Albert Kahn was born in 1869 near Frankfurt in Rhaunen, Germany. His parents and siblings immigrated to the United States in 1881, settling in Detroit. As a Jewish-German immigrant, life was not easy. The oldest of eight, Albert had to leave school in the seventh grade to work and help support his family.
On Sundays, he received free art lessons from a local artist, who, recognizing his talents, referred him to George D. Mason, a successful architect. Mason recalled:
“We took him on as an office boy and nine months later started him on tracing and drafting. I have never known anyone with such enormous capacity for concentration and application to study. Every spare moment of the day, Albert spent reading our collection of architectural books. In fact, he was often fond of saying that his early education in architecture was obtained in the library of Mason and Rice.”
In 1891, at 22 years old, Albert won a traveling scholarship of $500 from American Architect and Building News. The money financed a nine-month study tour through Europe. In the last four months of the trip, he traveled with Henry Bacon, later to become the architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Kahn referred to that time with Bacon as his “formal education in architecture.” He documented his journey through sketchbooks filled with beautiful renderings and architectural details. After his travels, he returned to Mason and Rice’s office and was named the firm’s chief designer.
In 1895, Kahn established an architecture firm with George W. Nettleton and Alexander B. Trowbridge, two Mason and Rice colleagues. A year later, Albert married Ernestine Krolik, and side by side they impacted the landscape of Detroit. In 1897, Trowbridge left to accept a professorship at Cornell University, and in 1900 Nettleton died. Kahn briefly rejoined his former employer George Mason to form the partnership of Mason and Kahn, at which time they completed landmark works like the Palms Apartments and the Belle Isle Conservatory and Aquarium in Detroit.
Julius Kahn, a civil engineer, partnered with his brother in 1902 to form the firm of Kahn and Kahn, the first firm in Detroit to offer both architecture and engineering services. Julius observed that concrete was used for the floors in two of his brother’s projects, the Palms Apartments and West Engineering Building at the University of Michigan. He was surprised to learn there was no method by which to calculate the strength of beams and floors constructed of concrete reinforced with steel. During the summer of 1902, Julius developed the first scientific theory of reinforced concrete and a far superior steel reinforcement bar. After receiving a patent on his “Kahn System” in 1903, Julius founded a company to manufacture and market the product, the Trussed Concrete Steel Company (Truscon), of which Albert was a partner.
This reinforced concrete system forever changed the design and engineering of modern factories and other buildings that benefited from the ability to span greater widths and heights. Fire, the scourge of brick and timber industrial buildings, was brought to heel by concrete. In an era when manufacturing buildings were primarily illuminated by natural light, reinforced concrete permitted structures with vast areas of glass, altering the factory from dark and dangerous to bright and spacious, ideal for manufacturing. This new type of factory set a new standard for industrial buildings and was copied around the world.
Henry Ford took notice and in 1908 he presented Albert with the challenge of designing a manufacturing facility for a moving assembly line. The first model of this assembly line was gravity fed in the multi-story Highland Park plant. The building was an integral part of the process. The windows in the plant represented a novel innovation, suggested by Albert’s head of design Ernest Wilby. Instead of standard double-hung windows, the entire space between the building’s support columns was filled with glass panes held in place with steel sash. This steel sash was not available in the US, so they were imported from England, and later manufactured by Julius’s firm, Truscon. Large windows and ventilation improved the safety and environment for the workers. This expanse of steel sash inspired the building’s nickname “Crystal Palace.” The unadorned simplicity of this and other Kahn-designed buildings inspired the functional modernism of European architects.
Following the success of the Highland Park plant, Henry Ford continued working with Albert, this time on a monumental project along the Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan. Here, Ford increased the manufacturing efficiency with a plant that housed raw materials and performed every step of the manufacturing process along a continuous moving assembly line to create the finished automobile. Kahn and Ford shifted from the multi-story buildings that characterized the Highland Park complex to dispersed, single-story structures, eliminating the need to transport materials and assemblies vertically. Albert’s firm went on to complete over 1,000 buildings for Ford Motor Co. around the world.
Albert won the heart of Detroit’s industrial giants – they even trusted him with their personal spaces. Detroit area communities and neighborhoods such as Bloomfield Hills, Grosse Pointe, Harbor Springs, Boston Edison, Indian Village, and Walkerville, Ontario, boast Albert Kahn-designed homes. The great respect from clients earned him commissions for their clubs and organizations, designing iconic architecture for the Detroit Golf Club, Detroit Athletic Club, Standard Club in Chicago, and many others. Albert and his firm also designed many of the early buildings on the University of Michigan’s campus.
By the 1920s, Albert’s office was booming! Civic and public buildings, banks, stores, hospitals, estates, and factories all were part of the firm’s vast project list – nearly 20,000 projects in Albert’s lifetime. Each building was constructed of quality materials, and most remain in service a century later, as strong as the day they were built. The Fisher Building, often referred to as Detroit’s largest art object, is a testament to the firm’s talented architects and engineers.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics took notice of the firm’s work and in May 1929, engaged Kahn’s firm to design and oversee construction of a $4 million tractor plant outside Stalingrad. Later that year, the firm was hired as the consulting architect to oversee and advise on the entire Soviet industrialization project, becoming a key part of the first “Five-Year Plan.” Moritz Kahn (Albert’s brother) led the team of 25 men and their wives who opened an office in Moscow. Over the next two years, the firm designed and built over 500 factories in the USSR.
In the 1930s, Kahn continued to produce office and manufacturing buildings for a wide range of clients, such as the Ann Arbor News and the Brooklyn office of the New York Times. Around the same time, Kahn’s firm began designing strikingly modern-looking factory buildings with curtain walls of glass, like the De Soto Press Shop of the Chrysler Corporation, setting the standard for a new age of modern architecture. Modern architects around the world were watching and imitating the industrial architecture of Albert Kahn. By the end of the thirties, Albert’s firm had designed 19% of the industrial buildings in the United States.
Albert Kahn’s influence in the war efforts stemmed from the immediate production needs during the war. As the evolution of war equipment changed, the need for architecture to support this new equipment was necessary. During World War I, the firm designed Selfridge Field, the country’s first airbase, and 30 other similar fields throughout the country, as well as Langley Field, the first government aircraft testing facility. The firm’s contributions during World War II included strategic naval airbases along the country’s coastlines and numerous strategic bases in the Pacific. Kahn’s firm designed many of the aircraft and vehicle factories essential to the war effort, often including innovations such as structural spans wide enough to house multiple large aircraft. The firm’s ability to rapidly develop successful designs helped to transform the country’s industrial base onto a wartime footing. From the Chrysler Tank Plant to the Willow Run Bomber Plant to factories making everything from ammunition, clothing, airplanes, and other supplies, the office continued to crank out buildings at record speed, which only brought more work into the office.
This speed to market would not have been possible without the talents of Louis Kahn (Albert’s brother). Louis has been credited for many of the lean processes developed in the Kahn office. These practices have been studied and duplicated in architectural firms around the world. The firm was one of the first in the country to incorporate architects and engineers in the same office. This collaboration between various specialists has proven invaluable and enduring. Lean principles and efficient factories were also studied and implemented in Kahn’s office, always looking for efficiencies and eliminating duplication and waste. Standardizing of details allowed the firm to quickly select details rather than recreating or redrawing each detail for every project. These project management processes added organization to the firm and is likely responsible for many of the archives we are fortunate to have today.
On March 7, 1940, the firm was incorporated as Albert Kahn Associated Architects and Engineers, Inc. The first officers were Albert Kahn, President, Ernestine Kahn, Vice President, and Louis Kahn, Secretary and Treasurer. Shares of stock were issued to the firm’s 25 longest-tenured employees, becoming one of the few privately held firms to share ownership with employees, and ensuring the succession of the firm. On December 8, 1942, Albert Kahn died and leadership of the firm was passed to Louis, who led the firm until his death in 1943. The firm was subsequently headed by long-serving managers as part of Albert’s succession plan.
The Legacy of Albert Kahn is not just about one person. Albert, his talented brothers, and his team of remarkable employees is a unique story that left an indelible mark on the world.