‘Under Construction’ at UMMA highlights Albert Kahn

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Albert Kahn, in his 50-plus years as an architect, produced a staggering 2,000 or so buildings in Detroit, Ann Arbor and around the world.

An intriguing new show at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, “Albert Kahn: Under Construction,” documents the progress of his commercial, academic and industrial projects through photographic series shot as buildings took shape.

“Under Construction” closes July 3.

Those hoping for large blow-ups of images will be disappointed, but what you get instead is actually very cool. On display are the actual construction photos the Kahn firm used to measure a project’s progress, often shot by some of the leading photographers of the day.

“These photographs provided busy (Kahn) managers with documentation of weekly — sometimes daily — progresson on large building sites from Detroit to the Soviet Union,” writes UM architecture professor Claire Zimmerman,who knows more about Kahn that almost anyone else on earth, in the show’s introductory label.

Nationwide, Kahn, who died in 1942, is most famous for his industrial designs, starting with the Packard Motor Car plant in 1905. Eventually he would build virtually every Ford factory in the country, and a high percentage of its competitors’ infrastructure, whether the General Motors, Chalmers, Hudson or Continental car companies.

Less well-known is the fact that the Kahn built 521 factories in the Soviet Union from 1929-1931 under that country’s First Five-Year Plan. Ever wonder how the USSR held out against the Nazis? You can thank the immense tractor factories the Kahn firm built under incredibly trying circumstances — essentially, Kahn created the USSR’s industrial backbone, all of which, like the car companies here, was eventually converted to war production.

Detroiters, of course, know Kahn as the architect responsible for much of what we now consider “old” Detroit — the Fisher, Free Press, Detroit News, Vinton and General Motors buildings, to name a few. He also built innumerable houses for Detroit industrial royalty, the Detroit Athletic Club and many of the memorable buildings on Belle Isle.

At the University of Michigan, the immigrant who arrived in America penniless at age 12 designed most of the campus’ iconic structures: Burton Memorial Tower, Hill Auditorium, Clements Library, the Graduate Library, West Engineering, Natural Sciences and the University Museums building.

UM graduates will be intrigued with the picture of the Natural Science Building girdled by scaffolding during its construction, and nearly everyone will be astonished at the seemingly endless interior of the Willow Run Bomber Plant in Ypsilanti, in 1941 the largest factory in the country.

“Under Construction” is a reminder of a remarkably muscular period in American building and design, and a visually entertaining salute to “the man who built Detroit.”



‘Albert Kahn: Under


Through July 3

University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S. State, Ann Arbor


(734) 764-0395