Jerry Herron: The Last Pedestrians

Herron recalls how an architect, an automaker, and a Mexican painter shaped the history of Detroit @ Places Journal.

The story of the automobile — like the story of the city of Detroit — is a tale of unwitting eternal returns. At every turn the inventors of modern life — of its machines, its aspirations — seemed unable or unwilling to grasp the meaning of what they were in the process of creating and unleashing, and what they were thus undoing and destroying.

Among these creators of modern life was the architect Albert Kahn, who emigrated from Germany in 1880, at age 11, with his mother and five siblings. His father, a rabbi, had already arrived in Detroit. Young Albert showed artistic talent, and with the help of his teacher, the sculptor Julius Melchers, secured a position as office boy in the firm of Mason & Rice, architects to Detroit's elite carriage trade.

Albert prospered there (despite his color blindness, which he concealed by memorizing the precise hue of every object in the office) and soon was ready to strike out independently. In 1895 Kahn founded his own practice and quickly became the most important architect in Detroit — as it happens, this was just as the horse-drawn carriage would give way to the motorcar, and as the horseless carriages produced in the city's great factories would start inexorably to transform America's cities and landscapes. 

Between 1910 and 1930 — when most of downtown Detroit was created — Kahn personally executed one-quarter of all the architectural commissions in the city. By the time of his death, in 1942, he had produced over 1,900 buildings, and his designs had served to monumentalize the burgeoning civic culture: the YWCA, the YMCA, the Maccabees Building, the National Theater, the First National Bank Building, the neoclassical General Motors World Headquarters and, across Grand Boulevard, his crowning achievement, the 28-story art deco headquarters he executed in 1928 for the Fisher Brothers, auto body suppliers for GM. But the project that got built was dwarfed by the project that might have been: Kahn's original design for the Fishers incorporated two 26-story towers, each anchoring one corner of a city block, with an art deco skyscraper rising between them, through successive setbacks, to a copper mansard roof, 70 stories above the street. If the crash of 1929 had not convinced the Fishers to scale down their histrionic self-advertisement, Kahn's ornate masterwork would have been 30 floors higher than the contemporaneous slab-sided Penobscot Building (1928), which would remain Detroit’s tallest structure for half a century, until Henry Ford II hired John Portman to design his ill-fated Renaissance Center in the early '70s.

General Motors World Headquarters, located 1923–2001 in the General Motors Building (left) and today in the GM Renaissance Center (right). [Photos courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress]

Not that this matters much anymore. In the last half of the 20th century, Americans quit needing the kind of city expressed in Albert Kahn's designs: grand in scale, decoratively overwrought, unaccommodating to the velocity of the automobile, to the new momentum of the culture. Both the YWCA and YMCA were demolished in the late '90s; trees of heaven now grow through the collapsed roof of the National Theater; and in 2001 General Motors abandoned the outmoded world headquarters on West Grand Boulevard that it had occupied since 1923 (and which was then the second largest office building in the U.S.) and moved its vastly diminished corporate ranks to the RenCen.

And that might have been the end of the story of Albert Kahn, if he hadn’t been betrayed by the automobile into a relevance he neither sought nor understood. "Modernists present us with box-like forms," he complained in 1931, "with windows unconventionally placed at corners or in long horizontal slots, with structures devoid of cornices, flat roofs surmounted by pipe railings, and ask us to accept these as the last word in Architectural design." Kahn accused Erich Mendelsohn and Walter Gropius of creating "shaven architecture" and dismissed Le Corbusier as perpetrating "functionalism to the ‘nth’ degree." [1] Yet — paradoxically — it was from Albert Kahn, and architects like him, that the modernists had learned their lessons. Gropius, for example, in an extremely influential article of 1913, hailed the power of American industrial architecture:


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