Grey Room

Editor’s Introduction: The Costs of Architecture

Claire Zimmerman

p. 6Figure 1p. 7 In 1986, Reyner Banham located the “null-sum” of architecture as a function of cost, identifying precisely where architecture crossed the line into mere building. Nearly forty years before that, Henry-Russell Hitchcock had made a similar distinction, classifying bureaucratic architecture as an income source for the profession but not the subject of architectural intellection. And fifteen years before Hitchcock, Alfred Barr had similarly distanced architecture from money-cost, minimizing the importance of quantity and asserting the importance of quality in architecture. Walking back through the twentieth century, buildings in which money-cost played a manifestly important role are simultaneously denoted as sites of mere building engineering and lack of architecture. For at least two of the three commentators, Detroit architect Albert Kahn (1869–1942) provided the relevant case study.1 Kahn is often cited as the extreme version of a professional architect for whom client satisfaction and cost efficiency were unquestioned mandates. With the help of five siblings, he ran a commercially successful, large-scale practice in Detroit until his death (one that grew to six hundred staff during World War II), and partnered in the creation of a necklace of related companies.2 Albert Kahn Associates, as the firm became known, benefited from and shaped the “Second Industrial Revolution” that unfolded from the end of the U.S. Civil War through World War II, with the auto industry at its center and sizable wartime military contracts infusing periodic cash boluses. One key to Kahn’s success was his cost accounting, illustrated evocatively in the small notebook he carried around with him from 1907 to 1913, at least. Kahn’s breast-pocket notebook soon gave way to a detailed set of loose-leaf notebooks, followed by an extensive card catalogue system, rediscovered in the basement of the firm in 2015. The Kahn firm accounted costs, not to the square foot but to the cubic foot (e.g., the Lima Locomotive factory cost $.044 per cubic foot)—a graphic demonstration of the spatialization of cost. This costing system was used for all the firm’s building programs, from residential additions to industrial campuses.

Editor’s Introduction: The Costs of Architecture

Claire Zimmerman

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