No architect of the 20th century was more significant or influential than Albert Kahn. Although the firm is best known in Detroit for a number of impressive office buildings, Kahn’s greatest contributions were in industrial architecture and the management and operation of a modern architecture firm.
Albert Kahn possessed enormous foresight and a superb business sense. In the first years of the 20th century, he correctly anticipated that the rapid increase in industrial manufacturing would require not merely more factories, but factories of a different type: larger, stronger, more complex, and highly specialized. Perceiving both demand and opportunity, he left his partnership with George D. Mason—a partnership primarily focused on homes for the well-to-do—and, in 1902, partnered with his brother Julius Kahn, a skilled civil engineer. Kahn & Kahn was the first architectural firm in Detroit to offer engineering services, and one of the first in country to do so.
A Focus on Industrial Work
The two brothers refocused the firm on industrial work and soon met with success. In 1903, they were commissioned to design an automobile manufacturing facility for the Packard Motor Car Company, which was moving to Detroit from Ohio.
While the Packard work was the type of desirable business Albert anticipated his refocused firm would secure, another development arose from the joint efforts of the two men: Julius invented a practical, inexpensive, and scientifically-based method of reinforcing concrete with steel bars. Prior to Julius’s invention, reinforced concrete was expensive and infrequently employed in the U.S. as a method of building construction. Late in 1903, Julius left the architecture partnership and founded a company to manufacture and market his steel reinforcement bars: the Trussed Concrete Steel Company (Truscon). Among the partners in the new firm was Albert Kahn.
Over the next two years, Truscon grew rapidly into a national firm. Albert was the first architect in Michigan to employ the Kahn System of reinforcement for constructing reinforced concrete buildings. In 1904, Albert designed, and Julius’s firm constructed, a factory and office building for the Burroughs Corporation on Second Avenue in Detroit, a structure that was written up in American Architect due to its unusual reinforcedconcrete construction.**
These four factory projects … did much to cement Albert Kahn’s reputation as a leading architect of modern factories and automobile plants in particular
Architect of modern factories and automobile plants
During 1906, Truscon’s aggressive sales efforts secured commissions for three substantial automobile factories of reinforced concrete construction: Pierce Arrow and E. R. Thomas in Buffalo, and Garford Company in Elyria, Ohio. Because of Albert’s experience with both reinforced concrete and the design of Packard’s auto plant in Detroit, all three clients accepted Truscon’s suggestion that Albert Kahn be employed as the architect for their new auto plants. In addition to these out-of-state jobs, Albert designed for Packard two large additions to their Detroit factory, also constructed by Truscon. These four factory projects represented a total of nearly 600,000 square feet of reinforced concrete construction, the majority of all automobile factory construction that year. This work did much to cement Albert Kahn’s reputation as a leading architect of modern factories and automobile plants in particular.
In 1906 Kahn’s firm recorded 27 jobs, of which six were residences and seven were factories—the first year in which industrial jobs exceeded in number the residential projects. The following year the firm recorded 56 commissions, of which 13 were residences and 19 were factories or factory additions, reflecting a significant change in the nature and volume of the business. Soon after, Kahn was engaged by Henry Ford to design the Highland Park Ford factory complex, the largest factory in the world. Then in 1917, Kahn’s firm was again tasked by Ford to design a new factory complex, the far larger River Rouge factory. By the time of America’s entry into the First World War, Albert Kahn’s firm was the largest industrial architecture firm in the nation. In 1937, one source estimated that the volume of work from Kahn’s firm represented “19 percent of all architect designed U.S. industrial buildings.”
“Much like the Director of an Orchestra…”
In 1903 Kahn hired designer Ernest Wilby to handle design duties, thereby freeing Albert to attend to the increasing demands on his time resulting from his firm’s dramatic growth. Wilby was made an associate of the firm two years later. Kahn wrote in 1941: “One of the best investments I made early in my professional career was the engagement of Ernest Wilby. I flatter myself at having had the courage to engage him at a salary considerably higher than what I expected to earn for myself—but it proved a wise move.” This, indeed, was a wise move, and one which Kahn repeated numerous times as he grew his architecture firm. Hiring top people and delegating the work, while reserving to himself close management oversight, was one of the keys to Kahn’s success in building what was almost certainly the world’s most efficient and innovative architecture and engineering firm.
“Nine tenths of my success has come because I listened to what people said they wanted and gave it to them.” — Albert Khan
Kahn’s vision of an efficient and well-run firm was consistent throughout his career. The first component of his highly effective business approach was stated clearly by Kahn in a 1929 interview: “Nine tenths of my success has come because I listened to what people said they wanted and gave it to them.” Kahn achieved this with an organization that provided under one roof all the various competencies required for specialized industrial production facilities. “An “organization,” he stated, “composed of men competent and qualified to handle the project in its various phases of plan, design, and engineering, both structural and mechanical.”
Kahn understood that having specialists with all the required technical expertise, while necessary, was far from sufficient to bring about the results he sought. Bringing the various individuals and departments together to work as an effective team was viewed by Kahn as the most essential aspect his firm’s success. This was brought about by managing the efforts of his organization “much like the Director of an Orchestra in which each instrument plays an important part, all controlled, however, by one force to produce the desired ensemble.”
An internal document from the Kahn firm, dating from around 1930, describes the procedure by which Kahn directed his orchestra. The client met first with Albert Kahn and then preliminary layouts and floor sketches were prepared for the client. Once the client approved these preliminary plans, the job was turned over to the design department. The document describes the preparation of the design as follows.
The work is handled by two architects, one of whom specializes in exterior design, the other in interior design and decoration. Each has draftsmen and detailers working under his supervision. The sketch plans are studied and from them, artist’s drawings of the elevations are worked up in color, to give the Owner an idea of the finished appearance of the building. … Minor modifications are perhaps made at the request of the owner or Mr. Albert Kahn and when the final design is finished, it is turned over to one of the other divisions of the architectural department for the preparation of working drawings.
“Team work rather than star play”
Except in its early years, the structure of Kahn’s organization was not entirely unique. Other firms soon began including engineering services within a multi-faceted architecture business. However, Kahn remained somewhat distinct in his strong emphasis on teamwork and collaboration. He wrote in 1918 that “the efficiently organized office…prides itself upon the final success achieved, rather than individual effort—on team work rather than star play.” He stated in an interview that, “In our offices there are no jealousies; sometimes six or ten of us work on a design together.” Some firms might allow a particular employee to be recognized for their role in the design of a building; Kahn did not. Nor did he claim credit for himself, as was often the case with the heads of some firms. He once explained his viewpoint when being interviewed in connection with a building for Ford: “When you write the story, credit [the building] to Albert Kahn Associates and Engineers, Inc., rather than to me, personally. After all, I am like the quarterback on a football team. Without the teamwork of my associates, I would be nothing.”
An organization the size of Kahn’s, with hundreds of employees, demanded more than competence in architecture and engineering; broad business expertise was essential as well. Daniel Shahan, hired by Albert and later served as president of the firm, described Albert as “a dynamic person with a terrific business mind.” A 1918 article in Architectural Forum on the firm’s internal operations stated that “In Mr. Kahn’s practice, particular attention is paid to the business administration of the work.” Kahn described the many facets of his job which were not strictly architectural in nature, but essential to the success of his business.
The architect is expected to be an able administrator to handle the large sums often involved in building, somewhat of a lawyer to save legal complications, considerable of a judge to decide between owner and contractor, a sociologist to meet the social problem, somewhat of a banker to advise on the financial soundness of projects, and above all a tactician to meet the requirements of clients.
Yet Kahn reveled in these diverse requirements: “It is the many demands upon him that make the architect’s work so interesting and exciting.”
Kahn’s ability to anticipate future trends and respond to them with an effective business strategy contributed greatly to his exceptional success. He had a pragmatic view of architecture in the 20th century that many architects failed to appreciate nearly as early as did Kahn. He understood that the industrial and commercial client operated under financial and competitive pressures that dictated, in Kahn’s words, that “The plant must be economically designed. First and last, it must serve as an investment.” This comment of Kahn’s, which appeared in the September 1918 edition of Architect and Engineer, was intended to inform other architects of two considerations underlying their increasing loss of work to engineering firms. The first was that, while the appearance of a building may be of great concern to an architect, it was of little concern to the factory owner. The second was that, again in Kahn’s own words, “Industrial buildings must need deal largely with practical requirements, structural design, and mechanical equipment.” Kahn foresaw that the increasingly complex requirements of manufacturing companies would cause them to seek out engineering firms to design their facilities, and architects would eventually be relegated to the sidelines. Rather than lose highly lucrative industrial commissions to engineering firms, Kahn brought engineering into his firm and placed it within the broader context of an expanded architectural overview.
It was Kahn’s early realization of these considerations that motivated him to join with his brother Julius, and hire Ernest Wilby. Julius provided the engineering capability the firm needed and Wilby freed Kahn from doing his own design work. For most architects, design work was the most interesting and desirable task in the office, but Kahn had a much larger vision; to achieve it, he had to become the “Director of the Orchestra,” not just one of its players.
A good test of a team’s cohesiveness and collaborative ability is an urgent and vitally important project. An excellent example of which occurred when Kahn’s firm was called upon just after the United States entered the First World War. At that time, the country’s air corps was essentially nonexistent. The Army sought to construct 30 training airfields across the country, but lacked the capability of designing them. In an unusual move, the Army hired an outside architecture firm, Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers, Inc., to design the fields. Days after that decision was made, the head of the US Army Signal Corps arrived at Kahn’s firm: “I took his office, cleared out every bit of work he had in it, took his entire force, and we got out the plans for 54 buildings in about 10 days.” The plans were not only developed quickly, but all the airfields were built from the same set of plans. The buildings were constructed of standard hardware and lumber available locally, using assembly methods familiar to ordinary house carpenters. The first airfield, Selfridge Field near Mt. Clemens, Michigan, composed of more than 50 buildings and hangars, was completed in less than two months.
Though industrial structures dominated the job list of Albert Kahn’s firm, many commercial and office buildings were turned out by the firm as well. In fact, Kahn’s office had an exceptionally talented design department that was responsible for hundreds of fine looking buildings, not only in Detroit, but throughout the country. It was Kahn’s commitment to hiring the best employees that resulted in his design department’s consistently high quality of output. Ernest Wilby was a talented designer and a highly respected member of Kahn’s staff. In 1910, as the volume of work grew, Kahn added a second designer, George D. Mason’s chief designer, Wirt C. Rowland. Rowland left Kahn’s firm in 1912 to join Malcomson and Higginbotham, where he was made an associate in the firm. Kahn then sought out a promising designer in New York City, Amedeo Leone, to replace Rowland. Leone, though he stayed with Kahn only two years, was exceptionally talented, eventually becoming president and chairman of the board at Smith, Hinchman and Grylls. After Leone’s departure, Kahn rehired Rowland, who remained with the firm until 1922. Sometime in 1915 or early 1916, medical issues forced Ernest Wilby’s retirement from the practice of architecture. Kahn then advanced Rowland to Wilby’s former position of chief designer.
In addition to Leone and Rowland, Kahn’s office trained an uncountable number of highly skilled employees who later went on to distinguished careers with their own or other firms. Many young architects early in their careers sought the opportunity to work in Kahn’s office to develop and refine their skills before setting out on their own; so indirectly, Kahn’s influence on the quality of architectural design went far beyond the buildings designed by his firm. A number of examples illustrate the point. The magazine Architectural Digest in 2016 published an article on the world’s most beautiful art deco buildings. Included on the list were four buildings in the United States constructed between 1924 and 1930: LeVeque Tower, Columbus, Ohio (constructed 1924), Guardian Building, Detroit (1929), Chrysler Building, New York City (1930), and Eastern Columbia Building, Los Angeles (1930). The LeVeque Tower was designed by C. Howard Crane, a former draftsman in Kahn’s office. The Guardian Building was designed by Wirt Rowland, Kahn’s former chief designer. The Chrysler Building’s architect was William Van Alen, yet the design was substantially revised to its iconic appearance by its owner, Walter P. Chrysler, based on Wirt Rowland’s design of a building for the Union Industrial Bank in Flint, Michigan, of which Chrysler was a director and member of the building committee. Claud Beelman, architect of the Eastern Columbia Building, trained in Kahn’s office before relocating to the West Coast.
Designer John L. Skinner settled in Miami Beach in the 1930s and subsequently designed many of the city’s most important buildings, including Miami International Airport, the Dade County Auditorium, the missile launching complex at Cape Canaveral, and Art Deco beach hotels. He acquired his design skills while working in Kahn’s office from 1916 to 1919. His comments about those years, described in his American Institute of Architects nomination for fellowship, reveal a great deal about Kahn’s office and Albert Kahn.
The Nominee’s office training and experience prior to engaging in practice covers a period of approximately six years. Three years of this time was spent in the office of Albert Kahn, where the Nominee was under the personal supervision of Mr. Kahn and the “chief designer” Wirt Rowland. The Nominee might be considered a protégé of this office in that Mr. Kahn encouraged him and loaned him sufficient funds to continue his education in Europe, at a time when it would have been impossible for him to undertake such a program at his own expense.
Others from Kahn’s office impacted the education of architects as well. John Skinner headed the Department of Architecture at Georgia Tech from 1922 to 1925 and then served as the first head of the architecture department at the University of Miami. Detroit’s Lawrence Technological University’s College of Architecture and Design was founded by Earl Pellerin, who worked in Kahn’s office as both an intern and a permanent employee.
The extent of Kahn’s contributions to architecture can only be touched upon in this brief summary. He should be remembered for his commitment to effectively meeting the needs of his industrial clients, and by so doing, he greatly advanced American’s industrial development. By wrapping engineering services within an architecture firm, which operated under his capable leadership, he and his organization were able to understand the problems faced by his clients, and develop innovative methods of solving them. Kahn had superb business skills, and exceptional ability to anticipate trends in his own and in other fields, and an uncanny ability to hire excellent people, all of which contributed to his success.
* At present, the name of the firm is Albert Kahn Associates, Inc. For the period of significance of this property, based on journal articles and the firm’s letterhead, it was known by various names, including: Albert Kahn, Architect; Albert Kahn, Architect, and Ernest Wilby, Associate; Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers; and Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers, Inc.
** “Factory of the American Arithmometer Co., Detroit, Mich.,” American Architect 87, no. 1527, (April 1, 1905), 107-08.