Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Kahn, Albert

Albert Kahn is perhaps Detroit’s best-known architect, and certainly one of its most prolific. Born in Germany on March 21, 1869, his family moved to Detroit in 1881. To help support his family, Kahn had to work, helping with his father’s early business in the city at the age of 12. He was hired as an office boy and apprentice architect by John Scott & Company but was fired a year later. While working for Scott, Kahn was found by sculptor Julius Melchers who allowed him to attend his drawing classes, where he excelled. Through Melchers, Kahn was hired at George Mason’s firm, Mason & Rice, where he learned drafting. Mason would go on to become one of Kahn’s greatest mentors and friends. Much of Kahn’s education was absorbed from his mentors, and from self-study at the library – he had no formal education past elementary school. In 1890, he won the American Architect and Building News scholarship to study in Europe, where he toured for a time with Henry Bacon. Shortly after his return, he was made chief designer at Mason & Rice at the age of 22. In 1895, he founded what would become Albert Kahn Associates, which is still in operation today.

Kahn had a versatile career, but is best known for revolutionizing industrial design in the European Modernist style. He achieved this through the use of reinforced concrete to open up space, bring in light, and reduce fire risk for Packard Motors in 1905 with his engineer brother Julius, who developed the Kahn system of reinforced concrete. His functional and economical designs shined in the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Complex, built in the 1920s using steel building frames. Kahn worked with Ford years later on the Willow Run bomber plant during World War II, one of several Kahn contributions to the Arsenal of Democracy. His work was international in scale – with his firm spending two years designing hundreds of factories in the Soviet Union starting in 1929.

Kahn’s industrial architecture set the stage for the worldwide modernist movement elevating practical and functional concerns over ornamental details. Kahn’s well-lit and efficient spaces offered the best conditions for mass production. His designs for factories showed an ease with matters of operation and organization.

Beyond his industrial works, Kahn designed many iconic buildings in the Detroit area. One of his grandest buildings, the Fisher Building, won the Architectural League’s Silver Medal in 1928. More examples of his extensive body of work include: the Argonaut Building, Cadillac Place, the Detroit Athletic ClubDetroit Police Headquarters, the First National Building, the Ford Highland Park PlantBelle Isle AquariumAnna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press Buildings, Cranbrook House, Herman Kiefer Hospital, the Maccabees Building, River Place, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, and Hill Auditorium and Burton Memorial Tower on the University of Michigan campus. Kahn’s family attended Temple Beth El, and he went on to design two new buildings for the congregation, in 1903 and 1922.

Kahn was a leader in his profession, a frequent lecturer, founding craftsman of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts in 1906, and a member of the Detroit Arts Commission created in 1918. He married Ernestine Krolik in 1896, and they had four children together. Kahn died in Detroit on December 8, 1942.



Interior of the Fisher Building, designed by Albert Kahn, 1940s - 2003.004.155b

Postcard showing the Detroit Athletic Club, designed by Albert Kahn, 1950s - 2012.045.152

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