Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Architect Albert Kahn

Kahn designed most of Ford's buildings during the first half of the twentieth century, including the expansion of the Highland Park plant, the River Rouge plant, and most of the branch assembly plants throughout the U.S. and abroad. There was a brief period in the 1910s when the Ford Motor Company hired John Graham, a Seattle architect, brought him to Detroit, and installed him in an architecture department at Highland Park to design several branch plants, including Seattle, Cambridge, Houston, Dallas, Columbus, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh. Kahn was responsible for nearly all of the 1920s generation of branch assembly plants, including Richmond.

Bom in Germany in 1869, Albert Kahn was the oldest of eight children in the family of Rosalie and Joseph Kahn, an itinerant rabbi. By the time Albert Kahn was old enough for school, his family had moved to Luxembourg, where they lived until 1880, when they emigrated to the United States. The Kahns settled in Detroit. Rather than attend school, young Albert took a variety of jobs to help support the family. He also had a knack for drawing, so his parents encouraged him by buying him drawing materials and helping him find a job doing menial work, without pay, in a Detroit architectural office. That led at the age of 15 to drawing lessons and another non-paying job with the firm Mason & Rice. This time he was actually able to put his drawing skills to work. Kahn's skill at rendering and working drawings helped him garner paid responsibilities with the firm, and in 1888, at the age of 19, he was put in charge of designing and supervising construction for the firm's residential work. Two years later, the American Architect and Building News awarded him a travelling scholarship, which afforded him the opportunity to travel to Europe for a year of visiting architectural landmarks and meeting architects. As Grant Hildebrand observes in his biography of Albert Kahn, nothing in Kahn's early career suggested that he would eventually design buildings that were to become some of the icons of the Modem Era. Kahn's early, non-industrial work was conventionally derivative of historical European styles.' When Kahn returned to Detroit in late 1891, Mason & Rice appointed him chief designer. He remained with the firm until 1896, during which time he became enamored of the work of McKim, Meade and White. In 1896, Kahn and two Cornell graduates left Mason & Rice to form their own firm: Nettleton, Kahn and Trowbridge.

In 1897, Alexander Trowbridge left the year-old firm to become the head of the Department of Architecture at Cornell University. Kahn and George Nettleton continued their firm until 1900, when Nettleton died. That same year, Kahn designed his first industrial building for Joseph Boyer, a manufacturer of pneumatic hammers. With Nettleton and Trowbridge gone, Kahn remained the sole principle in the firm. To supplement his own skills, Kahn hired Ernest Wilby as chief designer in 1902 and made him an associate, and Kahn began to collaborate with his brother, Julius, a civil engineer who had graduated from the University of Michigan. The two brothers designed a new Engineering Building for the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1902. In its construction, they used reinforced concrete, a new building material they were both interested in exploring. Julius also established the Trussed Concrete Steel Company in Detroit to produce steel reinforcing bars according to his own design. A third important event of 1902 occurred when Joseph Boyer introduced Kahn to Henry Joy, soon to head the Packard Motor Car Company. When Joy assumed Packard's presidency in 1903, he appointed Kahn its architect. Through Joy, Kahn's firm received several non-industrial commissions, but the most important work stemming from the connection with Joy was the design of factory buildings for the expanding Packard company.

During the years 1903-1905, the Kahn firm designed nine factory buildings for Packard, all of conventional mill construction. In 1905, though, Albert and Julius Kahn made an important breakthrough when they designed Packard Plant Building No. 10 of reinforced concrete. The new structural system allowed them to provide spacing between columns that was somewhat greater than in conventional mill construction. More significantly, the reinforced-concrete frame embedded in the perimeter walls left more space in the envelope for windows, enhancing the day-lighting of the interior work spaces. The structure was also fireproof. Although comparable to the pioneering work being done in reinforced-concrete industrial design by Ernest Ransome in California and the New York area, the Kahn design was a great improvement over the conventional industrial buildings being used by the automobile industry elsewhere in Detroit. Another feature of the Kahn design was perhaps equally important in attracting future clients in the automobile industry: Building No. 10 was asymmetrical, as Kahn set aside normal aesthetic considerations of the period and let the functional requirements of the plant dictate its overall form and shape. In this regard, Kahn exhibited a willingness to explore new areas in architectural design that did not appeal to his peers in the architectural profession.

Kahn's next set of industrial buildings was in Buffalo for George N. Pierce, maker of the Pierce Arrow car. Designed in 1906, the complex is important because it foreshadowed buildings that would become the norm in the auto industry a decade later. The Pierce buildings were one-story, very wide, and employed a saw-tooth roof to allow skylights to illuminate all of the broad interior space.'

By the time the Ford Motor Company announced its intention in 1908 to build the Highland Park plant to manufacture the Model T, Albert Kahn's reputation was known to Ford officials because of the Packard plant, only a few miles from the Highland Park site. Some time after the company decided to build the plant, it selected Kahn as its architect, beginning a long relationship between Kahn and Henry Ford. Although there must have been many fascinating facets to their relationship, two stand out. First, both men had risen to prominence in their respective fields without much formal education. Ford is known to have disliked the pretenses he believed some educated people exhibited, and those pretenses would have been absent in Kahn, who shared the feeling. In fact, during the 1920s and until 1935, Kahn did not hire a single person with an architectural degree, believing such a person's desire for self-expression was not compatible with the cooperative team he had assembled in his office. Second, Ford was a notorious anti-Semite, even going to far as to publish anti-Jewish diatribes in his weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which he bought in 1918. Yet despite the fact that Kahn was a Jew, neither man terminated the relationship. One thing that certainly must have enamored Ford of Kahn was Kahn's oft-repeated adage: "Architecture is 90% business and 10% art."

The Highland Park plant was very similar to Kahn's Packard plant and not much like the Pierce plant in Buffalo. The original building was of reinforced concrete, four stories tall, 860 feet long, and 75 feet wide, with a row of columns extending along the building's central axis. Later additions, such as power plant, offices, machine shop, and another multi-story factory building, made the Highland Park complex immense. Edward Gray, a Ford engineer, contributed much to the design of the additions. Two features were fundamental to the design of Highland Park: efficient flow of materials was paramount to the configuration of buildings and spaces, and effective daylighting increased workers' productivity within the buildings.

While Kahn and his office worked on Highland Park, they also continued to work on expanding the Packard plant and designing industrial buildings for other firms, like Dodge Brothers, Hudson, and Continental in the auto industry and B.F. Goodrich Rubber Company and Joseph Mack Printing in other sectors. In 1910, Kahn's brother Louis joined the firm. By 1918, eighty people worked in the office. Ernest Wilby remained with the Kahn firm until 1922.

The River Rouge plant, which marked a new turn in the operations of the Ford Motor Company, also marked a turn in the kinds of factories Kahn designed. Prior to the Rouge plant, most of Kahn's factory buildings had been multi-storied reinforced-concrete structures; after Rouge, most were single-storied steel-frame structures. Kahn was already experienced with steel frames. He had used the system in 1904 when designing a single-story building with sawtooth roof for the Burroughs Adding Machine Company in Detroit, and he used a steel frame for a machine shop at Highland Park and for Packard's forge shop. None of those buildings came close to the scale of the plant Kahn designed for Ford at the Rouge site in 1918. The first use of the original Rouge building was not to assemble automobiles but rather submarine chasers. Henry Ford had convinced the government that he could mass-produce submarine chasers, called Eagle boats, using the same principles he used to make the Model T. The government agreed to finance construction of the building in early 1918, and Kahn proceeded to design a building 1,700 feet long and 255 feet wide. The building was ready for operations in May 1918, and Ford launched its first Eagle boat in July. After the war, the company converted the building, designated "B" Building in the River Rouge complex, for use in assembling Model T cars and Fordson tractors. Kahn also designed the other buildings at the Rouge plant, which grew in the ensuing years to gigantic proportions.

In addition to the Rouge plant, Kahn designed thirty-five of the branch assembly plants that were part of the Ford expansion of the 1920s. Ford was not Kahn's only client. He also designed major projects for Studebaker, Fisher Body, Chrysler, Chalmers Motor Company, Plymouth, and the Glenn L. Martin Company. The latter client was his first in the aircraft industry. Throughout this period, Kahn continued to design non-industrial buildings as well,, notably the General Motors Building and the Fisher Building in Detroit and the William L. Clements Memorial Library at the University of Michigan. Kahn's non-industrial buildings are beautiful structures and impeccably detailed, but they also demonstrate that as a commercial architect he remained entirely conventional and derivative. By 1929, the Kahn firm had designed more than fifty major factories and had grown to more than 400 employees who were designing more than $1,000,000 worth of construction each week. This was the Kahn firm as it stood when called upon by Ford to design the branch assembly plant in Richmond, California.

With the onset of the Great Depression, sales of automobiles dropped, and auto companies and other industrial firms curtailed their plans for expansion of the plant and capacity. Correspondingly, Kahn's roster of domestic commissions languished, and his firm would have suffered were it not for a new venture he began in 1929. The Soviet Union, through its international commerce arm the Amtorg Trading Corporation, commissioned him to design a giant tractor factory at Chelyabinsk. Kahn was initially reluctant because the United States had still not recognized the Soviet government, many of Kahn's American clients were strongly anti-communist, and the Nazis and anti-Semites in the U.S. often accused Jews of being communist sympathizers, a label that thereby might affix to him. He concluded, however, that the Russian people had long suffered under the czars and were as entitled to benefits deriving from good factory design as anyone. He could contribute in that regard. During the next three years, Kahn and his firm designed several other huge industrial plants inside the Soviet Union, at least one of which was in conjunction with the Ford Motor Company, which was also in a contractual relationship with Amtorg. Ford agreed to supply the Soviets with plans, specifications, management systems, and technical assistance for the construction at Niznij Novgorod of an automotive plant based on the River Rouge model, and Kahn designed the complex. Kahn and his staff not only designed industrial buildings for the Soviets, but also they established a branch office in Moscow to help train Russian architects and engineers in the principles of factory design on the Ford/Kahn model. Not surprisingly, Kahn did have to defend himself against accusations in the U.S. that he was supporting the communists, accusations which subsided after his contract with the Soviets ended in 1932.

As the need for new construction re-emerged in the mid-1930s, Kahn again began to secure domestic industrial projects, including the Lady Esther cosmetics factory in Illinois, giant new plants for Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, and DeSoto in Michigan, and several more airplane factories for such clients as United Aircraft Corporation and Glenn L. Martin again. With war on the horizon in the late 1930s and with Congress and the U.S. military taking steps to mobilize American industry for the production of aircraft, Kahn secured more airplane factory commissions in the early 1940s, including Wright Aeronautical Corporation in Ohio, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in New Orleans, Curtiss Wright Corporation in Kentucky and New York, and Ford's Willow Run plant in Michigan. Kahn also designed the giant Chrysler Tank Arsenal in Detroit and a torpedo plant for the Navy and American Can Company. Albert Kahn died in 1945 after becoming the most prolific and influential architect of industrial structures in the first half of the twentieth century. His firm, Albert Kahn Associated, Inc., exists to this day.