Architect Albert Kahn’s Legacy at Michigan

Architect Albert Kahn’s Legacy at Michigan

Michigan Alumnus magazine, summer 2013

More than any other person, Albert Kahn defined the look of the University of Michigan campus. The architect of its signature structures, he secured his legacy in the many buildings that continue to serve the University community. Read the following excerpt of the cover story of the summer 2013 issue of Michigan Alumnus magazine.

By Stephen Rosoff, MA’87

The Burton Memorial Tower carillon chimes while thousands of students emerge from buildings around Central Campus. Some pass beneath the West Engineering Arch and head toward the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library or cross the Diag en route to the Kraus Natural Science Building. Some make their way toward Randall Lab or walk up the steps and underneath the grand Doric columns of Angell Hall. Many more will amble past Hill Auditorium, the Clements Library, or the Museum of Natural History in search of lattes and espressos, while others still snooze contentedly in Couzens Hall, Betsy Barbour, or Helen Newberry.

And most, if not all, will remain unaware that the design of these iconic buildings is largely the vision of one man, architect Albert Kahn, HLLD’33.

Many of the buildings in the Central Campus array are by Kahn, one of America’s most prolific architects. While he designed more than 4,000 buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly half were factories. Those included Ford Motor Co.’s River Rouge plant and the Willow Run Bomber plant, then the world’s largest of their kind. Given that Kahn is best remembered for his industrial buildings, U-M students and alumni may be forgiven for not recognizing his name.

But today, more than 70 years after his death, there is a resurgent interest in and growing appreciation for Kahn’s architectural achievements. And Central Campus bears witness to his enduring legacy of flexible spaces, important architectural innovations, and buildings that are aesthetically pleasing, superbly constructed, and well suited to their purpose.

“It’s off the scale how much he out-produced his contemporaries,” says Claire Zimmerman, a U-M professor who teaches a workshop titled “Albert Kahn: Architect of the American Century” for undergraduates and professional architecture students.

When Zimmerman was in architecture school in the late 1980s, she remembers seeing images of the River Rouge plant and Ford’s Highland Park plant (which produced the Model T), yet the name Albert Kahn was never mentioned. “He was a footnote at best when I was getting trained.” …

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