Master of Modernism

Albert Kahn revolutionized industry, yet never lost sight of classical architecture.
Albert Kahn
Design For The Ages: Albert Kahn’s use of steel reinforced concrete columns accelerated production in the manufacturing industry. // Courtesy of Albert Kahn Associates Inc.

Putting his brother, Julius, through the University of Michigan paid off big while Albert Kahn was still a young man. A prodigy and the oldest offspring in a family of German-Jewish immigrants, Kahn was the 22-year-old design chief at Mason & Rice — a Detroit architectural leader — by 1891, and had the means to help with Julius’ tuition.

The engineering graduate returned the favor by patenting a unique means of reinforcing concrete with steel. The innovation, a marked improvement over wooden structures, fully established Kahn’s own firm, founded with partners in 1895, and changed the march of industry.

Packard Building No. 10 in Detroit, the method’s first full expression, astonished the world in 1903. The two-story building stood on a footprint of 19,320 square feet and its support columns were spaced an unprecedented 32 feet apart. Bracing heavy machinery, the new design doubled as a purveyor of natural light and ventilation.

“The resulting airiness must have dizzied the first workers to walk in, accustomed as they were to the dark, dungeon-like nature of early factories,” writes Michael H. Hodges in his new book, “Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit.”

The design’s purity and symmetry fascinated European modernists. Across town, Henry Ford took notice. By the decade’s end, Ford Motor Co. had its own glassy “Crystal Palace” in Highland Park, where the automaker built the revolutionary Model T.

Another aspect of modernism is reproducibility; the gridwork gigantically repeated itself not only on-site, but it was also imitated worldwide. Acclaim for Albert Kahn Associates (the company existed under a variety of names during the years) led to commissions not only for copies of Ford’s Rouge Works of the 1920s but also for original houses, hospitals, ornamental office towers, and even the graceful Livingston Memorial Lighthouse on Belle Isle.

Kahn did two dozen projects on the U-M campus in Ann Arbor, including wonders like Hill Auditorium. He developed military installations for the United States government in World War I and, with Henry Ford’s crucial blessing, he built an industrial base of several hundred factories for the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1932.

Kahn liked to credit good luck and hard work for his success, which led to personal earnings of $219,070 in 1922 ($3.4 million today). His staff totaled about 650 people, as huge commissions came in during World War II. It was quite a testament to the man who had gone to work at 13 years old, grinding ink and running errands for architect John L. Scott. Another German immigrant, Julius Melchers, the woodcarver, gave him Saturday-morning drawing lessons.

Eventually landing at George Mason’s practice, Kahn found his drawing ability paid off, and he emerged as the firm’s top designer of private houses. Winning a scholarship in 1890, he spent months scrutinizing Europe’s architectural masterpieces and gained fluency in traditional styles so he could reinterpret neoclassical features on the General Motors Building or a Renaissance apartment in the Detroit Athletic Club’s Fresco Room.

The firm’s principal died in 1942, but Albert Kahn Associates still flourishes in Detroit, having recently moved to the Fisher Building, the architect’s 1928 masterpiece. Spokeswoman Caitlin Wunderlich says observances of the company’s 125th anniversary started in September, with a walking tour of Kahn’s downtown buildings. A book is planned for 2021, and the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation has been launched. “For having designed 20,000 projects, he hasn’t been given enough recognition,” Wunderlich maintains.

Claire Zimmerman, an associate professor of architecture history at U-M, who also has a book on Kahn coming out next year, elaborates on the notion the profession’s elite members disapproved of Kahn’s work for industry and the military. She writes: “So on two points he struck out with his fellow architects — and more importantly with their historians and critics.”

But he had the last laugh — his work still dazzles the mind and soul.