renaissance style was selected to give this important meeting place for leaders of the automobile industry the appropriate elegance and dignity. Between 1911 and 1926, Kahn completed numerous corporate buildings which combine industrial structure with traditional stylistic elements: Detroit Trust Company (1915), Detroit News Building (1916), First National Bank (1922) and the world famous General Motors (Durant) Building (1922) are among a few of these. The GM Building was the largest office building in the world at that time, with four cross-wings of 15 stories each, which ensured that each of the 1,800 offices had access to natural light and ventilation. With a Sullivanesque, skyscraper-style concept of base, shaft and capital, this monumental 1,320,000 square-foot structure is known for its Italian Renaissance, triple-arched entry with Ionic pilasters and its two-story-high, capital crown of Corinthian columns. Thought by many to be "Albert Kahn's personal masterpiece in commercial architecture,"[17] the building was renovated in 2002 by Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. for the State of Michigan at a cost of $126 million.

As the Art Deco style took hold in the mid-1920s, Kahn showed himself to be a master of this vocabulary as well, using the New York formula of step-back massing in his Detroit Free Press Building (1925) and Maccabees Building (1927). However, it was his 28-story Fisher Building (1927) which attracted national attention when the Architecture League of New York recognized it as the year's most beautiful commercial building in 1928. The Detroit chapter of the American Institute of Architects named this historic icon the "Building of the Century"[18] in 2000. Because the seven Fisher brothers of Fisher Body Company envisioned the finest office building in the world, which was to anchor a second Detroit commercial district, they gave Kahn no budget for this Art Deco masterpiece. Kahn installed a 3,000-seat theater within the building, applied an exterior trim of solid bronze and designed the interior with 40 shades of marble and a vaulted arcade. A final Art Deco Kahn building of note is the Livingstone Light (1929-1930) on Belle Isle, a 58-foot-high, marble and bronze monument to William Livingstone, who had founded the Lake Carriers Association in 1901.

Just as Kahn used many of the structural principals of his industrial buildings in his commercial designs, so too in his buildings at the University of Michigan, he showed a commitment to providing natural lighting and ventilation to the students and faculty who labored within. Between 1903 and 1938, he worked with Presidents James B. Angell, Harry B. Hutchins and Marion L. Burton to design 23 buildings and additions, significantly changing the skyline of the university at a time of tremendous growth. From the Engineering Building (1903), with its pioneering reinforced concrete structure, to Hill Auditorium (1913), the Natural Science Building (1917) and General Library (1919), with their brick, stone and tile strapwork trim, Kahn divorced himself from the Gothic Academicism of traditional university architecture with new elements which both delighted and angered alumni/ae. His prolific work on the campus in the first two decades also included the Helen Newberry and Betsy Barbour Residence Halls (1915 and 1918) and Sigma Phi and Delta Upsilon fraternity houses (1898 and 1903), among others.

During the post-war building boom of the early 1920s, Kahn served as consulting architect on the university's "Committee of Five,"[19] composed of President Burton, Professor John Shepard, Regent William Clements and Regent Benjamin Hanchett. The committee was appointed to make all decisions related to the construction of new buildings. During this time he designed the William L. Clements Library to house the regent's collection of rare Americana. Using Italian Renaissance design elements which he had seen and sketched on his trips to Europe, Kahn created a majestic, triple-arched portico for this architectural gem, which is said to have been his favorite building. For the commanding Literary Building (Angell Hall, 1922), he used a monumental Doric portico to remove attention from the long, horizontal structure behind it, which was reminiscent of his non-production, industrial buildings. Other important campus works were the University of Michigan Hospital (1920), the Simpson Memorial Institute for Medical Research (1924), the Museums Building (1927) and the Burton Memorial Carillon Tower (1936).

Albert Kahn was honored for his achievements in modern industrial architecture many times during his illustrious career. He received honorary degrees from the University of Michigan in 1933 and Syracuse University in 1942. In 1937, he was awarded the "Chevalier Legion D'Honneur" by the Republic of France and a gold medal at the Paris International Exposition of Arts and Sciences. In addition to the special award given to him by the American Institute of Architects for his wartime service in 1942, he also received the Frank P. Brown medal posthumously from The Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania in 1943. Kahn's success in pioneering a global industrial architecture was predicated on his pragmatic, solution-oriented mind, his interest in technological innovation, his ability to listen to his clients' needs, his indefatigable energy and his legendary work ethic. Kahn's famous quote below succinctly sums up his views on industrial architecture:

In spite of the fact that architecture today is in my opinion only about 10% art and 90% business, the architect must have constantly before him the final result - the artistic, the practical and the economic.[20]

______________________

Notes

[1] Speech by Albert Kahn honoring George Mason at Masonic Temple Dedication, given to Michigan Society of Architects, 1923, Box 1, Albert Kahn Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Speech by Albert Kahn given to Boston Society of Architects, "Industrial Architecture - Its Problems and Obligations," 11/12/40, Box 1, Albert Kahn Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

[4] Richard Bak, "Blueprint for Detroit," HOUR Detroit(May, 2000, reprinted by Albert Kahn Associates, Inc.), p. 2.

[5] W. Hawkins Ferry, The Legacy of Albert Kahn(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), p. 11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Bak, "Blueprint for Detroit," HOUR Detroit, p. 2.

[8] Grant Hildebrand, "Beautiful Factories," Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern, edited by Brian Carter (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2001), p. 20.

[9] Albert Kahn Associates, Inc., "The AIA 2003 Gold Medal Submission: Albert Kahn, FAIA, 1869-1942" (2003), p. 10.

[10] Grant Hildebrand, "Beautiful Factories," Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern, p.17.

[11] Speech by Albert Kahn to the New York Society of Archiects, "Industrial Architecture - An Opportunity and Challenge," 9/27/1940, Box 1, Albert Kahn Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

[12] Anatole Senkevich, Jr., "Albert Kahn's Great Soviet Venture as Architect of the First Five-Year Plan, 1929-1932," Dimensions, Vol Ten (1996), p. 45.

[13] Janet Kreger, "Albert Kahn and the Design of Angell Hall," LSA Magazine(Spring, 1998), p. 5.

[14] W. Hawkins Ferry, The Legacy of Albert Kahn, p. 25.

[15] Eric J. Hill and John Gallagher, AIA Detroit: The American Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003), p. 118.

[16] Anatole Senkevitch, Jr. "Albert Kahn's Great Soviet Venture as Architect of the First Five-Year Plan, 1929-1932," p. 35.

[17] Eric J. Hill and John Gallagher, AIA Detroit: The Americal Institute of Architects Guide to Detroit Architecture, p. 176.

[18] Albert Kahn Associates, Inc., "The AIA 2003 Gold Medal Submission: Albert Kahn, FAIA, 1969-1942," p. 3.

[19] Janet L. Kreger, "Albert Kahn and the Design of Angell Hall," LSA Magazine, p. 8.

[20]Speech by Albert Kahn to the Adcraft Club, "Thirty Minutes of American Architecture and Architects," 11/22/1937, Box 1, Albert Kahn Collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.