“Albert Kahn in Detroit” by Michael Hodges
Book Review by Grace Shackman –
Albert Kahn “almost single handedly invented modern architecture, saved Detroit’s Diego Rivera Murals, and guaranteed Allied Victory in World War II” according to Michael Hodges in his recently published book Albert Kahn in Detroit: Building the Modern World. Kahn (1869-1942) was responsible for over 2,000 buildings-houses, factories, skyscrapers, commercial buildings, and public buildings including much of the University of Michigan.
Hodges builds good cases for these three claims. Kahn is considered an inventor of modern architecture because his factories, with their big windows and open interior space made possible by using reinforced concrete, were an inspiration for the modernist pioneers in Europe. The second claim is based on the fact that Kahn knew and liked Diego Rivera. While many of the important people in Detroit disliked his murals, Kahn defended them, most notably to Edsel Ford who was paying for them.
The third claim is based on the amount of building Kahn did for WWII including many tank plants, arsenals, airplane engine buildings, giant aircraft factories, and designs for new military bases for the Pacific and Atlantic operations. Added to all this, his firm was responsible for building 500 factories in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Hired ostensibly to build tractor factories, the Kahn people were suspicious that it was really for something else when the Soviets insisted the floors be built stronger than needed. Indeed the factories were used to make tanks, which the soviets used in World War II, forcing Hitler to divide his troops to fight on two fronts.
All this Hodges explains and much more, writing in a style that feels like he is talking to the reader, not as the omniscient narrator, but as a friend sharing what he knows. And he carefully footnotes, so people can trust what he is saying. The research was challenging because Kahn left a limited paper trail, mainly letters to his family and occasional newspaper interviews and was not the sort of person to brag or philosophize. But reading everything else he could find about Kahn and talking to people who knew him (Hodges spent 3 1/2 years on the project), rounded out a consistent picture of a man who was a workaholic, more concerned that his buildings did what they were designed for than for fame or recognition. Time after time, his clients cited their appreciation that they got exactly what they wanted, on time and under budget to boot.
Kahn was well respected in his lifetime and received many honors. “At the time of his death the architect was world renowned,” says Hodges, but then seemed to vanish, appreciated only in southeast Michigan. But Hodges ends the book on a happy note. “In a development that would doubtless please the architect, the unexpected urban revival that sprouted in Detroit ….has meant that any number of Kahn’s buildings, which enjoy considerable cachet in the local real estate market, have suddenly seen new life.”
Hodges, who lives on Mulholland (his house was on the Old West Side Homes Tour in 2014), commutes daily to Detroit where he covers fine arts for the Detroit News. At one time he seriously considered a career in architecture. However, he says his real joy is taking photographs, which surprisingly he took for the book using only his I phone. When he found that hiring a helicopter was affordable ($350 an hour, not nothing but he was afraid it would be much higher) he took aerial photographs of some of Kahn’s buildings. His present day photos are interspersed with historic ones, many loaned to him by the Albert Kahn Associates who have pictures of the buildings when first built. He’s been giving readings at various locations, so keep watch for ones in the Ann Arbor area.