The Invisible Architect of Invisible Architecture

An exclusive look at architect Knud Lonberg-Holm, the father of information design and one of Buckminster Fuller's greatest influences.

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Knud Lonberg-Holm (1895-1972), an overlooked but highly influential Modernist architect, photographer, and pioneer of information design, is the subject of an exhibition at the Ubu Gallery in New York City, through August 1, 2014.

All images Knud Lonberg-Holm Archive from the Marc Dessauce Collection/Courtesy Ubu Gallery, NY

At the height of his popularity, R. Buckminster Fuller, the visionary inventor best known as the father of the geodesic dome, was on a mission. Whether at a conference at the American Society for Metals in 1958; in guest editorials in Saturday Review, Newsweek, or the planning journal Ekistics in the 1960s; or in an interview in the popular magazine House & Garden in 1972, Fuller repeatedly referred to his great friend, the architect Knud Lonberg-Holm—a “really great architect of the Nysky (New York skyscraper) age”—whom Fuller said “has been completely unrecognized and unsung,” and whose “scientific foresight and design competence are largely responsible for the present world around the state of advancement of the building arts.”

Fuller’s indebtedness to his “unsung Leonardo of the building industry” went back to when they first met in 1929 to discuss producing “invisible architecture.” Lonberg-Holm believed that, because of improvements in chemical alloys, the dimensions of any given structure could be reduced while its strength increases. In other words, “builders are able to do more with less.”

In fact, Lonberg-Holm told him that “the really great architect will be the architect who produces the invisible house where you don’t see roofs or walls,” Fuller explained in House & Garden. “I’ve thought about this, thought about it a lot, the ultimately invisible house—doing more with less and finally coming to nothingness.” This concept led naturally to Fuller’s famous question: “How much does your building weigh?,” something that high-tech sustainable architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers espouse today as a basic part of their building practice. Fuller even corresponded with Lonberg-Holm in 1963 about writing a book about him—which he called Lonberg-Holm, Archetype of the Invisible Architects of the Invisible Architecture—saying, “The urge to do this task is powerful within me and I hope I may live to complete it and you to read it.” This letter, as well as other articles and correspondence between Fuller and Lonberg-Holm, are just a small but important part of a remarkable archive assembled by Marc Dessauce—a scholar who was researching the role of Lonberg-Holm in the creation of a distinctly modern American architecture, but died unexpectedly in 2004 before completing his dissertation.

Chicago Tribune Tower

This design of a side elevation for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition, by Lonberg-Holm, favored a functional composition that was devoid of historical styles. It featured an abstract, black-and-white pattern to articulate its frame and a vertical sign spelling “Tribune” in large block letters, flanked by two round lamps reminiscent of automobile headlights. Lonberg-Holm never submitted his entry for the competition, but it was published in a number of books by avant-garde architects like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and J.P.P. Oud.

Radio Broadcasting Station, Detroit

This design, ca. 1925, was included in the landmark 1927 Machine Age exhibition—advertised as “the first International Exposition of Architecture to be held in America.” The New Yorker critic Muriel Draper reviewed the project and wrote: “The delicacy and exquisite technique of execution shown in the plans may have much to do with it, but a glass tower with a visibly spiralling staircase took me straight up in the air while the simple, solid proportions of the building itself kept my feet on the earth. Pleasant sensation.”

Now, the work and career of this overlooked, yet highly influential, twentieth-century Modernist is the subject of a new exhibition, Knud Lonberg-Holm: The Invisible Architect, on display at the Ubu Gallery in New York City through August 1, 2014. The exhibition traces the career of the architect, photographer, author, researcher, and teacher, beginning with his early work in Denmark and Germany, which connected him to the Bauhaus and De Stijl groups during the 1920s. It provides the first comprehensive view of his later work, between 1932 and 1960, where, as director of research for Sweet’s Catalog Service, the clearinghouse for catalogs selling common and arcane building, electrical, and construction supplies to the architectural trade, Lonberg-Holm revolutionized the architectural-building catalog system. Along with Czech-American graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar, he created a theory and system for applying Modernist ideas and standardizing the ways of finding information—a systemized approach that ultimately pioneered information design.

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