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Work of Albert Kahn

  • The Work of Albert Kahn

“The plant must be economically designed. First and last, it must serve as an investment, not as a monument to the designer. And there is the rub.
The very title ‘Architect,’ which implies the building of the beautiful,fills the owner with fear that more attention will be paid to decorative details, than to the many practical features so vastly more important in the problem.”

— ALBERT KAHN

A Powerhouse of Architecture
and Engineering Innovations

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Learn More About Albert Kahn

The Consolidated Pneumatic Tool Company factory, the first factory designed by Albert Kahn remains in use to this day. (1939 photo from Historic Environment Scotland )

Albert Kahn was the most famous and innovative industrial architect of the twentieth century. 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 Kahn did.

Though Kahn’s firm tackled all types of projects, from homes and social clubs, to hospitals and schools, and everything in between, the most important contributions were the innovative and pioneering industrial structures designed by the firm. Kahn 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, not as a monument to the designer. And there is the rub. The very title ‘Architect,’ which implies the building of the beautiful, fills the owner with fear that more attention will be paid to decorative details, than to the many practical features so vastly more important in the problem.” “Industrial buildings must need deal largely with practical requirements, structural design, and mechanical equipment.”

Above: The Ford River Rouge Glass Plant was put into operation in 1923. It was one of the Kahn Firm’s most striking and widely admired designs for an industrial manufacturing plant. (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company)

Albert-Julius-Kahn

Above: Albert and Julius Kahn circa 1940 (Albert Kahn Associates photo)

Realizing that the increasingly complex requirements of manufacturing companies would cause them to seek out engineering firms to design their facilities, Kahn anticipated that architects would eventually be relegated to the sidelines. Acting on this insight, he brought his brother Julius, a highly qualified civil engineer, into the firm as a partner. Kahn and Kahn, Architects and Engineers, was the first firm in Detroit and one of the first in America to offer in-house engineering services; it was a practice of architects and engineers that together could speak the language of the client and solve the unique challenges they faced.

Both Albert and Julius had an unusually strong aptitude for business, which aided them in comprehending the financial and technological challenges faced by manufacturing firms. The brothers focused their efforts on designing economical buildings that could be rapidly constructed so that the client could start production as soon as possible. The layout of the plant enhanced production efficiency by minimizing material handling and reducing the amount of labor required. Attention to the details of building construction reduced ongoing maintenance and fire insurance costs.

The-Palms-Apartments

The Palms Apartments, designed by Albert Kahn and George D. Mason in 1901, was the first multi-story building in Detroit to have concrete floors. It served as the inspiration forJulius Kahn to develop his revolutionary system of reinforced concrete.

Above Top: The Oliver Chilled Plow Company of South Bend, Indiana, hired Julius Kahn’s Trussed Concrete Steel Company in 1906 to construct this concrete warehouse. Albert Kahn was the architect for this and a number of other substantial buildings constructed that year by his brother’s company (Albert Kahn Associates photo). Above: The drawings for the1903 Packard Motor Car Company factory listed both Albert and Julius Kahn. This emphasized that both architecture and engineering services had been brought to bear in the design of the plant.

Kahn’s firm was responsible for many innovations in construction, but the most important was a dramatically improved method of building with concrete. During construction of the Palms Apartments—the first multi-story building in Detroit to have concrete floors—Julius became interested in concrete technology. Through his research he soon developed the first scientific method for reinforcing concrete with steel; his method was both practical and economical. After patenting his invention in 1903, Julius formed his own company, the Trussed Concrete Steel Company, or Truscon, to market his “Kahn System” reinforcement bars. Truscon went on to become the largest steel fabricating firm in the country during the 1930s.

Julius Kahn invented a highly successful method of floor construction that was used with his steel reinforcement bars. The hollow terra cotta blocks made a floor that was as strong as solid concrete but lighter in weight, less expensive to construct, and offered a smooth, light reflecting ceiling for the floor below.

This drawing from Albert Kahn’s 1919 patent for the design of the Packard Motor Company Forge Shop shows how the extensively windowed sides of the building allowed for a well-illuminated workspace and ventilation of hot air out of the building.

Above: This model of the Ford Motor Company Highland Park factory shows the innovative window system employed by Ernest Wilby of Kahn’s firm. The entire area within the concrete frame of the building was filled with glass, allowing the maximum amount of natural light to enter and illuminate the work area — an important feature in the era before effective artificial lighting was developed. 

Ford-Rouge-Glass-Plant
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Above top: the plans for the Ford River Rouge Glass Plant dated October 9, 1922.  Above: the glass plant as it looked upon completion in 1923. (Albert Kahn Associates photo)

B-24-Liberator

Above: B-24 Liberator bombers are constructed at the Ford Willow Run Bomber Plant, designed by the Kahn firm. Construction of the plant began in March 1941 and production of bombers began that September. By the end of the war, a new bomber was turned out every 63 minutes. (Walter Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo)

Working together, Albert and Julius pioneered the use of reinforced concrete for industrial buildings. Not only did the brothers produce a smart investment for business owners, but their innovative approach dramatically improved the working conditions for employees. In an era when manufacturing buildings were considered dark and dangerous spaces, reinforced concrete permitted structures with vast areas of glass that brought in more natural light and offered improved ventilation. Concrete factories had large work areas, unobstructed by support columns, and were far less susceptible to destruction by fire than the brick and timber buildings they replaced. The factory was transformed into a cleaner and safer workplace that caught the attention of the public, industrialists, and architects around the world. Albert and Julius quickly applied these concepts to the design and engineering of structures in other markets. Throughout their lives, the brothers continued to collaborate on projects through their respective firms.

Albert Kahn, Architects and Engineers, was, by the 1930s, the largest industrial design firm in the world. The journal Architectural Forum wrote that Kahn’s office was responsible for almost 20 percent of all architect-designed industrial buildings constructed in the US during 1938. Albert once said, “Nine tenths of my success has come because I listened to what people said they wanted and gave it to them.” This was an understatement; Albert often gave his clients more than they expected.

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“Nine tenths of my success has come because I listened
to what people said they wanted and gave it to them.”

— ALBERT KAHN

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