Knud Lonberg-Holm: Bucky Fuller’s Mentor, Modernism’s Invisible Architect

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

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.


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.


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.


Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten

Seventeen of Lonberg-Holm’s photographs appeared uncredited in Erich Mendelsohn’s 1926 book, a very influential volume on modern American architecture. Only in a later, expanded edition was Lonberg-Holm given credit. El Lissitzky was so impressed with Amerika that he said the volume “thrills us like a dramatic film. Before our eyes move pictures that are absolutely unique. In order to understand some of the photographs you must lift the book over your head and rotate it.”

Lonberg-Holm later worked at the architecture office Smith, Hinchman & Grylls in Detroit and at the Detroit Edison Company. Throughout the 1920s, he traveled to other American cities like Chicago and New York City, where, with a 35-millimeter handheld Leica, he took worm’s-eye views and extreme close-ups of skyscrapers, the back sides of buildings, fire escapes, billboards, and dazzling “lightscapes,” ignoring—for the most part—the facades of the buildings. Some of these images would appear, uncredited, in Erich Mendelsohn’s 1926 publication Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten, the first book on the “International Style” in American architecture. (Only in an expanded, later edition from 1928 is Lonberg-Holm credited for 17 of the images.)

El Lissitzky was so impressed with “Amerika” that he said the volume “thrills us like a dramatic film. Before our eyes move pictures that are absolutely unique.”

Soon the photographs cropped up in design and architecture journals in Holland, Germany, and Russia. “They received acclaim for being progressive and dynamic presentations of technology, commerce, and urbanization,” says Adam Boxer, founder and owner of Ubu Gallery. “To expose Lonberg-Holm’s role as photographer means one can situate him in his deserved role—a pioneer of New Photography.” As a correspondent for the avant-garde, having his images and writings appear in radical European Modernist reviews—such as the Functionalist-Constructivist Swiss bulletin ABC Beitrage zum Bauen (Contributions on Building) and the Dutch i10—were of crucial importance, since they circulated amongst members of the European vanguard. By the 1930s, however, Lonberg-Holm had given up architecture for marketing research, and his photographs, never signed or dated, no longer circulated.

During the 1920s, Lonberg-Holm traveled to American cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York. With his 35-millimeter Leica camera, he took extreme close-ups of skyscrapers (such as this rear view Detroit Hotel, above), the back sides of buildings, fire escapes, billboards, and dazzling nighttime views.

His 1928 essay on America for i10—focused on the country’s obsession with time and efficiency—shows that the fields of communications, the car industry, elevators, railways, and the movie industry were more important to him. He wrote: “Time-study is a profession. And a highly paid profession. What the [Saint] Peters church was for the European Renaissance, Henry Ford’s assembly line is for America of today. The most perfect expression for a civilization whose god is efficiency. Detroit is the Mecca of this civilization. And the pilgrims come from all over the world to meditate before this always-moving line.”

Lonberg-Holm soon recognized that the problem with the American construction industry at that time was its chaotic state—mainly because of a lack of coordination between many building materials; the poor communication between manufacturers, builders, and technicians; and, finally, the poorly organized information sources. His photos gave him the material to prove that a fundamental redesign of building information was needed. Lonberg-Holm envisioned his enormous task in bringing an order to all this chaos. “The good photographer identifies his camera with the inquiring observer: he ‘shoots’ the object from the most informative angles,” he later wrote in Catalog Design Standards in 1936.

In July of 1933, the Dymaxion car was introduced in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where it caused a great stir. Lonberg-Holm can be seen holding the car door open while the artist Diego Rivera (who was in attendance with his wife and artist Frida Kahlo) looks on, coat on his arm.

Agreeing with Fuller, he believed that the time-consuming problems architects faced at the time would one day be solved by automation. Between 1929 and 1930, their discussions and affiliation with a group of architects, designers, and editors in New York called the Structural Study Associates led to the founding of the journal Shelter (members included Lonberg-Holm, Fuller, C. Theodore Larson, Albert Frey, Frederick Kiesler, and, for a time, Philip Johnson). The forward-thinking journal was devoted to the development of the standardized mass production of shelters, and largely revolved around Fuller’s Dymaxion principles, which called for lightweight structures that could be easily disassembled. The magazine included images of high-tension power lines, steel towers, and masts from boats as examples of “doing the most with the least.” And, in true Fordist manner, they looked at how houses could be more like mobile shelters (“designed for what they will do, not for what they look like”), illustrating examples of aircraft carriers, planes, and racing boats. For these architects, true Modernism was aimed at the most functional and mundane level of building, not at unique and exceptional structures. In addition to designing one of Shelter’s covers, Lonberg-Holm also wrote an unfavorable critique of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s landmark International Style exhibition. He felt that a preoccupation with style was better left to those designing bathroom fixtures.

Designing Information

The cover of a catalog for Multi-Measure Metal Enclosures, Inc., designed by Ladislav Sutnar between 1942 and 1944

Lonberg-Holm collaborated with architect C. Theodore Larson at F.W. Dodge Corporation’s Sweet’s Catalog division to develop a systematic approach to organizing the information needed by the building industry. When graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar later joined him, they radically altered the way business information was streamlined, designed, and packaged, becoming pioneers of “information design” along the way.

Lonberg-Holm and Larson, who were both editors at Architectural Record, were eventually transferred to F. W. Dodge Corporation’s Sweet’s Catalog division, where they were faced with the task of developing a systematic approach to organizing the information needed by the building industry. “We were taken off the magazine to work as a research team . . . to see if we could come up with some better ways of coping with the flood of data pouring out of the industry . . . for which comprehensive sets of Sweet’s Catalog files were being compiled and distributed to users in fresh form every year,” explained Larson.

For many years, Lonberg-Holm worked with hundreds of Sweet’s Catalog’s clients to create product literature that set the standards for catalog design. He became “the influential advisor of those corporations producing hardware for the world’s building industry,” Fuller pointed out. “He persuaded these firms to institute research departments to develop aluminum and other alloy materials, efficient lighting systems, exterior shell modules, and other innovations of modern design and construction.” Part of Lonberg-Holm’s vision for modern architecture was to organize the various components and systems that make up a building so that, after the Depression, architects might simply create houses or buildings from an existing kit of parts. (The Eames House, in this sense, is a perfect realization of his vision.) “[Lonberg-Holm] may be the one man most responsible for having given [the construction] industry the potential to be imminently convertible to complete (successful) automation,” said Fuller. His work not only transformed an outmoded building industry, but his concentration on systems thinking, communication, and information design from the perspective of architecture makes him a pioneer in the field of cybernetics.

A diagram from Development Index illustrating the interrelations of cultural and social factors, which Lonberg-Holm and Larson considered necessary to the practice of design. The index was a screening system intended to manage incoming and outgoing streams of data.

Larson and he later collaborated on the idea of a “Development Index”—a systems-thinking approach and research tool that studied the interaction of human activity, environmental relations, and communications with the idea to improve the built environment. It was an attempt to manage information flow and, in a pre-Internet sort of way, provide relevant data through a centralized system, using what was then state-of-the-art media such as microfilm, microfiche, and electronics.

Lonberg-Holm also questioned how architecture was practiced and he pioneered the idea of the life cycle of a building. Decades before William McDonough discovered cradle-to-cradle thinking, Lonberg-Holm had been trying to put across the concept that all buildings, like all organisms, are subject to a life cycle, as predictable and as inevitable as the cycles in nature. “The building cycle involves research, design, construction, use, and elimination—and repeat,” wrote an editor in the January 1960 issue of Architectural Forum. “One of Lonberg-Holm’s chief contentions is that design that anticipates the cycle as a whole makes each succeeding step more rational and easier . . . .Lonberg-Holm’s principle, ‘Anticipate remodeling in the initial design,’ carries a corollary, which might be put this way, in keeping with the very important principle of design articulation: ‘Design each “system” in the building—the structural system, the heating or the air-conditioning system, the wiring, the plumbing, etc.—to be self-contained for easy assembly, with interconnections to other systems held to a minimum and made easy to alter.’”

Making the Invisible Visible

When Lonberg-Holm retired from Sweet’s in 1960, 24 of his appreciative colleagues honored him with a luncheon at the Harvard Club in New York, and sent him off with a piece of brand-new luggage. It seemed appropriate at the time—the idea that, once your job was done, you would go away and become invisible. After all, it takes a certain type of personality to keep themselves in the limelight—for better or worse, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, and Le Corbusier were all great at doing it—and, going through the archives, it becomes evident that Lonberg-Holm was not a self promoter. He fundamentally disagreed with the idea of the architect as a star.

“Lonberg-Holm was the first architect in my knowledge ever to talk about the ultimately invisible architecture.” —Buckminster Fuller

Fuller never got around to finishing his monograph on Lonberg-Holm, and, even more sadly, Dessauce’s life was cut tragically short. But if Lonberg-Holm were alive today, he would likely be bemused by all the fuss. When asked about his life and work, in an interview done toward the end of his life, he answered, “I’ve always been annoyed by rummaging through the past; the future interests me much more.” 

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