Episode 42: The Interior Life of Albert Kahn, featuring Claire Zimmerman

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Hi, I’m DH, editor of Michigan Today. In this episode of Listen in, Michigan, I go back a hundred years to talk about then-campus architect, Albert Kahn, with expert Claire Zimmerman. This conversation is the closest I’ve been to a U-M building since the pandemic.

Claire is an associate professor of architectural history and theory — in the History of Art dept at LSA.

She teaches about mass production in architecture and the built environment, which is what Kahn is all about. He’s the architect behind Ford’s huuuuuuuuuuge River Rouge Plant, the General Motors Building, the Detroit Free Press, and many other massive, industrial buildings in and around metro Detroit.

Here on campus, we can thank him for some of our massive industrial buildings for education: Angell Hall, the Hatcher Library, Hill Auditorium, the recently renovated Kraus Building, and several others that may or may not resemble factories.

Between 1903 and 1938, Kahn worked with Presidents Angell, Hutchins and Burton to design 23 buildings and additions, significantly changing the skyline of the university at a time of tremendous growth.

Kahn was a German immigrant, born in 1869, who landed in Detroit with his family when he was 11. The oldest of eight children, he began working as an office boy in an architecture firm when he was just 10. As a professional architect, he was most active in the early decades of the 20th century; his firm Albert Kahn Associates recently celebrated 125 years in business and counts about 45,000 projects.

Way back when, Albert’s brother Julius, a Michigan grad who also worked in the firm, engineered and patented The Kahn Method, a revolutionary technology that transformed industrial building and reinforcement around the globe.

Even so, Kahn’s fellow architects rarely celebrated him, Claire tells me. In fact, they almost canceled him at one point, and for reasons that totally surprised me.

I have to admit, I’ve always felt somewhat guilty that I found Kahn’s U-M buildings a little – how can I say it – homely? Plain. Not so pretty. But after talking to Claire I have newfound appreciation. In this case, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Here’s Claire.

CLAIRE ZIMMERMAN: He wasn’t sort of sculpting spaces. He was he was thinking practically he was making generous spaces that could be dealt with in many different ways. The point of the space is not the architect’s authorship but what you can do with it,

So I think of him as the sort of the architect of the public in the sense of large populations of people, rather than the architect of any single elite. He certainly worked for the big businessmen, they were his clients, and he paid close attention to them. But when you think about his most substantial buildings, they are the factories, they are some of the education buildings, they are some of the office buildings.

It’s a very different way of doing buildings. His goal, I think, was broad coverage, not singularities.

DH: The pragmatic, practical Kahn often was dismissed – unfairly – by his more artistic peers, Claire says.

CZ: If you look at buildings as works of art, Khan doesn’t usually make it in that in that way. But I think one could question that, because buildings are so much they have such complex functions they are, they can be works of art. But we know the scenario, too well, of the beautiful building that just doesn’t work. And so the best buildings or buildings that work really well and offer some, you know, cultural payback as it were.

The sort of emphasis on buildings as works of art is definitely a legacy of art history and of my field of architectural history. And I think it’s, I think it misrepresents the possible role of architecture in society, because I think that buildings actually do sort of, you know, they have a very important role to play in how we conduct our lives and how we live. If you sort of divide the world into buildings that are artworks and buildings that are not you kind of miss the important role they have in shaping our behaviors.

So I think he goes into the camp of somebody who was very much shaping behaviors, but trying to do so with well-built well-designed buildings. So he’s really in the middle between these two ways of understanding the built environment

He didn’t just design factory buildings that worked well, for producing machines, he actually designed these buildings so that they worked very well for humans who were in them. So, you know, the and the justification for that is, well, we want to reduce the number of industrial accidents, it’s the bottom line of the client, if we make sure that the spaces are well lit, and people aren’t getting injured, and they have shower rooms and locker rooms, and they have canteens and cafeterias, and kitchens and so forth. And health clinics, they have first aid clinics, if we make sure that these factories have all of these things in it’s going to help your bottom line.

That may or may not have been true, but the fact is, he built those buildings with those kinds of amenities, and nobody done that before him, not to the same degree. So that seems like one of the places where he’s, you know, he’s working for the benefit of all of those people who are inhabiting his buildings no matter what the motivation is, or what he’s told the client. So, you know, it’s a, it’s a small thing to hold on to in the world of this sort of progressive revolutionary, but I’m trying to explore that more.

Also, I would say he put a quite a bit of effort into trying to change the industry. He was on a federal Commission where they were trying to derive a uniform building code, which we didn’t have in the 30s, when he did that,

He spent a lot of time trying to get people to take industrial architecture seriously. And he endowed a program at the University of Pennsylvania to do that. A short term program, after World War II, all of those efforts were as if — it was like they vanished.

DH: Wait. Vanished? Yes, vanished. Kahn experienced one of the strangest versions of guilt by association I’ve ever heard. Call it guilt by building type.

CZ: Nobody wanted to talk about industrial architecture after World War II, because of the destruction of the war itself. We had advanced so far in the conduct of those two world wars, in terms of our building capacity. And in terms of our military building, you know, the buildings that were dedicated to military production were so awesome. I mean, literally, awe-inspiring, and even scary. And you see after ‘45, that the architecture world just turns its back completely on all of the developments of industrial architecture before 41/42.

I think the supposition was that that these kinds of buildings had been responsible for at were responsible for threatened nuclear holocaust. If you think about the period of the 40s and 50s, where two atomic bombs had been dropped. They had been dropped by planes that were made in Nebraska, in a Kahn built plant. And the other one in Chicago.

And I think the architecture community felt they had a responsibility to say, this is not what we do. We don’t we don’t develop facilities for nuclear annihilation of populations. But unfortunately, I think a lot of “baby” got thrown out with all of that bathwater and Khan was dead by then. And so he wasn’t in a position to point out that this wasn’t the fault of the building type. It was a response to other things.

DH: So poor deceased Kahn – the guy who basically invented an entirely new kind of architecture for the modern world, who could do something few others in his business could do, gets written out of history.

CZ: But you know, architects consider themselves to be cultural producers as much as anything, and they want to have this very high social status and sort of, you know, academic status, I guess.
And so what I find is even some of the people who had advocated for him quite actively in the 30s are saying in the second half of the 1940s, that they don’t want anything to do with him. And they’re not going to continue to talk about him at all.
So, so he gets dropped out of Henry Russell Hitchcock’s very important survey of 19th and 20th century architecture. There are three parenthetical mentions of Kahn and the book is like, yeah, this thick. And George Nelson, who wrote the monograph on Kahn n in ’38, in the ‘40s, is saying, you know, ‘this is not what we should be doing.’
Between ‘37 and his death and ‘42, what, that what that firm achieved was, was practically, I mean, it was totally unprecedented, was really extraordinary.

As a result of what was happening in the war, and it’s not just the war, it’s also the situation of America here in the 30s, with “America First” and the American Fascist Party, that Kahn was, I think his determination to respond to the need for war munitions facilities was in part a function of being a Jewish man in Detroit in the ‘30s. There was a lot of racism, anti-semitism. Father, Conklin was based in Detroit. Henry Ford, of course, with his awful anti-semitic tracts.

So I think that Kahn threw himself and his entire firm, you know, completely into the war effort. And they built you know, something we’d never seen before in terms of quantity of square footage, and speed of construction, and so forth.

And so he became so closely associated with that final push of his life, that I think it drove out some of his other achievements from, at least in the immediate aftermath of the war, people forgot about all the other things he had done. And then by the late 40s, they just shut the door basically,

DH: It’s so unfortunate, because Kahn had so much to offer his peers. He really seems to have enjoyed designing these enormous, complicated buildings, which required tons of collaboration with the client – and deference to the functional needs of the building itself.

I mean, Claire even says, any artistic architect can build a single family home, right? But try an industrial system that covers 82 acres. That takes a specific kind of genius.

CZ: This is what is so appealing about Kahn is that actually he wants to do the buildings that house the most number of people.

He was, he was very much a sort of what you would call a company man. And, and with industrial architecture, there was, there was no, it’s very difficult to be anything other than that, because the, the big companies, the big, in this case, the big auto companies, let’s go back to the beginning of his career, the big auto companies they had in house engineers, and what you’re looking for is a sort of seamless transition from the design of the machine to the design of the building that accommodates the machine. And the architect can’t do that alone, and neither can the engineer, so they really have to work closely together.

Because those buildings, the machinery is part of the architecture, it’s actually attached. And you have, you need the stability of the building to anchor some of the machinery because, of course, like shaking, and, you know, so the level of collaboration that he had to have with Ford engineers, probably set the stage for the rest of his career that, that you had this, you know shared responsibility and relationship that you couldn’t do it any other way. And I think he brought that to all of his commissions.

He was, you know, quite opposed to modernism. And the whole notion of the architect as an independent artist was just completely anathema to him. So Frank Lloyd Wright, admired Khan, but I’m not actually sure that it went the other way.

He did a lot, of course, with the US military. And that would be very similar that you have to have a chain of command, you have to have a clear delineation of responsibilities. And nobody is the prima donna.

This is again, one of the things that that architects like to criticize that in the view of many architects, the architect is supposed to have a certain kind of independence, and to push back against the the sort of status quo.

And I’m not really sure where that idea comes from. It’s quite persistent in my field.

And to people who believe in that, Kahn is like, you know, he’s like a tool of the capitalists, right?

And so one of the things I’ve been curious about in in this book that I have now been working on for quite some time, is whether or not I mean, he clearly accepted his role as the collaborator of industry and government. But within that role, in what ways did he exert his own agency as an architect or that of his firm.

DH: Ahhhhh, one day when we return to campus, we can see this for ourselves. Kahn’s building on the corner of North U and State St. – the EH Kraus building for natural sciences — has been getting a makeover for some time now. I mean, It’s still not pretty but…

CZ: That is very much like a factory of education, I think. And it can’t be unintentional, that it was designed to be so similar to some of the factory buildings, in Detroit and in Dearborn, and so forth. I think he imagined it having a similar role. And this is part of that idea of an architecture that is a system, not a building.

You could take it as a kind of model for how you could build flexible classroom space, flexible lab space. You know, I think that was the point of his practice was to find those systems not to really focus on individual buildings. And when he did focus on individual buildings, like the Clements library, he’s much more conventional.

I think he was probably the ideal architect for buildings that needed to accommodate a lot of people in relatively equal amounts of space. Education buildings, you have classrooms, they’ll contain a certain number of students per day. factories, same thing. You have a factory floor, it contains a certain number of people per foot. office buildings the same, you just stack it up and put them on multiple floors. I think that was really his métier. Yeah, it was not so much housing, although he did do some apartment buildings, but work spaces that were meant to contain, you know, communal populations, not singletons, not mansions.
The hospital, which we don’t see anymore, because it’s been demolished. But that was an immense building. And again, a building for everybody no matter what their social status. And to me, that’s what’s appealing about him and that’s why he doesn’t get talked about so much among the architects.

DH: When the architects did talk about Kahn, she says, they dismissed his style as the Architecture of Bureaucracy. Claire’s not having it. She describes Albert Kahn as a Craftsman of Modernity. He created systems that could be replicated – and even translated some of them to the way his firm operated.

CZ: You couldn’t do craft in the same way anymore. You had to now do it using machines and automated processes and mass production, stuff like that. He paid attention to, you know, the things that would either make it or break it. And one of the things that would make it was budget and that you kept your contract that you finished within time and within budget. And he did that consistently.

He kept his eye on all the sections and made sure they were working in time with each other, and he was very much the person at the front end.

After he died, the firm had a few other strong characters in charge, but then gradually, it became less prominent. And I think we today it’s, you know, I see Alan Cobb is, is kind of pulling things together again, in a definitive way. But I think that was what that was one of the great skills that Kahn had was the ability to just orchestrate a complex set of processes.

DH: So guess what his first building was on campus? West Hall, home of the famous Engineering Arch off the Diag. It was finished in 1904.

CZ: I love that building. It’s a wonderful building. He and George Mason were partners at the time. It’s definitely a Kahn building.

And it’s really one of my favorites because it has these big muscular details. And it it has historical references, but they’re kind of translated into a new genre. So the the towers, the cupolas on that building are actually steam vents.

So they don’t use them anymore but they used to be where the heating system ventilated out of the building. And then there’s this other look wonderful things about that building. The floatation tank is so cool.

DH: Post-World War I, the administration tapped Kahn to serve as consulting architect on its Committee of Five, charged with modernizing the Ann Arbor campus. After talking to Claire, I have a new perspective on Albert Kahn’s style. When I admitted to her I thought his campus buildings were kind of – ugly in a charming way – she couldn’t exactly disagree. She did however put him in yet another fancy-sounding category.

CZ: You know, and not all of them are ugly. But you You’re right. I mean, when I first came here, if you had told me, I was going to wind up working on the architect to build Angell Hall and Hatcher library, I would have said, there’s just no way I will ever do that. And here I am.

Many years into the project. But it’s sort of like a Post-Aesthetic approach to architecture. It’s that it’s not about aesthetics. It’s about what you can do in the buildings.

His contributions have not been properly recognized, because if you just adapted some of these systems to contemporary technologies and needs, it’s a great system, the concrete frame, factory building is just an equipment thing. It’s desirable, you know, in loft spaces and so forth. I mean, everybody wants this stuff. I don’t know why we’re not building more of it. You know, it’s really not that difficult to build.

There’s an increasing amount of attention to this stuff, my book will eventually come out, other books have come out. So maybe there’ll be a greater appreciation for what we could gain in the future from this manner of building because that’s, that’s always been my interest is thinking that this stuff is not obsolete in the way that much architecture is.

DH: Hmmmmm. Post-aesthetic… The term takes on a whole new meaning after a year in lockdown. Well, thank you for listening. Find more Listen in Michigan podcasts and subscribe at michigantoday.umich.edu. OK — Till next time… Now, I’ve gotta go tend to my post-aesthetic hair. Stay well, and as always: Go blue!

Space man

Albert Kahn (1869-1942) is a familiar name to most Michigan alumni, especially the ones who paid attention to their admissions tour guides. Angell Hall, Burton Memorial Tower, and the Hatcher Graduate Library are just a few of Kahn’s contributions to the Ann Arbor campus. Detroit’s long-abandoned Packard Automotive Plant, the Willow Run Bomber Plant, and the Ford River Rouge Complex are just a few of Kahn’s most impressive industrial systems.

Architect Albert Kahn. (Image courtesy of U-M's Bentley Historical Library.)

Architect Albert Kahn. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

But the architect has yet to receive the industry recognition he truly deserves, says Claire Zimmerman, associate professor of architectural history and theory. In fact, he was nearly written out of the 1958 publication of Henry Russell Hitchcock’s survey of 19th and 20th century architecture.

It’s ironic, she says, because some Kahn buildings were credited with helping win World War II. After 1945, though, sentiment changed.

“The architecture world turned its back completely on the development of industrial architecture before 1941 or ’42,” says Zimmerman. “The supposition was that these kinds of buildings were responsible for threatened nuclear holocaust. The [profession] began to see industrialized architecture as a very mixed bag — useful for ‘bread and butter,’ but highly controversial politically and historically. It was safer to focus on skyscrapers.”

Kahn pressed on, though he didn’t build many skyscrapers. Much of his work is characterized by the patented Kahn Method — reinforced concrete, poured concrete, and steel — to frame and reinforce massive structures. Kahn’s brother, Julius, a Michigan grad, engineered and patented the novel method.

“It’s a great system,” Zimmerman says, “reinforced concrete has never become obsolete.”

Neither has Kahn’s firm, despite Hitchcock’s survey. Albert Kahn Associates, helmed by CEO Alan Cobb, recently marked 125 years in business and some 45,000 projects to its collective credit. Imagine that.

Post-aesthetic aesthetic

Zimmerman is writing a book to recast Kahn’s legacy away from the “architecture of bureaucracy” toward the “architecture of mechanization.” She holds joint appointments in Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

She explores whether Kahn was “a tool of capitalism,” as some would claim. It’s likely critics just couldn’t relate to Kahn’s post-aesthetic, pragmatic approach to creating generous spaces, she says. He was more interested in shaping human behavior than producing art. The question is: How did he and his firm do this?

“Space in Kahn’s buildings was proffered as a practical asset — a generic space to gather, not a carefully designed place to engage in reverie or contemplation on the glories of architecture, past and present,” Zimmerman writes.

He focused on serving clients’ needs more than his own artistry, and was at his best when orchestrating multifaceted teams and integrated processes. He thrived on collaboration and common sense. He brought jobs in on time and on budget.

“Kahn didn’t just design factory buildings that worked well for producing machines, he actually designed buildings that worked very well for the humans who were in them,” Zimmerman says. “I consider him an ‘architect of the public,’ because he was building for everybody, no matter their social status.”

That made him the ideal candidate for consulting architect on U-M’s “Committee of Five,” created after World War I to modernize the Ann Arbor campus. Kahn was tapped to build some “factories of education” at Michigan.

His E.H. Kraus Building at North University and State Street recently underwent a makeover. The Ruthven Museums Building will one day house the University administration. One of his firm’s most impressive accomplishments, the original University Hospital, was opened in 1925. The massive structure has since been demolished.

“Many artistic architects build single-family homes,” Zimmerman says. “But it would be really hard for an artist to build a hospital. And they don’t typically want to do it. They’re not interested. One of the things I find appealing about Albert Kahn is that he actually wants to design public service buildings.”

Shape up

Kahn's Hatcher Graduate Library at U-M.

Albert Kahn’s Hatcher Graduate Library at U-M. (Image: Michigan Photography.)

The son of German Jewish immigrants, Kahn was most prolific during the first three decades of the 20th century. He likely threw himself into the war effort in response to rising fascism and anti-Semitism around the world, Zimmerman says. Between 1937 and 1942, his firm produced at an unprecedented pace and scale. This work set the stage for a new pace of industrial building after the war.

In Hitchcock’s schema, Kahn’s buildings are “good buildings” but not “architectural art,” says Zimmerman. That assessment may be fair when it comes to individual structures, but it doesn’t accurately reflect Kahn’s contribution to the field, nor his large footprint in American industrial building.

“We know the scenario, too well, of the beautiful building that just doesn’t work,” Zimmerman says. “Kahn goes into the camp of somebody who was very much shaping behaviors. He was trying to do so with well-built, well-designed buildings that we don’t look at as ‘works of art.’ After his death, we see a split in architecture between practical building tasks and the artistry of architecture. My interest lies in looking just before this split, to see what caused it, and what alternatives might be.”


  1. Grant Hildebrand - B. Arch 1957, M. Arch 1964

    One correction: Albert and Juluis’s patented concrete reinforcing system was limited in its use,
    and faded away in competition with the better Ransome system, which has pravailed to the present day.
    The Kahn system cannot really be called a great system.It did yield the Truscon Corporation, however.


    • Michael Smith

      Grant, I am familiar with your research on Kahn and greatly appreciate that you were one of the few to recognize Kahn’s importance early on. However, based on my extensive research on Julius Kahn and the Kahn System, I believe you have underestimated it’s importance. Ransome was a pioneer, no question, but he failed to make reinforced concrete a widely accepted method of construction, primarily because he developed no scientific theory of concrete reinforcement.

      Julius Kahn, on the other hand, in less than five years transformed reinforced concrete construction into a reliable and common option, because his system was based on a correct scientific understanding of how reinforcement worked. His firm engineered thousands of buildings and sold Kahn bars for tens of thousands of others. By the time the patent ran out on his reinforcing bar, his company had become the country’s largest manufacturer of stamped steel construction products and stamped steel products of all sorts.

      The Kahn system was unquestionably better than others used at the time, and permitted buildings to be constructed with far less excess steel and concrete. It brought down the cost of reinforced concrete construction to such an extent that it became widely used.

      The Ransome system became obsolete once the Kahn System came along. To say that modern reinforcement is in any way like the Ransome system is simply untrue. Julius Kahn’s major, scientific advance was to demonstrate the importance of firmly joining the horizontal and vertical reinforcement bars together to form a truss-like structure within the concrete. Ransome did not even use vertical reinforcement until late in his career, and when he did, he used loose vertical reinforcement bars (stirrups) that were not joined to the horizontal reinforcement bars.

      The method of reinforcement in use today relies on secure connections between all reinforcement bars (vertical and horizontal) in order to transmit tensile stresses through the structure to where they can be resisted, which is exactly the same principle upon which the Kahn Bar was based. The fact that today’s re-bars look somewhat like the rebars used by Ransome really has no bearing on the matter. The principle by which beams and floors resist tensile stress and, when overstressed, always fail in the middle can be traced directly back to Kahn’s work and his method of reinforcement.


  2. Grant Hildebrand - 1957, 1964

    And by the way, not quite all of the architectural world ignored Kahn; I didn’t. If I were writing about him today,
    however, I would give greater attention to the non-industrial work. If Professor Zimmerman is interested, I have done a short paper on the Burton Tower design, which, I believe, is much superior to the Saarinen proposal.


  3. Ronna Simon - 1981

    I was very glad to listen to this interview about Albert Kahn. While it wasn’t mentioned, he also designed Hill Auditorium. I saw Vladimir Horowitz in concert there while a student; my seat was at the top of the “nosebleed section”, and to my untrained ear the acoustics were fabulous. If the exterior of the building isn’t considered “artistically pretty”, I couldn’t care: as Louis Sullivan said, “form follows function”, and it functioned terrifically.





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