A biography examines architect Albert Kahn’s underappreciated legacy.
According to Hodges (Michigan’s Historic Railroad Stations, 2012), Kahn’s indelible imprint on modern architecture has been overshadowed by his prolific industrial work. Today, he is most remembered for the factories he built for the automotive industry giants Henry Ford and Packard Motors, but his designs reverberate through the whole expanse of architecture and even manufacturing. His “daylight factories” became a model to be emulated by everyone. The author expertly traces the remarkable arc of Kahn’s life, from his early years in Germany and Luxembourg in a large and culturally vibrant family and his experiences as a financially straitened immigrant in Detroit to his successes as a globally renowned architect. He began his career inauspiciously—he was fired from his first apprenticeship when he was about 13 years old, and while he was a gifted draftsman, he was artistically limited by a total colorblindness. Nevertheless, despite an education that concluded in elementary school, he would eventually design the buildings that have become symbolic of Detroit’s iconic modernism, such as the General Motors building, the Fisher building, and the Detroit Athletic Club. Kahn was also devoted to the war effort, “knee-deep in equipping the United States to win the Second World War,” and worked as a consulting architect on the Soviet Union’s inaugural Five-Year Plan. Hodges makes a compelling argument that Kahn was not only an important architect, but also a historically significant steward of an embryonic modernity: “Unseen and largely unanticipated, the modern world was already in gestation but needed the skilled hands of Albert Kahn to give it form and substance.”
The author artfully brings to fruition his intention to provide an “accessible introduction for the nonarchitect, nonacademic layperson.” Even the more technical discussions, like the ways in which Kahn and his brother Julius revolutionized the use of reinforced steel, are presented in plainly simple and sometimes elegant prose. Hodges covers an extraordinary expanse of historical and architectural ground in a short work—his powers of synopsis and distillation are impressive. He allows himself some speculation—for example, how Kahn managed the unrepentant anti-Semitism of Ford—but always displays admirable intellectual discipline, avoiding precipitous inference. The author’s overarching case that Kahn is unjustly underestimated by scholars—he “virtually epitomized the historical figure who is famous while alive yet vanishes the minute he’s in the ground”—is persuasively made. By the end of the book, it’s hard to disagree with the view of historian Wayne Andrews that even Kahn’s “factories were often works of art.” The architect was a maniacal workaholic, and so it makes sense that Hodges focuses on his professional achievements. But the author still furnishes a vivid sense of the man’s character and his private life as a “good, if often distracted, father and a devoted paterfamilias to his extended clan.” Hodges includes pages and pages of gorgeous photographs of Kahn’s buildings that capture their magnificence and, even more than this intelligent biography, establish his undeniable stature as one of the finest architects of his time.
A remarkable study of an architect’s works, both a historical and visual feast.