Albert Kahn, Architect

Albert Kahn, perhaps more than any other single Individual, created a new twentieth-century industrial architecture. While he lived he had no rival in this respect, and this is documented in two full-length works about Kahn and in numerous articles and in chapters in architectural works devoted to his contributions. The Long Beach Ford plant is so thoroughly stamped with his style that only a brief glance at the evolution of Kahn's design will explain its origins. The sketch of Kahn's work which follows is directed largely to that purpose: the origin of the style found at Long Beach.

Born in Westphalia, Germany, Kahn's father, a Jewish Rabbi, immigrated around 1880 to Detroit and supported the family as a fruit peddler. A local sculptor, recognizing Albert's artistic talent allowed him to attend his art school free, but discovering that his pupil was color blind suggested that he become an architect. Thus, he secured Albert a job as an office boy in an architectural firm where he learned much. He applied for a scholarship to study a year in Europe in 1890. Soon after his return he formed a partnership, but began practice on his own in 1902. Commissioned to do the Engineering Building at the University of Michigan the following year, he became aware of the shortcomings of the standing method of reinforcement and adopted an invention of his brother Julius for his 1905 job, the Packard building.

The first nine buildings of the Packard plant were conventional: a restricted distance between columns and wood floors soaked with oil creating a heavy fire risk in spite of sprinklers. Kahn introduced a form of reinforced concrete perfected by his brother. Packard's was the first factory building of reinforced concrete construction in Detroit. Julius Kahn became his chief engineer. Kahn is cited in nearly every standard architectural textbook for his 1908 Brown-Lipe-Chapln Company factory In Syracuse, New York. It helped fix the standard form of reinforced concrete framing. At this time, architects had considered factory design beneath them, and relegated the task to junior draughtsmen. Kahn felt no such compunction. The burgeoning automobile industry in Detroit demanded more factories such as the Packard building, and Chalmers, Hudson, and Dodge all called on Kahn. Importantly, Henry Ford had him design his Highland Park Plant. Ford, himself conceived of the idea to have an entire plant under one roof with no open courts and no dividing walls. This was radically different from previous designs where every process was housed in a separate building. At Highland Park in the four-story main building, concrete-slab girder-beam construction was prevalent throughout. Parallel to the main building and behind it was the one-story machine shop with a saw-tooth roof. The office building received more formal architectural treatment: beneath the cornice there was a frieze of glazed tiles. As we know, in 1912-1915 the continuously moving assembly line was perfected at the Highland Park Plant. Already the Long Beach model was evolving.

Carrying the modern automotive plant a step further, Ford had Kahn design the half-mile-long Building "B" at the River Rouge plant. There the manufacturing process could not only take place under one roof, but on one floor. It had a steel frame that had been employed by Kahn elsewhere, and the walls were an unbroken expanse of glass. Kahn had transformed the factory from a dingy eyesore into a bright and cheerful place. Kahn's Italianate residential work does not interest us here. Yet, his decorative treatment, green tiles as decorative inserts and his use of buff-colored brick and of brickwork patterns around the tops of buildings crossed over from his residential assignments and appear on his factories and at Long Beach. His earlier designs retained classical revivalism in their exteriors. The march of columns and bays along the sides of the Long Beach plant are still reminders of the orders, but as the Finnish modern influence took hold in Michigan, classical designs were of minor importance. Ornamentation was simplified, and classical detail was merely symbolic such as the rosette at the north end of the Long Beach warehouse. During the prosperous 1920s Kahn was extremely busy in Detroit. Before building a plant he made a careful study of the flow of production and assured pleasant working conditions through adequate heating, ventilation, and natural lighting. All this was expressed in the half-mile long Plymouth building in 1928. He took account of the improved moving assembly, employed the latest machine-tool equipment, and provided paint spray booths and drying ovens.

The Russian government invited Kahn to participate in building 521 factories in 21 cities in 1928. They began the order with a $40,000,000 tractor plant and an outline for two billion dollars worth of other buildings. A dozen were designed in Detroit, but Kahn technicians trained 4,000 Soviet engineers in Russia, Kahn could take on this work load because he had an efficient office, employed about 400 people, and worked with incredible speed. For example, when he designed the Republic Steel plant, eleven days after the sketches were started, working drawings were sent out for steel fabrication. Shocking his colleagues, he once claimed that architecture was 90 percent business and 10 percent art. In 1929 he was doing considerably more than a million dollars worth of work per week. By 1937 Kahn had designed over a thousand buildings for the Ford Motor Company alone. Among these was the subject plant. The tie between Ford and his Jewish architect was so strong, that even during Henry Ford's anti-semitic publications in the early 1920s, the building partnership between the two held. Biographer Nevins claimed that Kahn, though hurt and indignant, felt Ford's error was rooted in ignorance.