Architect Albert Kahn would have celebrated a birthday this week (Tuesday, March 21), so I wanted to honor the ‘architect of Detroit’ and one of the most important influences on the development of American modernism with a post.
Born in Germany in 1869, Kahn immigrated to Detroit when he was eleven years old. After working odd jobs to help support his family, Kahn went to work for Detroit architect George Mason where he learned draftsmanship and earned a scholarship to study abroad in Europe. After working at Mason’s firm for four years as chief designer, Kahn left to open his own practice with his two brothers, eventually becoming one of the most influential designers in the history of industrial architecture.
Innovation in technology, artistry, and organization gave Kahn a distinct advantage when designing industrial buildings for his clients. The Kahn Bar System, a reinforced concrete technique developed by Albert’s brother Julius, helped Kahn experiment with the modern forms that would revolutionize industrial design and become the foundation for the development of modern architecture. After designing the innovative Packard Plant Building #10 (the epitome of Louis Sullivan's modern mantra “form follows function”) the architect soon caught the attention of Henry Ford, and their relationship helped Kahn become a powerful force in American architecture. Designing for Ford, Kahn elevated the simple factory and created design elements that would become synonymous with industrial buildings (open floor plans, large windows for natural light, simple ornamentation) over the course of the century.
While Kahn was an important predecessor to the modern movement and produced an enormous body of work, the architect remained largely ignored by architectural historians. Remember, Kahn wasn’t formally trained as an architect, his large-scale industrial work was rarely considered “architecture” by important critics and theorists, and he had little influence within the important circles of European design. But Kahn changed the landscape of America, constructing not only the look of industry, but creating the unique architectural expression of twentieth century American capitalism.
Even though you might hear Albert Kahn described as the “second most famous Kahn (Louis),” his story is a fascinating one, and thankfully, over the last several years, his work has garnered the much-deserved attention and respect it so deserves.
You can celebrate Kahn’s birthday (and his legacy) by reading more here or browsing the photos below.
Photo at Top of Page- Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, Albert Kahn & Associates, Sponsor Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, John Burns, Wendy Hunter, and Contractor Anderson Notter/Mariani, Wolf, Jeffrey S, photographer. Ford Motor Company Building, 451-455 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Washington Washington D.C, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, dc0110.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.