The University Record, July 9, 2001

Exhibition shows how architect Kahn inspired modernism

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

Brian Carter poses with a model from ‘Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern.’ (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
The Highland Park Model T factory was an integral part of Henry Ford’s production machine. The 860-foot-long, reinforced concrete structure must have appeared as a city in itself to Detroiters watching its construction in 1909.

Designed by Albert Kahn and commissioned by Ford, the plant exemplifies the clean-lined, functional factory design that inspired international modernism.

Photographs and original drawings of the great Ford production plants are among the highlights of the exhibition “Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern” at the Museum of Art through Oct. 21. The exhibition aims to re-establish the Detroit architect’s connections to both industry and art, according to Brian Carter, professor of architecture, chair of the Architecture Program and curator of the exhibition. Carter also edited and contributed to the exhibition’s catalog.

Not limited to Kahn’s architecture, the exhibition includes a wide range of visual arts that reflect the worldwide fascination with urban life and industry in the early 20th century. The project looks at the creative climate in which Kahn worked, writes James Steward, director of the Museum of Art, in his foreword to the catalog. He notes that Detroit’s 300th anniversary is an appropriate time “to look again at the architect who did so much to put that city on the map of industrial America.”

The exhibition focuses on Kahn’s industrial designs, rather than the two other areas in which he excelled. His commercial designs include Hill Auditorium, Angell Hall, the Rackham Building, Burton Tower and West Engineering. He also designed private homes throughout Ann Arbor and Detroit, such as the Edsel Ford home.

“Kahn was so versatile and worked in so many different styles that he is difficult to classify as an architect,” Carter says. “Although he was very influential, he liked to remain relatively anonymous and didn’t try to be an artistic superman. He stayed in the shadow of his clients, particularly Henry Ford.”

“Inspiration for the Modern” places Kahn’s industrial designs in the context of monumental events: the second industrial revolution, the birth of the automobile and the advent of photography. “Much of the art at the time reflected the public’s fascination with new industrial processes and the industrial landscape,” Carter says.

In the late 19th century, Eastman Kodak began popularizing photography, which later played a major role in documenting Kahn’s factories. Photographs of Kahn’s buildings circulated internationally and fed people’s curiosity about buildings designed for mass production.

One wall of the exhibition presents a time line that puts Kahn’s work in historical context. Born in Germany, Kahn began apprenticing for the Detroit firm of Mason and Rice when he was just 14 and established his own practice in 1896 in Detroit. Ironically, the man who designed so many University landmarks had no formal education. Kahn learned his craft through working and traveling in Europe. He was awarded an honorary degree from the U-M in 1933.

Kahn took an interdisciplinary approach to his practice that was unusual for architects at the time. He worked closely with engineers to ensure the structural integrity of his designs and gained an understanding of the manufacturing processes his buildings would facilitate. “Kahn designed for flexibility and process,” Carter says. “His buildings, considered radical in his time, demonstrate how form can follow function.”

Kahn also helped end an era of deplorable worker conditions through design innovations that improved the factory environment. Interior photographs of the Ford plants show spacious floor plans that provided good ventilation and light for laborers.

The exhibition features various views of the original Ford Rouge Plant, including a rare photograph of the Glass Plant, which some architects consider the epitome of 1920s industrial architecture. Also on display are the dramatic industrial images of photographer and artist Charles Sheeler and the original sketch for the Detroit Institute of Art’s assembly production mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. One of the earliest experimental films, the 1921 Manhatta by Sheeler and Paul Strand, plays continuously for visitors.

Students in the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning contributed projects to the exhibition. Using original drawings and photographs, student design teams researched Kahn’s design techniques to create detailed models of the first Highland Park Plant, the Packard Motor Car Co. Plant and the Rouge Glass Plant.

A related exhibition, “In Human Touch: Photographs by Ernestine Rubin,” runs through Sept. 23. The granddaughter of Albert Kahn, Rubin earned her B.A. in the history of art from the U-M in 1953. Influenced by her grandfather’s collection of French impressionist paintings, she discovered the art of photography at age 47. Her photographs have been exhibited throughout the world.

The Kahn exhibition will be the topic of a museum panel discussion in September.