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The Man Who Defines Detroit Architecture

June 6, 2018

The new book “Building the Modern World” explores how Albert Kahn revolutionized architecture here and abroad.

By Michael H. Hodges

Albert Kahn was Detroit’s most prolific architect in the first half of the 20th century. His commercial and residential buildings define downtown Detroit, and give downtown and the New Center their sober, masculine, well-dressed look. Nobody built more of what we call “old Detroit,” whether the Fisher Building, the old General Motors Building, the Detroit Athletic Club or the former offices of The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. At the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, he gave the central campus its air of unpretentious dignity, with powerful designs like Hill Auditorium and Burton Memorial Tower. 

Kahn may be best known for skyscrapers like the Fisher Building, but the architect designed numerous homes. Indeed, very early in his career he was known principally as a residential architect. Kahn’s houses consistently win praise.

“Albert Kahn was a poet of houses,” says Gregory Wittkopp, former director of the Cranbrook Art Museum and now head of the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Edsel & Eleanor Ford House and Cranbrook House may be his biggest and most famous, but Kahn’s legacy also includes handsome, smaller homes in Indian Village, Grosse Pointe and Ann Arbor. The architect built in a range of styles, but many of his best — including his own mansion — were elaborations on Arts-and-Crafts design. 

I’d always kind of wanted to research and write a biography. And Albert Kahn, “the man who built Detroit,” seemed the obvious choice in this period when Detroit’s enjoying a long-overdue second look from the rest of the country. Kahn’s impact was huge, both locally and globally, with outsized influence on the evolution of both industry and architecture in the last century. 

In April, Detroit News reporter Michael Hodges released his latest book, “Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit,” which delves into Kahn’s impact on architecture here and around the world. He shared with SEEN photos he took that are featured in the book. Scroll through the photo gallery above. 

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