The Factory Architecture of Albert Kahn
Henry Ford's well-known quip, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black," alludes to his extraordinary innovations. Before Ford revolutionized the industry, cars were luxury items, manufactured to order, according to the customer's taste, and produced by hundreds of small artisan brands. Ford inaugurated the single-model car, which was both technologically advanced and inexpensive to buy, thanks to mass production and the economy of scale.
A New Industrial Architecture
This new type of industry gave birth to a new architecture, which arose from the entirely original solutions to Ford's unprecedented demands by the architect and engineer Albert Kahn. A thirty-year intellectual exchange closely united these two self-made men, both born in 1860, even though Ford was an anti-Semite and Kahn, a humble Jewish immigrant.
The Ford Model T was first produced in Highland Park, then a suburb of Detroit. Built in 1909, the concrete factory building was several stories high, and the assembly of the car's components took place from top to bottom, with the car rolling out on the ground floor, ready to be tested.
Fifteen years later, the engineer Matte Trucco built the Fiat factory in Lingotto, Turin, a giant reinforced-concrete building that paid homage to the Highland Park model. Conversely, at the Fiat plant, the fully assembled car rolled out onto the factory roof, which had been designed as a test track. Once tested, the automobile was sent down to the ground via a monumental spiral ramp.
The Ford project was not the first order Albert Kahn had received from the automobile industry. In 1903, he had worked for Henry B. Joy, president of Packard. The construction of Shop No.10 in 1905 had given him the opportunity to use concrete, an inexpensive material that was very solid and noncombustible, guaranteeing great stability as well as rapid construction—a necessary consideration given the growth of the market.
Structure Influencing Process
In addition, the use of concrete made it possible to adapt a factory's layout to the needs of automobile construction by freeing up the floor space with fewer load-bearing supports. In Packard Shop No. 10, the interior columns were spaced 30 feet (9.1 meters) apart, an unusually large span at the time.
A more flexible space made it possible to experiment with new ways to organize the production process and demonstrated that henceforth the architect would be more concerned with the interior function of the space than with a quest for an architectural style for the facades.
The walls were characterized by enormous windows, occupying the large openings that were determined by the grid of the concrete frame. Multi-paned metal-framed windows were the dominant feature of the building's exterior.
"Architecture is 90 percent business and 10 percent art," Albert Kahn was in the habit of saying. As for Ford, he was not looking for an architectural marvel to celebrate the entrepreneur in the form of a new industrial aesthetic, but rather a design able to provide practical solutions to the specific needs of mass production. Thus, it is easy to understand the success of the collaboration between Ford and Kahn.
Rethinking the Assembly Line
The first Ford assembly line was installed on Piquette Avenue, in a building poorly suited to the assembly of the future Model T. Ford ordered a four-story shop, nearly 1000 feet (305 meters) long and only 80 feet (24 meters) wide. The change in scale was radical, compared to Packard Shop No. 10.
The facade had brick stairwells at regular intervals, which also housed elevators and restrooms for the workers. The load-bearing concrete structure rested on framing members only 20 feet (6 meters) wide, with no intermediate supporting wall.
It was in this very open space that the assembly line was perfected and finally became operational in 1913: chassis on the ground floor, auto bodies on the second floor, with the preliminary operations taking place on the third and fourth floors.
Enormous windows occupied almost all the openings in the concrete frame, thus responding to Henry Ford's requirements regarding the optimal conditions for lighting and ventilation.
His concern for cleanliness was no less keen: seven hundred employees were responsible for cleaning the shops, washing the windows, and repainting. This was the expression of his conviction that the quality of the work environment could positively affect the workers' attitudes toward their tasks.
Factory as Evolving Building Type
During a second phase of development in the mid-1910s, Ford abandoned the multistory factory concept in favor of a single-level organization of work. Even though Albert Kahn used the Highland Park model again in 1921 for the Fisher Body Company factory in Cleveland, he followed Ford's programmatic demands in their next collaboration.
Thus, on two occasions, he played an essential role in the evolution of an important industrial building type: first, in the development of the multistoried concrete-frame structure, and second, in the construction of buildings on a single level, primarily using a steel framework.
In the first stage, the Highland Park plant was integrated into a set of buildings, each of which specialized in a different operation. That meant abandoning the principle of performing all the phases under one roof, or rather, it meant making each building a component in a sort of segmented assembly line.
In 1906 Kahn had already experimented with the single-level factory in the construction of the buildings of the Pierce plant in Buffalo, in collaboration with Lockwood, Greene & Martin of Boston, to whom he introduced the entirely new technique of building concrete factories. These were seven low buildings, each corresponding to one phase of manufacturing. Thus, Ford and Kahn simply perfected a model.
The new site chosen by Ford was River Rouge, a few miles from Detroit. The essential prerequisite for the site was the construction of a canal linking the site to the Detroit River, and hence to the Great Lakes, which was able to accommodate freighters.
Building construction proper began in 1917 (continuing until 1939), in conjunction with a submarine order for the U.S. Navy; thus was born Eagle Plant, a building more than 1600 feet (490 meters) long. The area covered by the most varied shops, which ensured the business's self-sufficiency, rose from 2000 acres (800 hectares) at the outset—acreage acquired at low cost—to nearly 13 square miles (3400 hectares).
The internal port and a network of 90 miles (145 kilometers) of railways guaranteed the quickest circulation of materials and products, in order to shorten the manufacturing time as much as possible.
The floor space was considerably expanded compared to the Highland Park factory, thanks to the use of steel components for the roofs and interior columns, which were now very thick and spaced at a great distance from one another.
The parts entered at one end of the building and the car came out finished on the other, having traveled along a single moving assembly line, which was supplied laterally along the way with all the necessary components.
Albert Kahn, a revolutionary in industrial-use architecture, built about two thousand factories between 1900 and 1940, but without achieving recognition from his peers, who had little respect for utilitarian buildings that did not fit within the canon of public, civic, and residential architecture.
However, he succeeded in focusing the attention of corporate customers on his Detroit firm, which still operates under the name Albert Kahn Associates.
Kahn worked in the service of a great number of automobile manufacturers, and later of manufacturers in the aeronautics industry. Thus, he worked for Glenn Martin in Middle River, north of Baltimore, in 1929, 1937, 1939, and 1941, and in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1941.
In 1937, Glenn Martin, convinced that the wingspan of airplanes would soon reach 300 feet (91 meters), commissioned from Kahn an unobstructed space measuring 300 by 150 feet (91 by 46 meters), with one end entirely open for the finished airplane to exit through. Albert Kahn borrowed bridge technology to design steel trusses of a size previously unequaled.
Similar requirements of the techniques of industrial architecture had already been taken into account in Akron, Ohio, in 1929, with the construction of Goodyear Airdock, the largest dirigible shop and hangar in the world.
That parabolic steel structure, designed to house the erection of the large airships ordered by the U.S. Navy from the Goodyear-Zeppelin Corporation, still inspires awe by virtue of its dimensions—1200 feet (366 meters) long, 330 feet (100 meters) wide, 210 feet (64 meters) high—and its vast, open floor space. The largest semis look like toys at its yawning entrance.
In 1939, Glenn Martin called for a second unit contiguous to the first, and Albert Kahn completed it between February 5 and April 23.
Wartime production further increased the pressure on his firm, which was responsible for the Willow Run factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which in 1943 was the largest war factory in the world (forty-two thousand workers). Designed for the construction of Ford's B-24 bomber, the structure was more than half a mile (805 meters) long and 1300 feet (400 meters) across at its widest.
In addition, many orders were filled in Chicago, Illinois; Louisville, Kentucky; New Orleans, Louisiana; and other sites. Within the context of a military program that required minimal delays, the standardization of architectural solutions became a key advantage.
Another, no less fundamental revolution initiated by Kahn lay in the essential change in the architect's relation to his projects and to his client. Traditionally, the 19th century architect superimposed decorated facades and eclectic forms on buildings designed to house industrial work.
Later, architects of a more modern spirit, who were passionate about technology and engineering, gave the factory an avant-garde structure, but were unable to refrain from applying references to styles borrowed from other periods—hence, Peter Behrens evoked a Greek temple in the design of the AEG turbine factory in Berlin.
In both cases, the architect was faithful to a system of artistic and aesthetic sources, and to the intention of making the industrial building a pretext for the discovery of new forms containing new symbols.
The Business of Industrial Architecture
Conversely, Albert Kahn's phenomenal commercial success can be explained by the relation he was able to establish with many Detroit businessmen, in a city where he had learned his trade, and with the engineers trained at the University of Michigan.
His practical approach was to submit completely to the technical and economic requirements of the entrepreneurs and to the dictates of the new organization of work. Kahn's capacity to satisfy the demand of industries that required large amounts of space, and which had an almost frenetic growth rate, proved to be astounding.
His success can be attributed to his firm's organizational principle, in which work was entirely rationalized, from the design and supply of materials to the smallest detail of plumbing. Hence, Kahn came to surpass all other architectural engineering firms of the time.
One of Albert Kahn's greatest contributions rests, finally, in the ties that he established between the modernization of industrial production equipment and its architectural housing on the one hand, and the design of the city itself on the other.
Following World War I, Kahn was the prime contractor of the new center city in Detroit. This district was designed to accommodate all the corporate headquarters for the new automobile industry, in buildings dedicated to displaying the glory of postwar economic growth.
Kahn, who continued to take commissions from a very diverse clientele outside the narrow field of industry, was an excellent architect with eclectic tastes who used all the resources he had at his disposal.
Louis Bergeron is president of The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH) and of the Ecomusee du Creusot-Montceau les Mines in the Burgundy region of France. Maria Teresa Maiullari-Pontois is secretary of TICCIH and researcher in charge of the foreign program at the Ecomusee du Creusot-Montceau les Mines.
This article was excerpted from Industry, Architecture, and Engineering: American Ingenuity 1750-1950, with permission of the publisher, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The book is available at Amazon.