Albert Kahn

views updated Jun 11 2018

Albert Kahn

Architech Albert Kahn (1869-1942) has been called the father of the modern American factory. The factories that he designed for many Detroit manufacturers were known for their streamlined forms and functionalities.

Detroit-based architect Albert Kahn has been called the father of the modern American factory. By the 1920s Detroit had become the center of the flourishing U.S. automobile industry, and Kahn provided what he described as "beautiful factories"—streamlined and functional—for many of the great Detroit manufacturers. Packard, Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford were among his clients, as were giants in such worldwide industries as food, textiles, chemicals, and business machines. During the early 1930s Kahn helped establish factories and engineering education in the Soviet Union; later in the 1930s and in the first years of World War II he developed plants for the construction of tanks and military aircraft. Throughout his career he also designed notable nonindustrial structures: the Detroit Athletic club, office buildings for General Motors and Fisher, the Hill Auditorium and Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and handsome private homes for such Grosse Pointe auto magnates as H. E. Dodge and Edsel Ford. But it is for his more than two thousand factories that Albert Kahn is remembered.


Kahn, the oldest son of an itinerant rabbi, was born in Germany but spent his early childhood in Luxembourg. In 1880 the family immigrated to Detroit, where young Kahn did not attend school but instead worked at odd jobs and took free Sunday-morning art lessons from sculptor Julius Melchers. Discovering that his pupil was color-blind, Melchers recommended that he take up architecture instead of art and in 1885 helped him earn an apprentice position with the Detroit firm of Mason and Rice. Kahn proved an apt student of design and in 1890 won a scholarship that allowed him to travel for a year in Europe, where he met and became friends with another young architect, Henry Bacon. Returning to Detroit, Kahn rose to the position of chief designer with Mason and Rice. He refused an offer to replace Frank Lloyd Wright in Louis Sullivan's firm during the early 1890s, instead remaining with Mason and Rice until 1896. In that year he married Ernestine Krolik and set up an architectural partnership with two colleagues from Mason and Rice. By 1902 Kahn had established his own practice, which grew during the next forty years to a company of nearly four hundred people.

Early Industrial Accomplishments

Kahn's first significant industrial commission came from Henry B. Joy, manager of the Packard Motor Car Company, who asked him to design a ten-building production plant in Detroit. Completed between 1903 and 1905, the project included nine conventional buildings and a tenth constructed of reinforced concrete, a material that had rarely been used before in factory construction. In 1908 Henry Ford had introduced the Model T, and late that year Ford contracted with Kahn to design a factory that would place all aspects of the auto's production under a single roof. This Highland Park construction (1909-1914) combined reinforced concrete with large, steel-framed windows, thus providing improved lighting and ventilation for assembly-line workers. Through this project Kahn and Ford established a long and mutually beneficial relationship: both were energetic, inventive, self-educated men who sought innovative but practical solutions to problems in the workplace.

River Rouge

In early 1918 Ford asked Kahn to design and construct a single-building production plant for the Eagle Submarine Chaser, which Ford wanted to produce as part of the U.S. war effort. In fourteen weeks Kahn erected a huge, one-story, steel-framed, lavishly windowed structure on a new two-thousand-acre Ford site on the Rouge River near Detroit. After the war the building was converted to a Model T body shop, and its site became the nucleus of Ford's expanding empire. Between 1922 and 1926 Kahn constructed at River Rouge a complex of innovative factory buildings, including the Glass Plant (1922), the Motor Assembly Building (1924-1925), and the Open Hearth Building (1925). In most cases these one-story structures incorporated steel frames, windowed walls, roofs with monitors (raised sections containing additional windows or louvers), and interior planning built around assembly-line organizational systems. Clean and attractive, River Rouge was America's first truly modern industrial complex because its design and construction fully expressed the architecture of utility.

Later Career

Following the stock-market crash in October 1929, automobile production radically declined, but Kahn and his company remained busy renovating plants so that they could produce vehicles in the most economical way possible. Between 1929 and 1932 he also directed the construction of 521 factories and the training of more than four thousand engineers in the Soviet Union as part of the Soviets' First Five-Year Plan of industrialization. By 1937 Kahn's firm was performing nearly one-fifth of all architect-designed factory construction in the United States. And as World War II approached he developed Ford's giant Willow Run bomber plant (1941-1943), the Glenn Martin Assembly Building and its additions (1937-1941) for the manufacture of other military aircraft, and the Chrysler Tank Arsenal (1941), all models of modern design. In the course of his career Albert Kahn seized the opportunity—and the responsibility—to transform the architecture of American industry. Toward the end of his life he recalled, with obvious satisfaction and with tongue firmly in cheek: "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."

Further Reading

Architectural Forum, 69 (August 1938): 87-142.

Grant Hildebrand, The Architecture of Albert Kahn (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974). □

Kahn, Albert

views updated Jun 27 2018

Kahn, Albert (1869–1942). German-born American architect. He founded (1902) the most prolific architectural practice of its time in the USA with his brothers Julius (1874–1942) and Moritz ((1881–c.1939). Their Packard Motor Car Company Plant, Detroit, MI (1903–10), was an early example of an overt reinforced-concrete structure. From 1905 the firm pioneered systems of standardization and modularization for factory design, and for the George N. Pierce Company of Buffalo, NY, makers of the Pierce-Arrow motor car, designed (1906) a remarkable top-lit factory, thus avoiding wall-windows, and allowing the plan to expand to suit the manufacturing sequence.

In 1909 Moritz Kahn established a division of the Trussed Concrete Steel Company in Britain in order to market the Kahns' ‘Truscon’ system of reinforced concrete, and Wallis, Gilbert, & Partners was established in 1914, specializing in industrial architecture, and working with the American firm.

In 1908 Kahn was employed by Henry Ford (1863–1947) to design a factory at Highland Park, Detroit (demolished), to manufacture the famous Model T, and evolved systems of as-sembly line methods there in 1913 which were developed for the vast single-storey Ford Rouge Plant, Dearborn, MI (1917–39), designed by Kahn. It had a steel frame, a plan devised to accommodate huge assembly lines, top-lighting, curtain-walling, was made of standardized prefabricated components, and was erected with great speed. The Kahns continued to develop their designs for factories to make mass-produced goods in an efficient way: the Dodge Half-Ton Truck Plant, Warren, MI (1937–8), was the logical conclusion of their methods, with its wide column-spacings, use of steel cantilevers, and sloping glazed roofs. Kahn also worked for General Motors, the Chrysler Corporation, Glenn Martin Aircraft, and other concerns, and during his long and remarkable career he designed over 2,000 factories. He also set up an office run by Moritz Kahn in the Soviet Union in 1932, training many young Soviet architects and designing over 500 factories.

Not all the Kahns' buildings were industrial, however. Their Clements Library, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (1922), was in the Neo-Classical style, and other non-industrial works were often not undistinguished: they include the Engineering Building (1903), the Hill Auditorium (1913), and Angell Hall (1922), all at Ann Arbor. As an adaptable pragmatist, with a mind uncluttered by cant, Albert Khan had no time for International Modernism, which he found unintelligent, doubting if it qualified as architecture at all.


Bucci (1993);
Ferry (ed.) (1987);
G. Hildebrand (1974);
A. Kahn (1948);
L. Roth (1980)

Kahn, Albert

views updated May 23 2018


KAHN, ALBERT (1860–1940), French philanthropist. Born in Marmoutier (Alsace) to a family of merchants, Kahn settled in Paris in 1876 and found a job at the Banque Goudchaux. However, he displayed such genius in the field of finance that he soon became a partner in the bank and founded his own bank in 1898. He built his fortune by investing in the diamond and gold mining projects developed by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa in the 1880s and 1890s. A confirmed bachelor, Kahn devoted his energy and his financial resources to the promotion of utopian concepts of peace and harmony in the world through better mutual understanding among the different civilizations and social forces. In 1898, he created the Autour du monde ("Around the World") fellowships to encourage young French intellectuals to travel and discover other parts of the world. The project was later extended to candidates from many other countries. His Archives de la Planète, created in 1912, sent photographers to various parts of the world and accumulated a wealth of rare animated images and photographs both of daily life and of specific events. In the same year, he sponsored the creation in the Collège de France, by Jean Brunhes, of a Human Geography cathedra.

From 1920, Albert Kahn endowed various French institutions of higher learning (notably the École Normale Supérieure in Paris) with documentation centers. He encouraged discussion of the social and human problems in a spirit of goodwill in the Autour du monde forum (1906) and the Comité national d'études sociales et politiques (1916), which published much material. A friend of Henri *Bergson since the time of their youth, he supported the activities of the League of Nations in the field of intellectual cooperation. His connections were particularly close with Japan and were reflected in the Japanese garden in his mansion in Boulogne Billancourt (near Paris), combined with an Alsatian-style garden reminding him of his youth. Kahn was ruined by the economic crisis of the 1930s, and most of his public activities were curtailed. His garden remains open to the public at large, and from the 1990s, mainly through Japanese sponsorship, his films and photographs have been digitized and are available to visitors together with thematic exhibitions.

[Philippe Boukara (2nd ed.)]

Kahn, Albert

views updated May 23 2018


KAHN, ALBERT (1869–1942), U.S. industrial architect. Kahn was born in Rhaunen, Germany, and was taken to the United States in 1881. He was trained in Detroit and specialized in factory design. He was engaged by Henry Ford as one of his principal architects. He also designed assembly plants for other leading automobile companies. His outstanding buildings include the General Motors Building in Detroit (1901) and the Ohio Steel Foundry Company Building (1940). In 1930 the Soviet government engaged him to design a series of factories in the Volga region, and members of his staff helped supervise the construction of industrial plants for the second 5-year plan. He built two Reform synagogues in Detroit for the Beth-El congregation of which he was a member, both in the classical style.


R. Wischnitzer, Synagogue Architecture in the United States (1955); J.M. Fitch, American Building, 1 (19662), index; J. Burchard and A. Bush-Brown, Architecture of America (1961), index.