Albert Kahn

 

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Illustration 1. 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.


University of Michigan Campus Buildings Designed by Albert Kahn
Angell Hall
Betsy Barbour Dormitory
Burton Tower
Couzens Hall
Clements Library
East Medical Building
East Physics Building
General Library
Helen Newberry Residence (w/ Wilby)
Hill Auditorium (w/ Wilby)
Hospital Penthouse (elev)
Hospital Storage
Natural Science Building
Neuropsychiatric Institute
President's House Additions
Psychopathic Hospital Additions (w/ Wilby)
Simpson Memorial Institute
University Hospital and Additions
University Museums
West Hall

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.

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Illustration 2. View of Detroit, circa 1900

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.

Illustration 2. Ford Plant at River Rouge Industrial Development by Kahn. (Photograph by Charles Sheeler)

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.


Notes:
  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.