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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Bauhaus

This photo, attributed to the Japanese Bauhaus-trained photographer Iwao Yamawaki, shows Lonberg-Holm and his wife, Ethel (who later became an art director for J. Walter Thompson advertising agency), at the Bauhaus in 1931. A friend of Bauhaus instructors László Moholy-Nagy, Josef Albers, Hannes Meyer, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe, Lonberg-Holm taught the first foundational course based on the Bauhaus model at the University of Michigan in 1924.


As Dessauce discovered in his research, Lonberg-Holm was a missing link between the Americanism of the European avant-garde and the history of modern architecture in the United States. The archive reveals rare insight, and the opportunity to read through dozens of letters, postcards, and documents shared between Lonberg-Holm and members of the European avant-garde: László Moholy- Nagy, Walter Gropius, Theo van Doesburg, Erich Mendelsohn, J. J. P. Oud, Paul Nelson, and El Lissitzky. It also contains hundreds of photographs of buildings, both iconic and the everyday, that you wouldn’t see anywhere else—views of recently completed buildings by Dutch architects, the Barcelona Pavilion under construction—as well as photos at the July 1933 launch of Fuller’s Dymaxion car in Bridgeport, Connecticut (with an appearance by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera). For Dessauce, the seemingly disparate collection of photographs, drawings, diagrams, and correspondence revolved around a unifying theme: realizing the avant-garde ambition of integration, and controlling architectural production through industrialization. This theme increasingly developed around a central figure: Lonberg-Holm.

Therese Dessauce, an architect now living in Paris, assisted her late husband Marc with assembling the archive, beginning in the late 1980s when he was a PhD candidate in art history at Columbia University. “Marc and I traveled across the USA, locating surviving early Modernist architects and gathering documentation to support his thesis about the role of Lonberg-Holm,” she says. “Marc’s research established how Lonberg-Holm anticipated the need to organize all of the systems, materials, and technologies that go into creating a building—what we now call information design.” An example of Lonberg- Holm’s genius is his groundbreaking work on Sweet’s Catalog, without which it would be impossible to assimilate mass-produced prefabricated building components into the kind of expeditious construction that characterized postwar modern American architecture. “Marc believed that the prevailing interpretation of modern buildings as aestheticized objects—a view promulgated by Philip Johnson and the Museum of Modern Art—was refuted by Lonberg- Holm’s vision of modern architecture as production.”

An Agent of the Avant-Garde

A letter from Mies van der Rohe to Longberg-Holm, ca. 1923.

The archive Dessauce compiled contains dozens of letters, postcards, and documents shared between Lonberg-Holm and the European and American avant-garde. Mies's letter, which reads more like a manifesto, reads as follows:
"Every aesthetic speculation, every doctrine, and every formalism we reject. Building-art is the spatially grasped will of the time. Alive. Changing. New. Neither that which was yesterday nor that which will be tomorrow can be given form, that which is today. Only this is created by building. Create the form out of the nature of the task with the means of our time. That is our work."


Lonberg-Holm was born and educated in Denmark. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts from 1912 to 1915, becoming an architect and engineer, and his most important early design was a shipyard in Copenhagen. After moving to Altona, Germany, around 1922, Lonberg-Holm started working on competitions, and met a number of talented artists and architects who would later be connected to the Bauhaus.

He immigrated to the United States in 1923, the same year as Richard Neutra, and was one of the earliest members of the design vanguard to come to America—preceding other great figures like Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, and Mies van der Rohe (with whom he lived for a couple of weeks in Europe) by more than a decade. He first achieved notoriety with his designs for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. While he never submitted the design, it was published in books by Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Oud, who contrasted the fresh expression of Lonberg-Holm’s design to the “traditional, Gothicizing, counter molds” by the first- and second-place competition winners—“those two elderly gentlemen,” as Oud called them—John Mead Howells and Eliel Saarinen.

CIAM

A founding member of the International Congress for Modern Architecture (CIAM), Lonberg-Holm served as the American East Coast delegate to the organization from its inception until its dissolution in 1959. (Richard Neutra was the West Coast counterpart.) He also prepared plans of Detroit for CIAM IV, in addition to focusing on issues such as standardization, production, housing, social policies, and collective research.


From 1924 to 1925, he was appointed to a teaching post at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he taught a course in basic design based on the Bauhaus model—the first ever in the U.S. “It was an incredibly exciting semester, but unfortunately some of the other teachers became jealous over my more European educational approach, so the situation became so complicated that I had to leave the university,” he recalled.

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