Like anything, the appeal of high modernism ebbs and flows. This presentation of architect Knud Lonberg-Holm's work, assembled from an archive of photographs, drawings, letters, and other materials compiled by the late historian Marc Dessauce, suggests that in our precarious, decentralized moment, its allure is on the upswing.
Lonberg-Holm--who, until Dessauce's heroic scholarly efforts, had largely been forgotten--was born in 1895. In 1923, after working for several years with the Berlin Bauhaus in Germany and De Stijl in his native Denmark, he settled in New York, where he quickly established himself as an ambassador of sorts for the European avant-gardes. One of his first great successes was in the medium of photography. Documenting the upwardly mobile urban spaces of the 1920s, his early pictures read as paeans to the brashness and audacity of boom-time United States. Among them are shots of the Equity Trust Building and the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan, both photographed from below at a steep angle so that they tower immensely over the camera's lens, and New York, Madison Square, 1923, a picture of midtown at night saturated in a crackling argon glow. In the latter, Lonberg-Holm subordinates depictive clarity to a quasi-abstract investigation of line and form, a tendency also evident in the deadpan Photograph of Antenna, ca. 1923-24; where the metal latticework of a transmission tower emblematizes the emergent geometries of the modern city.
The exhibition also included a number of Lonberg-Holm's beautiful architectural drawings: elegant, pencil-and-gouache plans for a gas station, a radio broadcasting station, and two residences. Rendered with clean fields of blue, yellow, and red, these diagrams demonstrate the architect's compelling fluency in a modernist vocabulary of cantilevered rooftops, curved glass-curtain walls, and functional boxy forms. Over time, however, Lonberg-Holm would abandon pure building design. As director of research for Sweet's Catalogue Service, a compendium of industrial- and architectural-parts catalogues created and distributed by the F. W. Dodge corporation, he began to envision a more holistic approach to the practice of architecture, one that would involve not just the manufacture of buildings but the "integration and control of architectural production through industrialization," according to Dessauce. In 1937, Lonberg-Holm conceived of the "Illustrated Production Cycle," a series of diagrams that find the architect coolly plotting out ways in which to streamline architectural research and construction via the organized cooperation of social institutions. Fascinating relics of early information design and utopian idealism, these graphics--eight of which were on view here--propose architecture as a multifaceted endeavor enmeshed in a range of human enterprises described as interlocking systems. See, for example, the chart with the black circle in the center labeled PROJECT, linked by bidirectional pairs of arrows to three orbiting white circles labeled, respectively, COMMUNITY, INDUSTRY, and UNIVERSITY. Another maps the imbrication of FIELDS OF PRODUCTION, FIELDS OF WELFARE, FIELDS OF INTELLIGENCE, and FIELDS OF CONTROL.
But if these diagrams stake a visionary claim, they also bring to mind some of the past century's darker prognostications. It was, after all, precisely this kind of standardization and technocratic rationalization that Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer so famously warned us about in Dialectic of Enlightenment. "Technical rationality today," they wrote, ominously, -is the rationality of domination." Now, however, we have the benefit of hindsight, and if Lonberg-Holm-style standardization and industrialization of architectural production has resulted in plenty of dispiriting conformity--we could point to the monotonous housing developments of exurban Tampa, for instance--what has proven far more damaging than McMansion sprawl itself is the manner in which such homes were planned, built, and sold in the first place. Think, for example, of the 2008 crash--an event almost nobody foresaw In its lead-up, housing growth operated exactly as one imagines Lonberg-Holm would have hoped it would: A complex of semiautonomous systems--from the organized, highly standardized building industry to the networked global-banking system--functioned in concert to efficiently realize the rapid construction of homes on a wide scale. And yet these intermeshed systems interacted in ways that proved ruinously unpredictable. Obfuscatory legal arrangements, the self-deluding feedback loops of groupthink, the exotic subterfuge of high finance: The rational technocracy of Lonberg-Holm's "Illustrated Production Cycle" didn't so much fail as flourish as a perverse inversion of itself. Indeed, we have been taught an important lesson: Without that other modernist ideal, transparency, things quickly spiral out of whack.