*Kahn, Albert





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Albert Kahn

Formative Years

One of the most prolific architects in American history, Albert Kahn designed well over 1,000 buildings in his lifetime, undertaking an extraordinary variety of commissions, including some of the largest manufacturing plants ever constructed. Kahn possessed a number of personal traits that elicited a startling degree of professional loyalty amongst his clients,particularly the moguls Henry Ford, Henry B. Joy, Walter P. Chrysler, and the Fisher Brothers, who presided over Detroit’s blossoming auto industry of the first half of the twentieth century.

Kahn was a pragmatic designer, attached to no single stylistic, structural, or organizational approach. As an accomplished collaborator, he set the standard amongst architects for assembling diverse teams of experts. He possessed tremendous energy and clarity of focus. And he could manage effectively, completing projects on time and within budget. These bottom-line, administrative skills impressed Ford and Detroit’s other competitive automotive capitalists.

The eldest of eight children, Albert Kahn was born in Rhauen, Westphalia, Germany on March 21, 1869. His family moved to Echternach, Luxembourg, near the industrial Ruhr Valley, soon after his birth. They remained in Echternach until Kahn’s eleventh birthday. Kahn’s father, Joseph, trained as a rabbi, was by all accounts something of a dreamer, who struggled to find work that provided a consistent income. His mother, Rosalie, had, according to Kahn biographer Grant Hildebrand, a “…strong character, with an inborn affinity for the visual arts and music.” [1] Rosalie Kahn passed on her musical interests to Albert, who was an accomplished piano player as a child. He also displayed an early talent for drawing. Kahn’s parents encouraged him to develop these skills. The Kahns immigrated to the U.S. in 1880, fortuitously landing in the city of Detroit, Michigan, a city on the brink of an unprecedented industrial and architectural building boom which spanned the years 1900-1930. In Detroit, financial difficulties forced Albert, the eldest child, to discontinue his secondary school education, and to help to provide for his family. [2] This formative familial backdrop — a somewhat impractical, itinerant father, a strong sense of filial obligation, and the serious financial difficulties of the family — influenced the formation of Albert’s practical and professional outlook.

Early Architectural Experience

Kahn obtained work as an apprentice in the early 1880s with the Detroit architectural firm John Scott and Associates and subsequently, with Mason and Rice, a firm noted for its residential work in the Shingle and Richardsonian Romanesque styles. Starting as an errand boy on March 3, 1884, Kahn diligently worked at Mason and Rice for twelve years. He received periodic promotions until he obtained the position of chief draftsman. His intensity and dedication attracted the attention of partner George D. Mason. Mason described Kahn later, stating, “I have never known anyone with such an enormous capacity for concentration and study.” [3] Mason became a mentor for Kahn, periodically inviting him to his house to discuss architecture over dinner. With Mason’s encouragement, Kahn made plans to develop his drafting skills and polish his professional resume. His opportunity for professional advancement came in 1891, at the age of 22, when he won a $500 traveling scholarship from the American Architect and Building News for study in Europe. Like most young architects on their grand tours, Kahn drew assiduously, both public monuments and more modest residential designs, and he networked with other young designers who were also traveling in Europe.
Kahn became good friends with the architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), with whom he would travel throughout France and Italy. Kahn credited Bacon with furthering his education; the two discussed architecture while sketching farmhouses and public monuments, gathering decorative motifs that would be re-used in their revival style buildings of the 1910s-30s. Unlike many of the architects that he would meet in Europe, however, Kahn had no formal college training, and could not boast of a professional degree either from the most prestigious architecture school of the period, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, or the new American architecture schools whose curricula had been patterned on it, such as Columbia University (established 1881) or the University of California at Berkeley (1903). To compete, Kahn had to outwork his peers and develop personal traits that would win over clients and retain them.
Kahn’s Work in Detroit
Returning to Detroit, Kahn rejoined Mason and Rice. He stayed at the firm for several more years before leaving to form numerous partnerships after 1896. (He began solo operations in 1903.) Kahn also demonstrated his remarkable collaborative abilities in 1903, working with his brother Julius, a civil engineer. That year, Julius and Albert began work on the Engineering Hall (now West Hall), the first of 17 commissions for the University of Michigan (UM) executed before Albert’s death in 1942. Frequent commissions for new types of manufacturing facilities, particularly automobile plants, enabled the Kahn brothers to experiment with new building materials, especially concrete for which Julius developed new methods of incorporating metal reinforcing bar. (Albert and Julius used West Hall as a laboratory for testing the latter’s new patented method of using steel bars to reinforce a concrete structure.) Working on factory buildings, which were generally considered beneath the interest of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts trained architect, also freed the Kahns from closely adhering to the appropriate stylistic precedents for their designs.
At Ford’s River Rouge complex and various facilities for Packard and Chrysler, Kahn produced architecture startling for its scale, modern materials, and unpretentious lack of ornamentation. Their huge rows of steel roof trusses, walls of glass, new construction techniques, and minimal geometric shapes (seen particularly well in saw-toothed monitor lighting on the roofs) began to attract the attention of avant-garde architects and artists. These included Le Corbusier, Charles Sheeler, and others who were interested in creative expressions of the modern, industrialized era. During the Depression era, Kahn built over 600 factories, 521 of them constructed for Joseph Stalin’s automobile industry in the Soviet Union.
It is for these striking unadorned factories, so emblematic of the assembly-line age, that Kahn has continued to fascinate most architects and historians. Yet, as this website underscores, he produced a stylistically and organizationally varied assemblage of buildings at the University of Michigan. They attest to his pragmatism, his tendency to rely on precedent when considered appropriate, but also his willingness to experiment and synthesize when traditional models no longer fit new utilitarian demands or technological capabilities.

1. Grant Hildebrand, The Architecture of Albert Kahn, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974), p. 5.
2. As his architectural practice began to earn money, Albert helped his siblings financially; he paid for at least part of his brother Julius’s education at The University of Michigan’s School of Engineering.
3. Hildebrand, p. 9.


Albert Kahn (1869-1942) was born in Rhaunen, Germany, the oldest son of a rabbi. The Kahns and their six children emigrated to the United States in 1880. Albert Kahn received his professional training as an apprentice to an architect with the firm of Mason and Rice in Detroit. In 1891, Albert Kahn was awarded a scholarship for a year’s travel in Europe. During his travels Albert Kahn met the young architect Henry Bacon, and the two of them traveled together in Italy, France, Germany, and Belgium. In 1896, Albert Kahn married Ernestine Krolik and formed a partnership with George W. Nettleton and Alexander B. Trowbridge. Trowbridge left to become dean of the Cornell University School of Architecture in 1897, Nettleton died in 1900, and by 1902, Albert Kahn was in practice alone. Albert Kahn ‘s practice is intenation-ally known for industrial work; his more traditional designs are less well known.

Because Albert Kahn practiced in Detroit, Albert Kahn ‘s career closely followed the growth of the automotive industry. Albert Kahn was introduced to Henry B. Joy in 1902. Joy was instrumental in Albert Kahn ‘s selection for projects at the University of Michigan, and when Joy became manager of the Packard Motor Car Co. in 1903, Albert Kahn was named architeet for tbe company. That same year, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Co.
Albert Kahn ‘s early industriai work was conservative in nature. Nine factories were designed between 1903 and 1905 for the Packard Motor Car Co. The first concreteframed building dated from 1905. This advanced structural system depended on the manufacture of appropriate reinforcing rods. Although Albert Kahn ‘s brother was an engineer and manufacturer of reinforcing, the Albert Kahn bar did not succeed in the market. However, the experience with the concrete structure put Albert Kahn ‘s office in the forefront of industrial design.
Many industrial commissions followed. Rather than relegating the design to junior staff, Albert Kahn carefully designed the factories, using such designers as his associate Ernest Wilby to assist him. Albert Kahn ‘s factories were the first to use steel sash in conereteframed structures. Albert Kahn helped develop buildings for continuously moving assembly lines. His factories were known for the maximum use of natural lighting and ventilation, using continuous strip windows, roof monitors, or skylights. Albert Kahn pioneered the use o� longspan steel trusses, resuiting in large floor arens free of columns.
There were a number of fumous factories. Among the early ones was the Ford Motor Co. in Highland Park, Michigan (1909), which was under one roof. Among later buildings for Ford was u 1918 building with cantilevered balconies insde the factory, allowing easier handling of materials and parts Plants for the Burroughs Adding Machine Co. in Detroit (l919) and for the Fisher Body Co. in Cleveland, Ohio (1921), were other early works.
In 1917, Albert Kahn began the design of the Ford River Rouge Plant in Detroit. The first of the buildings (Building B) was 0.5 mi long, housing the entire assembly hne for automobiles. In 1936, Albert Kahn designed the Chrysler Corp. plant in Detroit using large trusses and glass curtain walls In 1938, Albert Kahn designed another Chrysler Corp. plant at Warren Michigan, for the HalfTon Truck Plant of the Dodge Divil sion. It featured longspan trusses and roof monitors as well as glass curtain walls. This series of buildings was elegant in design, using advanced construction technology.
Albert Kahn ‘s office designed many other buildings in addition to the industrial work. These included several buildings for the University of Michigan, office buildings such as the General Motors Building in Detroit, and luxury residential projects, particularly for the homes of automotive executives.
Albert Kahn ‘s World War II buildings included the Glen Martin bomber plant at Baltimore and the Willow Run Bomber plant for Ford, later used for automobile manufacture and assembly. Because of wartime blackout regulations. the latter building was windowless and electrically lit.
Albert Kahn worked continuously up to 1942. completing 57 years o� practice as an architeet. and the firm continues under the name of Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. A high point of Albert Kahn ‘s fame was his influence on European work. In 1929, a Soviet commission touring Delroit asked him to design a tractor plant in Stalingrad This turned out so well that the firm built over 500 factories in the USSR in two years and trained many Soviet engineers and technicians to assist in the building program.
The comparison of Albert Kahn ‘s work with Peter Behrens’s monumental work in Germany for the A.E.G. or Walter Gropius’s and Adolph Meyers’s 1911 Fagus Shoelast Factory at Alfeld an der Liene clarifies Ihe differences between European and American approaches. The European examples were more designed. with the use of brick, neoclassic forms, and delight in the technology that allowed such details as wrapping glass around corners. The spirit of that work differs from Knhn. who evolved industrial buildings without prototypes or use of traditional design concepts. The industrial building was of contiunued aesthetic interest as reflected in Gropius’s design of the Bauhaus at Dessau. Germany. in 1926 The best of Albert Kahn ‘s work implies a different aesthetic based on simple construction. standard materials, and ease of construction. In this sense it was more like the manufactured product than a symbolic interpretation.

Major works:
Hiram Walker offices, in Windsor, Ontario, 1892
Temple Beth El, now the Bonstelle Theater of Wayne State University, 1903
The Palms Apartments, on Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, 1903
Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory, on Belle Isle, Detroit, 1904
Casino, on Belle Isle, Detroit, 1907
George N. Pierce Plant, in Buffalo, New York, 1906
Willistead Manor, home of the son of Hiram Walker, 1906
Battle Creek Post Office, 1907
Packard Plant, 1907
Cranbrook House, at Cranbrook Educational Community, 1907
Highland Park Ford Plant, Highland Park, Michigan, 1908
Mahoning National Bank, Youngstown, Ohio, 1909
Detroit News building, 1917
General Motors Building, now State of Michigan offices, 1919
Detroit Police Headquarters, 1923
Temple Beth El, 1923
Walker Power Plant, in Windsor, 1923
Detroit Free Press building, 1925
Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, Michigan, 1927
Fisher Building
River Rouge Glass Plant, 1930
Dearborn Inn, 1931
Ford Rotunda, 1934
Dodge Truck Plant, Warren, Michigan, 1938
Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant, 1941
Willow Run Bomber Plant, 1941
Ford Richmond Plant, California
Buildings at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1904
Hill Auditorium, 1913
Natural Science Building, 1913
Hatcher Graduate Library, 1920
Clements Library, 1923
Angell Hall, 1924
Couzens Hall, 1925
University Hospital (now destroyed), 1925
Simpson Institute for Medical Research, 1927
Burton Tower, 1936
1. C, Hilebrand. The Architecture of Albert Kahn, M.I.T. Press. Cambridge. Mass., 1974.
2. “The Legacy of Albert Kahn,” exhibition catalog, The Detroit Institute of Arrs. Detroit. Mich., 1970.

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1 Comment

  1. seo india said,

    whenever i come to your blog there is atleast one post which is interesting.keep up the good work.

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