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.
A Powerhouse of Architecture
and Engineering Innovations
Learn More About Albert Kahn
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
“Nine tenths of my success has come because I listened
to what people said they wanted and gave it to them.”
— ALBERT KAHN
Ten Significant Buildings
from Albert Kahn,
Architects & Engineers
Albert Kahn achieved success by building an organization that provided under one roof all the various competencies required for specialized industrial production facilities. The following Albert Kahn, Architects & Engineers projects illustrate the firm’s growth and innovations that set the standard for modern industrial structures.
Above: Standard Details book. 1930 (Michael G. Smith)
Consolidated Pneumatic Tool Company factory
Where did it all begin? The first factory designed by Albert Kahn was actually in Scotland. The design was closely based on the design of the Detroit factory of Chicago Pneumatic Tool company (the parent company), authored by St. Louis architect Louis Mullgardt. The buildings remain in use to this day. (1939 photo copyright Historic Environment Scotland)
Packard Motor Car Company plant
The Packard Motor Car Company plant was a highly innovative one- and two-story factory complex designed by Albert and Julius Kahn to maximize production efficiency, minimize construction time and cost, and reduce insurance and maintenance expenses. The entire 70,000 square foot factory complex, including its own power plant, was constructed within ninety days. The speed of construction allowed Packard to begin production quickly and at a low cost. One building in the complex contained a basement reservoir and the floor above it was supported by concrete beams constructed with hand-built versions of Julius’s “Kahn System” bars—the first known use of the new technology. These original Packard buildings were replaced by concrete structures by 1917. (circa 1905, Detroit Public Library, National Automotive Collection)
Great Northern Cement Company warehouse
Cement is to concrete as flour is to bread. How fitting then is this building for the Great Northern Cement Company? This warehouse was the first fully reinforced concrete building in Michigan and the first building constructed using the Kahn System of concrete reinforcement. It was designed by Albert, engineered by Julius, and constructed by Julius’s Trussed Concrete Steel Company (Truscon). Though derelict, the building remains standing. (Dalton Smith photo)
Burroughs/American Arithmometer factory and addition
The original factory and offices for the Burroughs Adding Machine Company were designed by Albert and Julius Kahn, using the newly patented Kahn System of reinforced concrete for the floors and roof of the one-and two-story building—iron columns and exterior brick walls supported the structure. A three-story wing added the following year was constructed entirely with reinforced concrete, the first building of its kind in Detroit. The saw tooth roofline of the building, a common feature of the era, featured tall windows that flooded the expansive machine shop with daylight and opened to exhaust hot air. (The buildings were demolished.) (Charles Babbage Institute Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis, MN—Burroughs Corporation Collection)
How do you know you’ve made it big? When you design projects in New York City, of course. This nine-story, reinforced concrete factory built for one of Brooklyn’s largest manufacturers demonstrated that Albert Kahn had become a nationally known architect. Built by Truscon’s construction subsidiary, the building was added to in subsequent years and now houses a variety of businesses. 1908 (Albert Kahn Associates photo)
Ford Highland Park factory
Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory complex was designed to produce the Model-T; it became the largest manufacturing facility in the world at the time and the first factory to build cars using a moving assembly line. Highland Park became known as the “Crystal Palace” for its extensive windows and seemingly weightless modern design. Kahn’s firm employed a new type of window, replacing the cantankerous double-hung assemblies with a simple steel sash supporting glass panes. The entire space between the building’s support columns was filled with glass, allowing better illumination and ventilation. These large windows greatly improved the work environment for employees, were widely copied, and even inspired European architects. (Library of Congress photo)
Detroit News Building
Once completed, the Detroit News Building was believed to be the largest newspaper plant in the world. Described by Albert Kahn in 1937 as “the best industrial building we have designed to date,” it was the first building designed specifically for the production of a daily newspaper. The building married art and industrial function: on the exterior, sculptures and symbolic text adorn the surface of the building, while inside, space is efficiently laid out to write, edit, print, and ship the daily newspaper. The first floor housed the plant’s pressroom, featuring numerous printing presses that printed, cut, folded, and counted the newspapers, all of which was visible to the public through the large windows at street level. (Michael G. Smith photo)
Ford River Rouge Glass Plant
Henry Ford bought 2,000 acres along the Rouge River to develop the world’s largest industrial complex, changing forever the way automobiles were mass-produced and future factories were designed. Ford’s most radical change was the substitution of single-story manufacturing buildings in place of the multi-story structures at Ford’s Highland Park factory. The Glass Plant, with its lightweight steel and glass frame, was one of the most iconic and influential industrial buildings. The building’s four furnaces heated glass to over 2,000 degrees, yet the design of the building allowed the heat to flow up and out the windows at the top. The building was recently renovated into an employee training center. 1927 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company).
Glenn Martin aircraft factory
How do you design for the future? Glenn L. Martin would say, imagine what is yet to exist. For his aircraft assembly building he wanted enough floor space to one day manufacture planes with the largest wingspan on the market. The massive Plant Number 1 has an assembly area of 450 feet by 300 feet with no obstructing support columns—the roof was supported by the world’s longest flat span trusses. This design inspired Mies van der Rohe’s concept of “Universal Space”: a long-span, single-volume, structure that can be used for any number of functions. The building’s great flexibility inspired architects and industrialists, and permitted it to remain in use to this day. 1937 (Albert Kahn Associates)
Willow Run bomber plant
Designed and built in under a year, Willow Run became the symbol of the American “Arsenal of Democracy” in World War II. Even Rosie the Riveter was born there! The factory was the first to build aircraft on a moving assembly line and produced nearly half of the 18,000 B-24 Liberator bombers constructed during WWII. By war’s end, it was turning out one bomber per hour. With over seven million square feet of factory space, Willow Run was the largest industrial facility under one roof in the world at the time. Designed to operate 24 hours a day, the factory was a windowless building lit with artificial lights and climate controlled with heating and cooling systems. After the war, these electrical and mechanical systems became standard in American factories and large commercial spaces, and the plant was used to produce automobile parts. Only a small section of the original plant still stands. 1943