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The Last Pedestrians: Albert Kahn, Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera

The Last Pedestrians: Albert Kahn, Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera

The Last Pedestrians: Albert Kahn, Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera – By Jerry Herron

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…..

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:…..

                  ….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. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6]

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.” [7]

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…..

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