Monday, November 5, 2018

Detroit's Horatio Alger

Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit

Author:  Michael H. Hodges
Wayne State University (2018) 

In his newest book, ”Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit”, Michael H. Hodges, Detroit News Fine Arts writer and the author of the 2013 Library of Michigan Notable book "Michigan’s Historic Railroad Stations" (Wayne State University Press), shifts his focus to the amazing life, and the colossal architectural legacy of Albert Kahn. A talented storyteller, Hodges portrays the Horatio Alger nature of Kahn’s life and work by taking the reader on a guided tour of the pivotal events of his life and his career.

It is the story of a poor young German boy who lands on the streets of Detroit in 1881 with his family. Kahn will overcome poverty, a lack of formal education, and pervasive antisemitism to attain wealth, associate with titans of industry, design structures that would change not only the face of Detroit but the world. Yet despite his stratospheric climb he would remain, at heart, a simple craftsman.

Kahn successfully designed factories (Packard Building No. 10, Ford Highland Park Plant); skyscrapers (Fisher Building, GM Building; 
Fisher Building and the GM Building
elegant homes (the Edsel and Eleanor Ford home); hospitals (Children’s Hospital, Herman Kiefer); an aquarium, a conservatory and even a lighthouse (Belle Isle). Although he never attended college, his designs (Burton Memorial Tower, Angell Hall, and the Hill Auditorium and more) grace the campus of the University of Michigan. On the international stage, he and his architectural firm played an integral role in helping the newly formed U.S.S.R transform from an agrarian society to an industrial one by designing and building 500 plants. 
In World War II, the Kahn plants manufactured armaments that would inflict major damage on Germany’s Third Reich. Back home, he designed such industrial behemoths as the River Rouge Complex and the Willow Run bomber plant that earned Detroit the appellation ‘Arsenal of Democracy’.

Detroit Athletic Club
Hodges reveals that Kahn - the man - was as fascinating as Kahn - the architect. Arriving in the new world his sister noted that the twelve year old immigrant effectively became the head of the family. Leaving his truncated childhood in Germany behind, Kahn supported his siblings and financed their educations. 

Despite astounding achievements and accumulated wealth, he remained an unpretentious, simple man grounded in family. He was a devoted husband happily married to Ernestine (neĆ© Krolik). While Hodges notes that Kahn’s seemingly unlimited capacity for working extraordinary hours, “often took precedence over dinners, concerts, family gathering”, (Hodges 39) the marriage lasted for forty-six years and produced three children.

Despite widespread anti-Semitism he was able to separate Henry Ford, an ardent anti-Semite, from Henry Ford, the man revolutionizing the world,  who relied on Kahn to design and build his factories and complexes. The two managed to forge a working space to merge their two geniuses into an association that proved mutually beneficial. We do not know what Kahn’s private thoughts were about Ford, but Hodges informs us that upon Kahn’s death Ford said, “Albert Kahn was one of the best men I ever knew.” (Hodges 177)

Author: Michael H. Hodges
Hodges illustrates the sterner side of the normally genial architect. Kahn was vocal about his passionate dislike of the International Style of architecture propagated by Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, et al calling it “strange and bizarre.” (Hodges 155) As an art enthusiast he didn’t hesitate to confront the religious attacks against the murals of the, controversial communist, Mexican, artist Diego Rivera  and presciently stated, “If I am any prophet the Detroit Institute of Arts, because of these Rivera murals, will become  a sanctuary for art lovers the world over.” (Hodges 131) 

"Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit" will appeal to anyone who loves a good story. Whether your reading tastes run from: rags-to-riches tales; immigrant experiences; architecture; the auto industry; Ford Motor Co.; Henry Ford; the city of Detroit; photography; American history or 20th century Russian history, you will find this book a satisfying read.

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Kahn Buildings