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Albert Kahn: The architect who built Detroit's skyline

Feb 10, 2017

Detroit and Ann Arbor are dotted with buildings designed by Albert Kahn, one of the region’s celebrated architects.

He’s responsible for the Fisher Building in Detroit, Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor and the Highland Park Ford plant, to name only a few.

But Kahn’s influence doesn’t stop at Michigan’s borders. He's designed celebrated buildings worldwide.

The Ford Engineering Lab in Dearborn, 1922
Credit Courtesy of Lawrence Technological University

Claire Zimmerman is an associate professor of architecture and art history at the University of Michigan. She’s participating in a two-month long project at Lawrence Technological University to highlight the work and legacy of Albert Kahn.  

Khan was a German immigrant in the late 19th century whose family arrived as part of a surge of immigrants looking for jobs in the United States, Zimmerman said. When he landed in Detroit, Khan was 11 years old.

Though he never returned to school, Zimmerman said Khan already had useful skills.

“He was a very good pianist and he was a very good draftsman,” she said. “His mother apparently noticed his skill in drawing and apprenticed him with a sculptor…”

"The new recognition of Kahn is not so much a function of any particular date, but a growing understanding of the importance of industrialization to the American economy, to the built environment, to the Midwest as we find it today with this immense amount of infrastructure that's basically falling apart or being demolished."

After that, Kahn began apprenticing for architects’ offices, soon landing in the office of George Mason. Mason, Zimmerman said, was a “well-respected local architect” responsible for various homes in Ann Arbor.

Eventually, Khan established himself on his own.  

That led him to design several well-known buildings around Michigan: The Cadillac Place building (formerly called the Durant or General Motors building), Hatcher Library, the Fisher Building, Angel Hall, Burton Tower, part of the Packard Plant, the Clements Library, the Belle Isle Conservancy, the Highland Park Ford plant and more.

In Detroit alone, Khan designed at least 400 buildings, though as many as 900 of his designs could fill the city’s nooks and crannies.

“The information about Kahn’s Detroit projects is wide-ranging… a couple of local historians have produced a count of 400 buildings in Detroit by Kahn,” Zimmerman said. “The firm has records for about 900 projects in Detroit. Those could be minor projects, so we’re somewhere in between 400 and 900 buildings in Detroit.”

The University of Michigan campus is also home to various Kahn designs. Before the architect died in 1942, Zimmerman said Kahn designed 19 buildings on the school’s central campus. But as the firm continued building after his death, that count too could be higher.

The centennial of a number of Kahn’s landmark works is coming up, but Zimmerman said that's not the principle reasons experts are looking back on his life and work now.

Fisher Building flyer image
Credit Courtesy of Lawrence Technological University

“The new recognition of Kahn is not so much a function of any particular date, but a growing understanding of the importance of industrialization to the American economy, to the built environment, to the Midwest as we find it today with this immense amount of infrastructure that’s basically falling apart or being demolished,” Zimmerman said. “There’s somehow a new understanding that this period of American history has been not quite adequately analyzed by those who study the built environment. And that we’re living with its effects, either because the buildings are still here or precisely because they aren’t. So the landscape of Detroit would be the best example of that – filled with empty pockets left by the immense building campuses that Kahn designed for Dodge, for Chrysler, for Ford…”

For the full interview with Claire Zimmerman, listen above. It includes why Kahn’s Highland Park Ford plant was a game changer and how the architect differs from his contemporaries.

And for a full list of events and exhibits at Lawrence Tech about Albert Kahn, click here.

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