12 January 2011

"Architecture is 90% Business and 10% Art"

Albert Kahn (1869-1942) was a German-born American Architect, often referred to as 'The Architect of Detroit', who was responsible for bringing "industry to architecture" (Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi). Pragmatic in his design intentions, Kahn realised, from his experience working for industrialists such as Henry Ford, that businessmen were "profoundly suspicious of artists, [for] they wanted fast work, and no mistakes." Albert Kahn's practice was at the forefront of the growing discourse in the American Architectural Profession (along with the likes of Daniel Burnham) as to whether it constituted an Art or a Business. Despite not being 'new' even in the late nineteen or early twentieth century, indeed it is still relevant today, Kahn reorganised his practice to achieve efficiencies to such a scale that other practices, particularly those working in the industrial sector of factories as he was, had no option but to match his system or die.

Lady Esther  Factory, Exterior, Clearing, Illinois, 1936 (Surface Architecture, MIT Press)

"For Kahn, pragmatic simplicity was key; he argued for neither aesthetic functionalism nor the 'shaven architecture' of the European Modernists, who he strongly criticized for having taken functionalism to the nth degree. His disagreement was also political and economic; he ended a lecture on modern architecture by recognizing the need for architects to pursue the model of corporate management, integrating architecture with the business of building." (Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi)

Organisation of Albert Kahn, Inc. (George Nelson, Industrial Architecture of Albert Kahn, Inc. 1939)

George Nelson, seen now as Kahn's main apologist, reproduced the organizational diagram of Albert Kahn, Inc in his 1939 book - Industrial Architecture of Albert Kahn. It is clear to see that the Architect has been subordinated in the new system of practice organisation with the Chief Administrator in control. The results of this structure meant that "the department in the firm's technical division designed the whole building. The work in all of the departments started at the same time, which resulted in speeding up the process of preparing the drawings and the specifications for all the trades. This allowed the submissions of all drawings at one time. If necessary, this procedure could result in the preparation of a factory in less than ten days."

Kahn's practice was in the end devoted to the "reproduction of mass production", from his association with the Ford Motor Company. Interestingly, he also refused to hire any college graduates from American schools with an architectural degree worried that the Beaux-Arts schooling might "place self-expression over team co-operation" (Saint) and detract from the smooth workings of his machine-like operation that were aligned 90% towards 'Business' and 10% towards 'Art'.


Leatherbarrow, D. and Mostafavi, M. (2002), Surface Architecture, 1st Edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press
Saint, A. (1983), The Image of The Architect, 1st Edition, Yale University Press