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An old black and white photograph of five men, two sitting, with one signing a document.
Albert Kahn (bottom left) signs the contract to be consulting architect for the Soviet government on January 9, 1930.
Albert Kahn Associates

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How Albert Kahn helped the Soviet Union industrialize

Exploring the little-known history of the architect of Detroit’s impactful relationship with the USSR

Albert Kahn is synonymous with the automobile industry and the growth of Detroit. His Detroit-based firm, founded in 1895, designed such iconic buildings as the Packard Plant, the Fisher Building, and Temple Beth-El, in addition to countless industrial structures in Michigan and across the United States.

But in the spring of 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, Albert Kahn Associates was contracted to design the Stalingrad Tractor Plant, the first facility of its kind in the Soviet Union. That project led to a much larger contract for the firm to consult on industrial construction across the Soviet Union and the establishment of a satellite design office in Moscow from 1930 to 1932.

One could argue that without Albert Kahn, the Soviet Union would have struggled to execute its ambitious building projects. At the very least, it would have taken longer to become an industrial powerhouse.

How did a German-American Jew, and the architect for the largest capitalist automakers in the United States, come to play such a large role in the design of hundreds of socialist industrial complexes?

Building on an “unprecedented scale”

In 1928, Joseph Stalin launched the first in a series of “Five-Year Plans” in the USSR which laid out a series of economic goals to transition the largely agrarian state into an industrial power. One of the first initiatives was to build up the capacity to produce automotive vehicles, including tractors and cars, and eventually tanks. In the 1920s, there were only a few tractors in the Soviet Union, and the majority were imported from the United States.

A Soviet commission determined that the most appropriate design for domestic production was the Fordson tractor. But the initiative to reverse-engineer a Fordson-Putilovet in the mid-1920s was unsuccessful.

Instead, Stalin’s government turned to Kahn’s firm to design a new tractor factory. It had the demonstrated capacity to realize numerous large-scale industrial building projects, including Ford’s River Rouge Plant, and a substantial number of wartime structures. Soviet representatives visited Kahn’s offices in Detroit in 1928 and invited him to New York to meet with the head of the Russian trading company Amtorg.

By May 1929, Kahn’s firm had secured a contract to design and supervise the construction of a tractor factory 650 miles southeast of Moscow. The Stalingrad Tractor Factory was designed by workers in Albert Kahn Associates’ office in Detroit, built from prefabricated steel components shipped from the United States, and outfitted with U.S.-manufactured machinery. Truly, the factory was an American import to the Soviet Union.

Drawing of a sprawling industrial facility on an open plan. There’s writing in Russian in the bottom left corner.
Stalingrad Tractor Plant was one of the first projects in the first “Five Year Plan.”
Albert Kahn Associates

This contract was followed by a much larger contract for the firm to serve as consulting architects to the Soviet government for all industrial construction. Fortuitously, this contract was signed in January of 1930 as work ground to a halt in the United States in the wake of the stock market crash.

“The larger commission was a lifeline for the firm,” says Claire Zimmerman, an architectural historian writing a book about Albert Kahn’s practice.

To complete the massive amount of work necessary to realize the objectives of the first five-year plan, 25 architects and engineers from Kahn’s firm would work from an office in Moscow at a rapid pace and on an unprecedented scale. It’s difficult to say exactly how many Soviet industrial buildings Albert Kahn Associates was ultimately responsible for, but it could be in the hundreds.

In a detailed study, Sonia Melnikova-Raich writes that “Kahn’s firm would supply standard factory layouts, detailed drawings, specifications, and other technical documentation … together with site-specific designs developed by the firm’s specialists while working in the USSR.”

Additionally, both on the job and in a series of evening courses, the firm trained a cohort of Soviet engineers and draftsmen in the unique techniques and processes of Albert Kahn Associates.

But in the spring of 1932, negotiations to renew the contract broke down over the question of payment. Due to famine and the global economic crisis, the Soviet Union was no longer able to export agricultural products on the international market to pay international contractors in a solid currency. Moreover, by the end of the contract, the Soviet planning offices had a portfolio of building standards and modular designs, in addition to a trained workforce. This meant that the Kahn firm was no longer critical for continued industrial construction.

In other words, Kahn worked himself out of a job.

Fordizatsia

The fruitful collaboration between a German-American capitalist and Russian Communist state seems may seem strange to our 21st-century sensibilities, but it made sense at the time. In “Albert Kahn in the Second Industrial Revolution,” Zimmerman connects the building style and office procedures of Albert Kahn Associates, describing how “spareness of detail or simplifications throughout the fabric of large buildings resulted from economy and a design process that was highly systematized, repetitive and efficient.”

The office of Albert Kahn Associates was structured differently from many architectural offices of the time. Different aspects of building design were separated into specialized departments that could work on a project simultaneously, allowing it to meet client needs, timelines, and budgets. Architectural historian Michael Abrahamson writes in “Actual Center of Detroit” that Albert Kahn Associates’ novel configuration of architects, engineers, and other building specialists “[enabled] more accurate budgeting and streamlining the steps between design and construction.”

From an American perspective, these are all qualities particularly suited to the project of capitalism, but in the Soviet Union, the practices of Ford, also known as Fordism or fordizatsia in Russian parlance, were understood as ideologically neutral techniques just as well suited to the project of state socialism as to capitalism. In fact, Leon Trotsky believed that “Americanized Bolshevism will crush and conquer imperialist Americanism.” Or that the Soviet Union could use American technology to modernize itself and overtake the United States’ capitalist project.

In October, historians gathered at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to share research into the transnational exchange of workers, ideas, and technologies between Moscow and Detroit during the interwar period. One of these scholars, Evgenia Konysheva from South Ural State University in Russia, explained the significance of Albert Kahn’s practice within the broader adaptation of Fordism into Soviet planning. New modernist planning ideas about the city were characterized by the separation of functional zones for residential, civic, commercial, and industrial use. According to Konysheva, this was combined with a Fordist approach to modular assembly lines in Soviet industrial cities, where standardized layouts for both factories and workers’ settlements were arranged around new infrastructure like highways and railways.

This dovetailed with the procedural approach to design that the Kahn firm had been perfecting in Detroit. It continued to evolve at a new scale in the planning, design, and construction of Stalin’s first five-year plan. The work and training completed by the firm contributed to the standardization and typification of Soviet industrial city planning.

Just as the Soviet Union treated his design techniques as ideologically neutral, Kahn as well distanced himself from the political charge of working with the Soviet government. He was quoted as saying that his relationship with the Soviet Union was “as that of a doctor towards a patient.” Situating himself as a specialist able to treat a problem—a lack of industrial architecture—framed the firm’s work as apolitical and motivated by a complex technical challenge, not Communist sympathies. In a more market-driven take, Henry Ford said that “no matter where industry prospers, whether in India or China, or Russia, the more profit there will be for everyone, including us. All the world is bound to catch some good from it.”

In contrast to the antagonism that would build between the two countries during the Cold War, at this time the Soviet Union offered another developing market for the sale of manufactured goods. The way that Kahn and Ford engaged with the Soviet government as a client demonstrated their belief in the ideological neutrality of business.

Regardless of ideology, both the Soviet Union and the United States were making movements toward centralized planning the 1930s. At a much smaller scale, the New Deal mobilized infrastructural—and cultural—projects across the United States.

During the first and second Soviet five-year plans, the Soviet government expanded its industrial capacity immensely. Notably, the quantity of tanks and armaments it was able to produce was critical to its successful defense against Nazi German forces during World War II.

Albert Kahn Associates learned from the partnership as well. “They wouldn’t have gone to the Soviet Union and brought nothing back from an undertaking of such unprecedented speed and size,” Zimmerman says. “They learned about that from working with the Soviets.”

This experience foreshadowed and prepared the firm for the glut of work they would undertake for the U.S. military during World War II.

Is it too bold to claim that without Albert Kahn, the Allies wouldn’t have won World War II? Yes. But his contributions, cultivated through his work with the USSR, were critical in helping both countries achieve unprecedented military-industrial capacities.

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