On December 8, 1942, the architect and engineer Albert Kahn–known as “the man who built Detroit”–dies at his home there. He was 73 years old. Kahn and his assistants built more than 2,000 buildings in all, mostly for Ford and General Motors. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Kahn “revolutionized the concept of what a great factory should be: his designs made possible the marvels of modern mass production, and his buildings changed the faces of a thousand cities and towns from Detroit to Novosibirsk.”
Albert Kahn was born in Germany in 1869. When he was 11, his family moved to the United States and settled in Detroit, where the teenager took a job as an architect’s apprentice. In 1902, after working at a number of well-known architectural firms in Detroit, Kahn started his own practice.
While building factories for Packard, the young architect found that swapping reinforced concrete for wood or masonry sped up the construction of manufacturing plants considerably. It also made them sturdier and less combustible. Moreover, reinforced-concrete buildings needed fewer load-bearing walls; this, in turn, freed up floor space for massive industrial equipment. Kahn’s first concrete factory, Packard Shop No. 10, still stands today on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit.
“Architecture,” Kahn liked to say, “is 90 percent business and 10 percent art.” His buildings reflected this philosophy: they were sleek, flexible, and above all functional. Besides all that utilitarian concrete, they incorporated huge metal-framed windows and garage doors and acres of uninterrupted floor space for conveyor belts and other machines. Kahn’s first Ford factory, the 1909 Highland Park plant, used elevators and dumbwaiters to spread the Model T assembly line over several floors, but most of his subsequent factories were huge single-story spaces: Ford’s River Rouge plant (1916), the massive Goodyear Airdock in Akron (1929), the Glenn Martin aeronautics factory in Maryland (built in 1937 around an assembly floor the size of a football field) and, perhaps most famous of all, the half-mile–long Willow Run “Arsenal of Democracy,” the home of Ford’s B-29 bomber in Ypsilanti.
Though Kahn designed a number of non-factory buildings, including the Ford and GM office towers in downtown Detroit, he is best known for building factories that reflected the needs of the industrial age. We still celebrate his innovations today.