Temple Beth El
Temple Beth El, Detroit, 1903. (The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation. Designer: Eric Keller)

“Albert Kahn: Creating the Modern World” is on public display at the Fisher Building in Detroit through Sept. 30.

The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation has created its initial exhibit celebrating the work of Albert Kahn, the world’s foremost industrial architect of the first half of the 20th century. Titled “Albert Kahn: Creating the Modern World,” it is on public display at the Fisher Building in Detroit through Sept. 30. While the Fisher Building is probably his most admired local structure, Kahn’s firm designed and engineered approximately 20,000 projects throughout his lifetime.

These included hundreds of projects for the Ford Motor Company including the Ford Plant in Highland Park and the Rouge Complex. Kahn and his brother, Julius, an engineer, created open, light-filled factories that were more comfortable for workers and more efficient than other manufacturing facilities of the early 20th century.

Detroit Athletic Club, 1915
Detroit Athletic Club, 1915 The Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation. Designer: Eric Keller

But the scope of his work extended beyond industrial buildings. Locally, many of Kahn’s building are well known: Temple Beth El, built on Woodward near Mack in 1905; Hill Auditorium and other buildings on the University of Michigan campus; the Detroit Athletic Club; and the Edsel Ford House. 

Kahn was a first-generation German Jew whose formal education ended at the seventh grade. He was a self-taught artist and draftsman who apprenticed at a Detroit architectural firm where he quickly mastered the field.

Kahn, who lived from 1869-1942, has several descendants in the Detroit area. His oldest child, the late Lydia Winston Malbin, was an internationally recognized collector of contemporary art. According to one local relative, Kahn often took Malbin’s daughter, Sarah (Sally) Robinson, for Sunday drives around Detroit while listening to the opera. Robinson, 96, who lives in Vermont and Florida, is an artist and her late husband was an architect. 

LEFT TO RIGHT: Albert Kahn’s legacy includes such innovative buildings as the Ford River Rouge Glass Plant, 1923. (From The Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of the Ford Motor Company). Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan 1913. (Courtesy of Michael G. Smith). Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge Half-Ton Truck Plant Export Building, 1938.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Albert Kahn’s legacy includes such innovative buildings as the Ford River Rouge Glass Plant, 1923. (From The Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of the Ford Motor Company). Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan 1913. (Courtesy of Michael G. Smith). Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge Half-Ton Truck Plant Export Building, 1938. Albert Kahn Associates

There are no Kahn descendants currently working at Albert Kahn Associates Inc., which has its headquarters in the Fisher Building. However, one great-grandson is on the board of the Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation, which was established last year to honor Kahn for his innovations and global impact.  

The current exhibit is part of the Detroit Month of Design program — a citywide event that celebrates Detroit’s role as a UNESCO City of Design. The Kahn Legacy Foundation is developing a larger exhibit for the Detroit Historical Museum next year. For more information, visit AlbertKahnLegacy.org. 

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