Framing Mass Production: Reyner Banham vs. Albert Kahn
The Cooper Union, New York, NY, USA
When visiting Packard 10— one of the first automobile factories in Detroit built in 1903 by Albert Kahn—Reyner Banham was struck by “the ruthless manner in which Kahn has shrunk everything to this minimal grid… which looks barely adequate to support the production processes.” Writing in Concrete Atlantis (1986) Banham also found that the Kahn System of Reinforcement “contributes to an air of grudging meanness that pervades the whole scheme. What looked so exciting in photographs and magazines seen by European modernists… looks cheap and nasty in real life… and hardly any other architect or builder, with a professional conscience could have done it.” And while commending contemporary innovations in concrete framing in Buffalo, Banham wrote, “there is no sign here of the miserliness of Kahn’s work at Packard 10.” Kahn’s Old Shop at Highland Park got a similar review: Banham considered it a disappointment and a functional failure, and the only credit he gave the building was its being a testimony to a historical era. All in all, Banham stated that mass production had failed to transform its respective architecture. Yet, the greatness of Highland Park was that the building proved to be highly adaptable, during a time when both industrial processes and industrial architecture were yet to be determined.
This paper brings forth Banham’s negative critique of Kahn’s architecture, and his failure to change the parameters of his evaluation to follow the remarkable transformative processes of mass production. This paper thus becomes a critique of the architectural critique; as the writer of Theory and Design of the First Machine Age—where Banham accuses the architects of the International Style of not having acquainted themselves with technology—chose himself not to ‘run with technology,’ and thus failed to discard conventional norms and forms of architectural reading.