ALBERT KAHN
 
 
 
 
  Name Albert Kahn
     
  Born March 21, 1869
     
  Died December 8, 1942
     
  Nationality USA
     
  School  
     
  Official website  
     
 
BIOGRAPHY
 

The son of Rabbi Joseph Kahn, Albert Kahn was born in the
town of Rhaunen, Germany (near Frankfurt), on 21 March
1869. Difficult economic conditions led to the family’s immigra-
tion to the United States (by way of the grand duchy of Luxem-
bourg), and in 1881 the Kahn family settled in Detroit, a major
industrial center in the upper Midwest.

For various reasons—his family’s economic difficulties being
pethaps the most significant—Kahn was not able to follow a
normal course of education leading to a university degree. In-
stead, his design abilities, developed through a series of free pri-
vate lessons given to him by the sculptor Julius Mechers, enabled
him to begin his architectural apprenticeship with the Detroit
firm Mason and Rice at the age of 15. Quickly finding success
asa draftsman in the firm, Kahn focused on the practical aspects
of architecture and made excellent use of the firm’s library. The
combination of Kahn’s intellectual interests and practical experi-
ence enabled him to win a scholarship from the journal American
Architect for a year’s study abroad. Kahn’s year of travel through
Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany—roughly the same as the
traditional European tour undertaken by more privileged stu-
dents of architecture—allowed Kahn to develop new, significant
friendships (including with Henry Bacon, architect of the Lin-
coln Memorial in Washington) while deepening his knowledge
of architecture through site visits and the sketching of buildings
and their details. Returning to Mason and Rice, Kahn’s sketches
of notable works, while significant from an educational perspec-
tive, had a direct bearing on his architectural work for the office.
In 1896 Kahn, along with two other architects from Mason and
Rice, formed a new firm, Nettleton, Kahn and Trowbridge.
After Trowbridge left to become dean of the Cornell School of

Architecture in 1897, the firm became Nettleton and Kahn until
finally, on the death of Nettleton in 1900, Kahn reassociated
with George Mason, his original employer, for a brief period
before finally opening an office under his own name.

In the course of his early career, Kahn worked with numerous
historical styles, the Italian Renaissance being perhaps the most
prominent. Nonetheless, the architect's stylistic predilections did
not preclude an interest in the development of new materials
and methods—an interest that foreshadowed his understanding
of industrial and technological enterprise. This tendency was
further facilitated by his firm’s development in the early part of
the 20th century; having facilitated his brother Julius’s engineer-
ing education, the two brothers were able to create a professional
association in 1903, with Julius working with Albert as the ar-
chitect’s chief engineer. Julius Kahn, an expert in the use of
reinforced concrete, was also something of an entrepreneur,
founding a company (Trussed Concrete Steel Company in
Youngstown, Ohio) in order to develop and manufacture what
became known as the “Kahn bar” or “Kahn system” of reinforced
concrete. This turn of events was to prove essential to the devel-
opment of Kahn’s own architectural practice, culminating in
Albert Kahn Incorporated Architects and Engineers,

Kahn’s commissions during the early years of the 20th cen-
tury included prominent civic, institutional, and residential
buildings in the Detroit metropolitan area, lower Michigan, up-
state New York, and Ohio. These works included Temple Beth

E]; the Belle Isle Conservatory and Casino; the Belle Isle Aquar-
ium; several classroom, auditorium, and library buildings for the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; and numerous large pri-
vate residences in the Grosse Pointe, Bloomfield Hills, and
Windsor, Ontario, suburbs of Detroit. In addition, Kahn began
to design industrial buildings—the type of structures for which
he is best known—as early as 1901. These industrial buildings,
most of which were for various automobile manufacturers head-
quartered in Detroit, were not limited to automobile assembly
plants but included office buildings, showrooms, and materials
processing plants (mills, stamping plants) as well. During the
same period, Kahn was also involved with the design of buildings
for the military; many of them affiliated with the development
of airpower.

Although usually overlooked given the significance of his in-
dustrial buildings, Kahn’s civic, institutional, and corporate ar-
chitecture, along with the numerous residences, were of very
high quality, adhering to architecture's traditional aesthetic and
building principles. Scripps Library and Gallery in Detroit
(1898, Nettleton and Kahn), the Belle Isle recreational buildings
(1903-08), the William L. Clements Library (1922) at the Uni-
versity of Michigan, the Detroit Athletic Club (1915), and the
Grosse Pointe residences, among other works, are elegantly pro-
portioned, well-constructed works that bespeak Kahn’s attention

to the civic nature of architecture—in the case of the institutional
building —and the highly specific aspects of formal and informal
private life,

Over the course of his career, there was little stylistic unity
between the different categories of building projects, For Kahn,
every architectural program type required a different set of
criteria; thus, he saw no inherent contradiction in designing a
residence in Tudor style, a library building in the manner of
the Italian Renaissance, and an office building according to the
principles inherent in tall-building architecture. In this sense,
Kahn distanced himself from the modernist promotion of uni-
‘versal, internationalist principles. Working in a region outside
the “epicenters” of modern American architecture (Chicago and
New York) over the course of his career enabled Kahn to con-
tinue to develop a mode of architectural production that many
would judge to be inconsistent.

Unlike many architects of his day, who often delegated
industrial-design projects to junior members of the firm, Kahn
did not consider the design of industrial buildings to be beneath
him, For Kahn, these projects represented an untapped opportu-
nity for architecture, a view primed by the firm’s embrace of
the engineering aspects of building design. Kahn’s early work
with the automobile industry (the Packard Motor Car Company
buildings [1903~10], the Grabowsky Power Wagon Company

Plane [1907], and the Chalmers Motor Car Company [1907])
was noticed by Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company.
Ford, known for his persistent search for improvements in the
efficiency of production téchniques, contacted Kahn for the de-
sign of a new production facility in Highland Park, Michigan,
just outside Detroit. With Ford, Kahn not only designed an
industrial edifice but also facilitated a new program for produc-
tion. Kahn’s work with Ford established the view that the archi-
tect was no longer simply the recipient of an organized set of
programmatic needs but an agent in the development of the
program itself—a critical member of a team that engaged the
functional aspects of industrial processes. In his work with Ford
and in later projects for commercial and military assembly plants,
airport terminals and hangars, hospitals, office buildings, labora-
tory buildings, and libraries, Kahn exemplified the notion that
architecture is a matter of both form and function and that
every building type exerts specific functional needs that can be
facilitated through building form, and, vice versa, that form is
able not only to support but also to enable functional require-
ments.

Kahn’s work was notable for its embrace of modern techno-
logical enterprise, including new materials, structural assemblies,
and means of production. Accordingly, the architect was not
relegated to being a “form giver” but rather could also participate
in the development of systems that underpin modern technolog-
ical enterprise and, hence, modern life.

ELIZABETH BURNS GAMARD

 
 
 
 
 
TIMELINE
 
Born in Rhaunen, Germany, 21 March 1869; immigrated to
the United States 1880. Received no formal education in archi-
tecture; apprentice, and later chief designer, office of Mason and
Rice, Detroit, Michigan 1884-95. Private practice, Detroit from
1902; architect, Packard Motor Car Company, Detroit 1903;
architect, George N. Pierce Company, Buffalo, New York 1906;
architect, General Motors, Chrysler Corporation, and Glenn
Martin Aircraft; practiced in Moscow 1929-32. Gold Medal,
International Expo of Arts and Sciences, Paris 1927; Chevalier,
Legion of Honor, France. Died in Detroit, 8 December 1942.
 
 
 
 
 
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