The Last Pedestrians
Left: Albert Kahn, Diego Rivera and Edsel Ford. Right: Rush hour in Detroit, 1942, as seen from Kahn's Fisher Building (1928) with his General Motors Building (1923) on the left. [Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress]
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."  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:
America, the Motherland of Industry, possesses some majestic original constructions which far outstrip anything of a similar kind achieved in Germany. The compelling monumentality of the Canadian and South America grain elevators, the coaling bunkers built for the leading railway companies and the newest work halls of the great North American industrial trusts can almost bear comparison with the work of the ancient Egyptians in their overwhelming monumental power. The impact of these buildings seems to lie in the fact that American builders have retained a natural feeling for large compact forms, fresh and intact. Our own architects might take this as a valuable hint and refuse to pay any more attention to those fits of historicist nostalgia and other intellectual fancies under which European creativity still labors. 
Fits of historicist nostalgia: that describes pretty well the public architecture of Albert Kahn; but not the designs he executed for the automobile industry, starting with Packard Plant Building No. 10 (1907) on East Grand Boulevard. There, beyond the aspirations of the downtown gentry and the reach of art, Kahn arrived unawares at the now familiar idiom of architectural modernity: glass sheathing; flat-roofed, unadorned spaces illuminated from above; structural steel skeletons and reinforced concrete columns. (Kahn’s brother Julius, a civil engineer, had developed a new system for reinforcing concrete.) His adaptable, open-plan factories are precisely the type of buildings that Gropius praised for their “compelling monumentality.”
In its wartime exhibition of 1944, Built in the USA 1932–1944, the Museum of Modern Art in New York ignored Kahn’s revivalist ouevre and instead included his Chrysler Half-Ton Truck Plant, of 1937; the caption read simply: "steel, brick and glass."  Kahn was by then two years dead, and perhaps better off not knowing what would become of his reputation. While his stately civic architecture has succumbed to creeping anachronism, his industrial buildings keep getting reborn. Of the more than 1,000 projects he executed for Henry Ford, two-thirds are still in use; in Chicago, his Dodge Aircraft Engine Plant, which was completed after his death (and which at 1.65 million square feet was then the largest single-story building in the world, and where many of the B-29 bombers used in the war were built) has been repurposed to become the Ford City Mall.
Top: Ford Motor Company Plant, Highland Park, Detroit (1910), photographed with steetcar tracks, Model T and horse-drawn carriage in 1914. [Photo by the Detroit Publishing Company, via Shorpy] Bottom: Factory buildings at Ford's River Rouge Complex, Dearborn, Michigan (1917–28). [Photos courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress]
It’s ironic that the man who designed for Henry Ford both the Highland Park Plant and the gigantic Rouge River Complex would remain so ambivalent about the automobile. Both Highland Park and River Rouge, each in its day the world’s largest manufacturing facility, had about them a palpable tentativeness, as if the machines produced within understood better than the architect the larger destiny of the automobile. At Highland Park, the final stages of the assembly of the Tin Lizzie — the Model T, arguably the most revolutionary car of the 20th century — took place not inside the factory as Kahn had intended, but outdoors. Ford's workers punched a hole in the factory wall — echoing Henry Ford’s own early process, when he smashed through the wall of a coal shed so he could take his Quadricycle for a test ride — and car bodies were lowered from a wooden ramp onto the chasses emerging from the plant. It seemed almost as if the machines had redesigned the building themselves, the newly assembled vehicles anxious to make a break for the open road, like a man grabbing his hat before dashing out the door. Automobiles were in the midst of a great act of becoming, and it was their destiny, not ours, being so urgently fulfilled. Which is utter nonsense, of course, describing machines as if they had independent will; but that is often how we’ve allowed ourselves to think about our designs — as if they were not our own, but forced upon us — with results impossible to predict, both fortunate and calamitous.
Just as Albert Kahn failed to appreciate the modern achievement of his industrial buildings, Henry Ford never understood the automobile’s effect upon the American city. The visionary industrialist — who grew up on a farm and returned to the country whenever he could, who insisted on drinking non-sterilized milk to preserve the grassy taste he remembered from boyhood — was in his own way a blinkered nostalgist. Instead it was his son, Edsel, born in Detroit in 1893, and always a man of the city, who saw with perfect clarity that cars would come to define and indeed transform his hometown — and that the industrial city would then have its way with the world. It is notable that the cars which Edsel designed on his own, in a wood-floored studio at Henry Leland’s old Lincoln Plant, were beautiful, streamlined and meticulously crafted vehicles, prototypes for the coming generation of luxury automobiles, and so unlike the boxy, utilitarian Model T as to seem a new category of mechanical creature. When Edsel died, before his 50th birthday — of stomach cancer exacerbated by undulant fever, contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk from his father’s dairy; a death hastened, painfully, by poisonous nostalgia — the cars he designed would become his memorial.
These sleek, modern vehicles would also form the basis of an improbable friendship between the billionaire’s son and the Mexican painter — and ardent communist — Diego Rivera. In 1932, the Detroit Institute of Arts invited Rivera to the capital of industrial America, commissioning two murals for the museum’s interior courtyard, works expressive of the history and spirit of the city, then suffering through the worst of the Great Depression. Rivera the communist was politically exotic, and in those years much sought after; still in his forties, he had just been the subject of a one-man retrospective at MoMA. When he reached Detroit, accompanied by his wife, the painter Frida Kahlo, two things became immediately clear. First, he would require not just a portion of the proffered courtyard for his commission, but all four walls of the space, floor to ceiling; and, second, he would concentrate on a single subject: "Detroit Industry," specifically Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex, wherein the inventor had at last achieved his dream of total ownership and control, with raw materials — timber and iron and coal — coming in one end, and finished automobiles driving out the other.
Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, 1932–33, murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Top: North Wall. Middle: Wide-angle view of Rivera Court. [Photo by Ben Seese] Bottom: South Wall. For a closer look, see this 360° view by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Rivera kept art studio not factory floor hours; he didn't start to work until midnight. Assistants would transfer his drawings onto the wet plaster walls with huge stencils, which he'd then outline in dark paint. When dawn began to break through the skylight, Rivera would apply color. Some photos of the unfolding project remain. There’s an image of Frida Kahlo, looking down from a balcony on the second floor, her long hair coiled in a nimbus-like braid, the central part clean as a scar. She’s at eye level with the great shapes that preside over Diego’s murals: four gigantic figures representing the peoples of America — Native, African-American, Asian, Caucasian — reclining in a mythic desert. Enormous hands thrust upward, bearing the mineral wealth that made possible the assembly-line production of automobiles represented in the paintings below.
When the architect Paul Cret, who had designed the Institute of Arts, caught wind of the project, he was incensed. Like Albert Kahn, Cret had little use for the industrial future; his building, he insisted, was a Beaux-Arts masterpiece, as it would have appeared before Rivera’s incursion:
Sunlight softly filtered through a rectangular cloth awning draped between each pair of carved and painted wooden beams in the Garden Court. ... The four white walls reflected the ambient light. Terra-cotta roundels with Etruscan motifs were mounted along the upper registers, and marble masques in antique style flanked each corner of the court. A huge stepped fountain, with fish in its pools and tropical vegetation in its planters, dominated the center of the court. ... The court served as resting place from museum fatigue, a grand architectural space with the soft play of light, fresh smell of plants, and soothing sounds of water. 
And into this dappled and serene space, Rivera proposed to inject the racket of the assembly line, the stink of industry, the vividly rendered bodies of working men. Cret was outraged. He wrote to Albert Kahn, imploring his fellow architect to intervene — to halt this project so "out of harmony" with the "international Beaux-Arts style" of his design.  But the Depression had bankrupted the Institute of Arts; Edsel Ford was paying the bills, and the murals proceeded to cover the courtyard walls as planned.
Edsel visited Diego often, at least once a week, as the huge figures took shape in the frescoes. What would they have said to each other, underneath the lights, Frida looking down from the balcony at the scion of industry and her communist husband? Diego was 46 years old, tall, with a great paunch and heavy-featured face. Edsel was seven years younger, polite, fastidious, well liked, and secretly pitied for the plain fact that he would never be allowed to grow up like other men because Henry Ford was his father. 
Diego Rivera, Edsel B. Ford, 1932.
Diego painted Edsel into the Detroit Industry murals; but back in Edsel's studio, the painter found the basis for a still more convincing likeness in an oil portrait that shows the younger Ford preparing drawings for a new Lincoln coupé. Edsel’s head is turned slightly to the right; he is wearing a well-tailored double-breasted suit with wide lapels; his necktie is a vivid blue. In the background are three movable blackboards that depict his designs for the streamlined Lincoln; in the foreground is his drafting table with his drawing instruments neatly arranged. His face shows no trace of the caught-in-the-headlights apprehensiveness that characterizes photographs of him from the period.
The most remarkable thing in the portrait, however, are the hands. These are not Edsel’s hands (that much the period photographs make clear). These are over-sized Palooka mitts. They are the same hands that dominate the upper panels of the Detroit Industry murals: large, fleshy, almost grotesque. In fact they are Rivera’s own hands, bestowed upon Edsel as a token of mutual self-recognition that registers also in the portrait’s eyes, which return a glance that must have passed more than once between these two men. "He did not know that it was already behind him," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Jay Gatsby and his dream of freedom and happiness, "somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night." But I like to think that Edsel and Diego did know that their own contradictory dreams were already behind them; the futures they had imagined were already receding, fitting subjects of nostalgia. Diego Rivera dreamed of the workers' revolution, all the while painting in the fresco tradition of Renaissance nobility, working on commissions for modern-day princes of industry. Edsel Ford drew his futuristic automobiles, all the while residing in the baronial Cotswold-style mansion in Grosse Point designed for him by Albert Kahn. History, Rivera might have pointed out, recalling Marx, is like the automobile: real and inevitable, yet likely to melt into air, the vehicle of a freedom from which there would be no escape.
In March 1933 Rivera finished his Detroit murals and moved on to new work and politics and love affairs; it was in May of that year that the Rockefellers ejected him from his ill-fated project at the new Rockefeller Center in New York, ordering workmen to chisel from the walls a partially finished fresco, which included a portrait of Lenin. In Detroit Rivera's newly finished murals had come immediately under attack, both for their notorious politics and for their depiction of naked flesh. On March 23, 1933, just after the public unveiling, the Detroit Free Press editorialized: “It is easy to understand the concern and disgust of members of Christian bodies over the grotesquerie and even blasphemy in the Diego Rivera murals. ... Certainly they represent decadent art. Undoubtedly they contain communist propaganda.” 
The city council entertained a resolution to whitewash the Detroit Industry panels. Meanwhile unprecedented crowds — as many as 10,000 people each day — flocked to the Institute of Arts, the better to enlighten themselves about the growing scandal and the possibility of impending class war fomented by Rivera’s surreptitious propaganda. But Rivera in Detroit fared better than Rivera at Rockefeller Center, largely due to Edsel's steadfast support. Eventually the controversy would be eclipsed, first by events in Europe and then by the unexpected prosperity that the Second World War brought to the "arsenal of democracy," as Detroit styled itself in those years, with justifiable pride. By the time peace arrived, Edsel was dead, and the scandal of the murals long forgotten. Rivera’s portrait of Edsel Ford was donated by his wife to the Institute of Arts; that’s where I first saw it, in a private dining room, at lunch, looking up from my plate of noodles.
Top: Henry and Edsel Ford in 1921. [Photo courtesy of The Henry Ford] Bottom: Edsel Citation. [Photo by George Thomas]
In the years before his death, Edsel spent more and more time at his studio in the Lincoln plant. The last design he completed before his health failed and the war in Europe began was for the 12-cylinder Continental, first offered for sale in 1940. It was a masterpiece, one of the great classic cars. But Henry remained contemptuous: “I have no use for an engine with more cylinders than a cow has teats.”  These days, if Edsel is remembered at all, it is likely not for art or automotive styling but instead for the corporate flop that once bore his name. The Edsel line — the Ranger, Pacer, Corsair, and Citation — was introduced in 1957 to compete with GM’s mid-priced Oldsmobiles. But the models were plagued from the start by quality control problems, and the odd-looking front grille became the butt of jokes comparing it to a horse collar, a toilet seat, a fish mouth. "Leave me out of it," is all Robert McNamara, the future Secretary of Defense, then the Ford head of production, had to say, with what seems in retrospect a characteristic tendency toward retroactive dis-involvement. 
We’ll never know whether Edsel Ford and Diego Rivera would have arrived independently at the same truth about the future of Detroit. But I would argue they achieved their moment of insight together, each by contemplating his Other: that much is preserved in the murals for all to see. Everyone thinks the murals are about cars — "Detroit Industry" — but ultimately the cars are not the point; it's what the cars are doing to the people and the city that matters, or rather what people have allowed the cars to do as we all pursued a design — a destiny — of which cars are the incidental byproduct. That's what these two men seemed to understand so well. Just try to find a car anywhere in these paintings. You can’t, unless you know exactly where to look, on the south wall, in the middle; you really have to try hard to see it, and sure enough, there’s a tiny red Ford, speeding away, off in the distance. And that’s the point Rivera is making, about the tragedy of mis-recognition and reversal and how likely we are not to see what is right in front of us, until much later, if at all. We thought we were making the cars, but it was the other way around. And the joke is that nobody seems to notice; except maybe Diego and Edsel.
The red Ford at the end of the assembly line, Detroit Industry, south wall.
Everywhere in Detroit Industry there are "dynamic images," as a handy brochure explains: cogs, conveyors, belts and pulleys move the parts to the waiting workers, with their rippling biceps, strong backs bent to their labors. On the north wall, "Production and Manufacture of Engine and Transmission." On the south wall, "Production of Automobile Exterior and Final Assembly." You can almost hear the racket of these Moloch machines, feel the heat of the furnace, smell the hot grease and sweat. The frescos have been praised time and again for their documentary accuracy. This is really how the Rouge Plant looked, although that painstaking verisimilitude may be merely another line in Rivera’s joke, like Magritte’s famous pipe with the inscription: This is not a pipe. This is not Detroit Industry, but a way of seeing Detroit Industry. The murals are of heroic proportions — approximately 17 by 45 feet — the figures seemingly life-size. The industrial works are imposing and omnipresent. It’s as if the men were living literally in the grasp of some immense all-knowing machine, feeding it with their toil, caring for its every need, and finally becoming subject to it.
Not that this wasn’t all part of the plan. "The man who places a part does not fasten it," Henry Ford is said to have decreed; and: "The man who puts in a bolt does not put on the nut; the man who puts on the nut does not tighten it."  Whatever he actually said, assembly line production was exactly that, beginning at Highland Park in the spring of 1913, when Edward Huff experimentally refitted the magneto department. Huff, whom everybody called "Spider," rigged the whole business with flywheels and conveyors. “Every piece of work in the shop moves," Henry later gloated; “it may move on hooks, on overhead chains ... it may travel on a moving platform, or it may go by gravity, but the point is that there is no lifting or trucking. ... No workman has anything to do with moving or lifting anything."  The complexity of the whole was immense, and worked out to the last detail; and that’s what you see on the walls in Detroit Industry — the representation of a new sublime that dwarfs the individual in the face of a design so vast as to defy personal comprehension, yet there it is, created by the same men who are now caught in the grasp of its power.
There would be no "Detroit School" of architecture to parallel the "Chicago School" that began with Burnham & Root and Louis Sullivan, and their innovative designs for what would become the skyscraper. Detroit was a boomtown, like Chicago, but the boom here was created on the factory floor, and it was the factory, not the skyscraper, where the innovations that would transform the 20th century — in production and architecture — were being worked out. That was the uncomprehended truth of Albert Kahn’s career. And while his institutional commissions now seem fussy and dated — like so many early skyscrapers — his industrial designs (some a century old) look entirely modern. The logic evolved there — and profitably so — was one that didn’t build up, like the first multi-story factories, but out. And people followed right along with Kahn’s proposition; its logic seemed self-evident, undeniable, like a force of nature, such as Diego painted onto the walls at the Institute of Arts. Detroit has enabled more people to move out, and faster, than any other place, not because they had to move, but because they could move, because the prosperity born of cars made them want to get on to a better life.
Left: Proposed super-highway along Woodward Avenue. [Drawing by the Rapid Transit Commission of Detroit, from Hubbard and Hubbard, Our Cities of Today and Tomorrow, 1929, via fake is the new real] Right: Woodward Avenue in 2006, looking north from the Whitney Building in downtown Detroit. [Photo by Ian Freimuth]
Some credit the New Center — conceived in the 1920s by the Fisher brothers and Albert Kahn to relocate some three miles north the congested center of Detroit’s historic downtown — with being America’s first “edge city,” a forward-looking concept now almost a century old. Whether that claim is true or not, it is demonstrably the case that people here have always been driving toward the edge, and beyond. If you were to start at the New Center today, and follow the path of the exodus out along Woodard Avenue — our main street, which runs from the Detroit River more than 30 miles north to Pontiac — you’d drive past a range of indicative sites, beautiful old public buildings now derelict, genteel neighborhoods fallen to ruin, stylish shopping plazas with boarded-up windows — the usual, in other words, if it is ever usual for people to leave a place so quickly that they abandon this much embodied wealth. The magnitude of dereliction remains stunning, even now, with so much of it grown old, dilapidated, burned out, ruined simply by neglect.
So, what made us do it? That’s the question.
Novels, of course, are not proof of anything, but they are unimpeachable witnesses when it comes to delivering a truth of feeling; there’s a passage in Sinclair Lewis's satiric masterpiece of 1922, Babbitt, where the author, born in a small town in northern Minnesota, sets out to understand the forces transforming the city in the first decades of the 20th century. Lewis had a special love-hate relationship with his middle-class paragon, George Babbitt; in an early scene he presents Babbitt in his car, stopped at an intersection on the three-and-a-half block drive to lunch, at the Athletic Club, in an imaginary April of 1920:
[Babbitt’s] high moment came in the clash of traffic when he was halted at the corner beneath the lofty Second National Tower. His car was banked with four others in a line of steel restless as a cavalry, while the cross-town traffic, limousines and enormous moving-vans and insistent motor-cycles, poured by; on the farther corner, pneumatic riveters rang on the sun-plated skeleton of a new building; and out of this tornado flashed the inspiration of a familiar face, and a fellow Booster shouted, "H’are you, George!" Babbitt waved in neighborly affection, and slid on with the traffic as the policeman lifted his hand. He noted how quickly his car picked up. He felt superior and powerful, like a shuttle of polished steel darting in a vast machine. 
To feel yourself part of that “vast machine,” to become one with the forces that were constructing buildings and moving traffic — that is an instance of true sublimity. In that surrender, Babbitt feels "superior and powerful." But still, it’s not the dehumanized surrender of an automaton (like the one in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis); this an altogether empowering and companionable moment, with the fellow Booster shouting that affectionate “H'are you.” Class differences notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s absurd to find here a fictional rendering of the men in Rivera’s murals, making their way together inside the machine, having their way with modernity just as modernity was having its way with them, and feeling exhilarated at being incorporated into the immense new design, as if in recompense for what the design might actually be costing in human terms. Lewis is, of course, satirizing his character, a booster-realtor who makes a career promoting the development of subdivisions, and for a few decades "Babbitry" came to stand for a kind of small-minded provincialism; but there’s no denying the results. I think old George understood clearly enough why a man with any gumption would want to put the wife and kids in the car and tootle up the avenue, away from the noise and the crowds, to what looked like the peace of the suburban city on a hill, which was exactly the place he was just then helping to create.
Highland Park Plant in 2003. [Photo by Sean Marshall]
Let's return to that drive up Woodward Avenue. Along the way, not far from the New Center, you’d drive past Henry Ford’s Highland Park Plant — our Independence Hall, the site in Detroit where it all began, as the historical marker out front will remind you:
HOME OF THE MODEL T
But then you look around, and the inscription seems a sad and bitter joke. The plant — what’s left of it — is a wreck, actually one wreck in the midst of a wasteland of industrial-age wrecks. And Highland Park, once an affluent municipality, has become one of the poorest and most dangerous places in America. Now try to imagine that Independence Hall looks like this — not the replica built by Henry Ford at Greenfield Village, but the real one, in Philadelphia. That would get people’s attention, like some Planet of the Apes counterfactual of American history, with its ironic and dystopic rendering of what the future has made of the past.
Here at his Highland Park Plant, Henry Ford in 1913 began the mass production of automobiles on a moving assembly line. By 1915 Ford built a million Model T’s. In 1925 over 9,000 were assembled in a single day. Mass production soon moved from here to all phases of American industry and set the pattern of abundance for 20th Century living.
But here, nobody seems to notice. No wonder. Highland Park did “set the pattern” for 20th century living, and now for the 21st; which is how we’ve forgotten to remember that there’s anything here worth preserving.
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