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Building the Modern World

Albert Kahn in Detroit

Michael H. Hodges

Award Winner

Architecture, Biography, Detroit, Michigan

Painted Turtle

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Published: April 2018
ISBN: 9780814340356
Pages: 240 Size: 8x10
Illustrations: 170 black-and-white and color images
Published: April 2018
ISBN: 9780814340363

Building the Modern World: Albert Kahn in Detroit by Michael H. Hodges tells the story of the German-Jewish immigrant who rose from poverty to become one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. Kahn’s buildings not only define downtown Detroit, but his early car factories for Packard Motor and Ford revolutionized the course of industry and architecture alike.

Employing archival sources unavailable to previous biographers, Building the Modern World follows Kahn from his apprenticeship at age thirteen with a prominent Detroit architecture firm to his death. With material gleaned from two significant Kahn archives—the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library and the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution—Hodges paints the most complete picture yet of Kahn’s remarkable rise. Special emphasis is devoted to his influence on architectural modernists, his relationship with Henry Ford, his intervention to save the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (unreported until now), and his work laying down the industrial backbone for the Soviet Union in 1929–31 as consulting architect for the first Five Year Plan.

Kahn’s ascent from poverty, his outsized influence on both industry and architecture, and his proximity to epochal world events make his life story a tableau of America’s rise to power. Historic photographs as well as striking contemporary shots of Kahn buildings enliven and inform the text. Anyone interested in architecture, architectural history, or the history of Detroit will relish this stunning work.

Published by: Painted Turtle

Michael H. Hodges covers fine arts for the Detroit News. His previous book, Michigan’s Historic Railroad Stations (Wayne State University Press, 2012), was a 2013 Library of Michigan Notable Book.

In clear, accessible prose, Hodges vividly brings to life the work of Detroit-based architect and coordinator of architectural efficiency Albert Kahn, invoking a personable, client-serving, humble individual in place of the corporate machine with which Kahn is often associated. Building the Modern World is architectural biography at its most elevated, where qualities of the man and attributes of buildings by his firm meet and correspond. The built environment of industrial capital is here embraced enthusiastically for what it brought to the city of Detroit, and to American cities in general, in the ‘Second Industrial Revolution.’

– Claire Zimmerman, curator of Albert Kahn Under Construction

Michael Hodges makes a powerful case for the local and global impact of architect Albert Kahn. Hodges’s engaging text and evocative photographs detail the grandeur and elegance of Kahn’s civic architecture, often overlooked in accounts that treat Kahn primarily as a titan of industrial design. This compelling account weaves together the many threads of Kahn’s career—his humble origins as an immigrant, his difficult relationship as a Jewish professional with the virulently anti-Semitic Henry Ford, his fascinating contributions to the Soviet industrial revolution—to make the case that Kahn isn’t just an overlooked architect but a giant of the discipline, who bound together utilitarian and aesthetic values in a quintessentially American architectural style.

– Philip Kennicott, art and architecture critic for the Washington Post

  • 2018 State History Award - Result: Winner in the "Books: University & Commercial Press" category