By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Time and motion

Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern Edited by Brian Carter. University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2001. £14

For those who were able to stand aside of the 'style-wars' of the international Modern Movement, Albert Kahn was the preferred architect of functionalism. He designed for the processes of standardisation, rationalisation and the first moving assembly-line factories, which lay at the heart of Modernism.

Between 1895 and 1945 his practice was responsible for more than 2,000 buildings, many for industrial giants such as Packard, Dodge, Hudson, Paige and, most famously, the Ford Motor Company (pictured).

From pre-First World War America, his work also spread in size - and influence - to account for more than 500 factories in Soviet Russia, which churned out tractors for Stalin just as the River Rouge plant did Model Ts for Henry Ford. So successful were Kahn's methods that in 1929 this premier architect of the capitalist economy was invited to establish a branch office in Moscow where 4,000 Russian architects were subsequently trained.

This interesting group of four essays was published to accompany an exhibition at the University of Michigan in Detroit. Its focus is the place of Kahn's work within the visual culture of Modernism, referring to factory photographs by Charles Sheeler and Alfred Stieglitz, murals by Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera and more recent work by Michael Kenna. They depict the places, spaces and practices less dispassionately portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

The University of Michigan holds an important collection of Kahn's student drawings and does a commendable job of promoting this through the museum's exhibition programme. It is no surprise that this exhibition and publication should have received financial support from Kahn's bestknown client, Ford; nor that it should be done against the demolition of the very buildings (Highland Park, River Rouge) designed by Kahn, plagiarised by Mies, revered by Corb and others, and embedded into our culture through the lens of Sheeler.

It is probably too much to hope that the inclusion of photographs of the famous, though far less radical Fiat-Lingotto factory, Turin - the subject of Renzo Piano's recent extensive restoration - may prick the conscience of the American motor giant.

Beyond the various images brought together and discussed in the catalogue, the appendix contains the real gem of this book, and perhaps the real justification for the exhibition. This is a hitherto unpublished typescript of Kahn's lecture on Impressionist painting, reproduced in facsimile form with his own hand-written amendments.

Though he says little of interest, there is a delicious irony in knowing that the man who was the architect of Taylorism and designed around the dictates of time-andmotion, should have been an avid collector of the style that, as Baudelaire characterised it, 'catches that which is most fleeting and transitory'.

For Kahn, the Impressionists portrayed everyday life and movement of 19th-century French society, whereas he inhabited the world of Ford, Taylor and factory discipline, which was to increasingly become the lingua franca of 20th-century industrialised society. Implicit in this collection is the realisation that if Ford continues to treat its built heritage as it has done in the past, soon it will be only the images that are left.

Julian Holder is director of the Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies at Edinburgh College of Art

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters