Modern Designers

Albert Kahn

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Educational, Industrial, Other, Religious, Residential

Born in Rhaunen, Germany, in 1869, Albert Kahn immigrated with his parents to Detroit, Michigan, in 1881 when he was eleven years old. As a young boy, Kahn worked in an architectural office running errands and doing odd jobs before enrolling in the art school of Julius Melchers where he learned drawing skills. His real architectural training began when he was hired in 1885 by Detroit architect George Mason, who took the young man under his wing at the Mason & Rice architectural firm. While there, Kahn earned a scholarship in 1891 to spend a year touring Europe and broadening his knowledge of European architecture. Upon his return to the Mason & Rice office, Kahn was promoted to chief designer, a position he held for four years. In 1895 Kahn left Mason & Rice to open his own architecture practice in Detroit. His younger brothers Louis, Moritz, and Felix soon came to work with him. Together they created one of the most dynamic architectural offices in America.

Kahn's first industrial commission was in 1900 for a pneumatic hammer manufacturing factory in Detroit. It followed the typical mill construction methods used in the northeastern United States. It was during this commission that Kahn hired Ernest Wilby, who served as his chief designer until 1918. This was the period in which Kahn did his most groundbreaking work in industrial architecture.

In 1903 Albert Kahn's brother, Julius, who had studied engineering at the University of Michigan and worked as a civil engineer for the United States military, joined the firm. Reinforced concrete was just beginning to be used as a building material and Julius Kahn developed a new concrete reinforcing system called the Kahn Bar System. Albert Kahn incorporated it into the construction project he was working on at the time, the Engineering Building on the University of Michigan campus. That same year, the Kahn Bar System was used in the construction of the Palms Apartments in Detroit and in the War College Building in Washington, D.C., which brought the Kahns and their reinforcing system national attention. Julius Kahn then patented the Kahn Bar System and the brothers promoted it worldwide through the Trussed Concrete Steel Corporation (TRUSCON), which was formed in 1904. The Kahns' experimentation with reinforced concrete enabled Albert to design the modern factory buildings for which he became known.

Albert Kahn was hired by the Packard Motor Car Company of Detroit in 1903 to design new factory buildings. Kahn's initial building designs followed standard mill factory construction. In 1905 he designed Packard Plant Building #10 using reinforced concrete and the Kahn Bar System. The building, which had almost no decoration, was a visual expression of function and ushered in a new era of industrial design. Albert Kahn's industrial work became a foundation for the development of modern architecture in the twentieth century.

The construction of Packard Plant Building #10 was followed by the Kahn brothers' collaboration with the George Pierce Company, maker of the Pierce Arrow automobile, on a factory building in Buffalo, New York, in 1906. Albert Kahn's factory designs soon caught the attention of automobile industrialist Henry Ford, who was interested in building an automobile plant that could house his groundbreaking idea for an assembly line system of production. Kahn's discussions with Ford inspired him to develop factory floor plans that would accommodate both changes in production technology and the easy flow of products and materials throughout the factory space. Kahn's first factory for the Ford Motor Company was the Highland Park Plant in 1909. Reinforced concrete enabled Kahn to design large spans, which increased the open floor space needed for machines and equipment. The plant was designed using a structural grid that allowed for flexible expansion. Through the construction of the Highland Park Plant, Kahn introduced the use of steel sash windows in America. The expanse of glass and steel beams gave the interior of the Highland Park factory buildings the look of the Crystal Palace. The Ford Highland Park Plant was a multi-story building that proved to be less efficient for assembly line production than Henry Ford had hoped. He asked Kahn to design a new single story plant on the River Rouge southeast of Detroit. Constructed between 1917 and 1928 on two thousand acres of land, the Rouge plant separated each manufacturing function into separate buildings linked by rail lines. Of special note was the Glass Plant designed in 1922. According to historian Grant Hildebrand, the Glass Plant was "the epitome of American industrial architecture at the time" because its glass skin was applied to the exterior of the building's steel frame eliminating the need for detail or ornament. Kahn's Glass Plant is cited by influential modern architects Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier as influencing their own work.

Architect/designer George Nelson wrote that Albert Kahn's work elevated factory buildings "to the status of architecture" by changing the fundamental process in which factory buildings were designed and constructed. Kahn believed that a building should reflect the function it served, an echoing of Louis Sullivan's philosophy "form follows function." Thus he felt that ornamentation, which was appropriate for use on public or residential buildings, did not belong on commercial and industrial buildings. This philosophy inspired Kahn to develop the practical architectural design elements that became synonymous with industrial architecture: open floor plans, large windows for abundant natural light, and an aesthetically simple structure with minimal ornamentation. These features were translated by other architects into a new Modern architectural style.

As early as 1906 the Kahn brothers began marketing their factory designs using the Kahn Bar System worldwide. Offers came from all over the United States, Europe, and Russia for Kahn to produce architectural designs for automotive, airplane, and military equipment production plants. By 1920 TRUSCON had franchises on five continents. Albert Kahn produced an enormous body of work during his career, designing more than two thousand projects.

Though Albert Kahn's factory building designs will forever link him to Modernism as one of its earliest inspirations, he never considered himself a modernist. He deplored the sparseness of the International style when used on residences and public buildings. Beyond his industrial buildings, Kahn's large body of work in Michigan includes the Cranbrook House, Bloomfield Hills (1909); Belle Isle Aquarium, Detroit (1904); the General Motors Building (1922) and the Fischer Building (1928), Detroit; Angell Hall (1925), Hill Auditorium (1913), and the William Clements Library (1923) on the University of Michigan campus (Ann Arbor); and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Grosse Pointe Shores (1926).

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