Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Seidler’s shadows of doubt
ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN
A less confident side to the creative colossus is revealed in his sketches, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Love him or hate him – and most people do one or the other – Harry Seidler is a towering figure on the Australian landscape. Towering in terms of his buildings, certainly, with seven towers in Sydney (Australia Square, MLC, Grosvenor, Capita, Darling Park, Horizon and Cove Apartments), three in Brisbane, and one each in Melbourne and Perth. But towering personally and intellectually, too, in his fearless adherence to principle.
This, by itself, has been enough to mark Seidler as defiantly un-Australian. Standing for ideas isn’t really something we do, especially not aesthetic ideas; especially not the same aesthetic ideas, essentially unchanged, over nearly 60 years. How much more un-Australian, then, to form these ideas in concrete and steel and stand them up publicly for the world, and the future, to judge.
Building anything presupposes a level of arrogance; a sustained exertion of will over matter, not least human matter. To build with Seidler’s passion, scale and commitment requires a level of arrogance unusual even among architects. This, to many, has been Seidler’s most characteristic characteristic; at once his greatest strength and his standout flaw. Now, though, a new show, Shaping Space: Drawings by Harry Seidler, reveals the flip-side of the signature Seidler arrogance.
These are not finished, working or CAD drawings. Nothing slick or glossy, praise be, but much more the real thing – a selection from the reams and reams of sketches that slowly shape an architect’s fledgling idea. That such sketches exist is not in itself extraordinary. On the contrary, these fuzzy, multiple lines and shifting geometries trace the traditional design agony; a constant testing and questioning of the ideas, a working and reworking of space and geometry until the whole feels, somehow, right.
The surprise is that despite the sureness of Seidler the man and the pristine completeness of the Seidler product, the regulation questioning process must be repeatedly undertaken. Here, showing through that semi-transparent process, we see something that looks remarkably like ambivalence, even doubt. In one sketch, for example, of an unnamed but very Corbusian stair, Seidler deliberates as to whether the semicircular landing should face inward “or reversed, jutting out”. “This may look better,” runs the unmistakeable hand script, “but doubt it.”
Seidler, who gave his blessing at the inception of this show, is now very ill, so the hoped-for personal commentary on the drawings has not eventuated. We may never know, therefore, whether this scrawl was part of an internal debate or one of those sketches deposited by the maestro overnight on the desks of the underlings for drawing-up in the morning. Either way, the hesitancy so revealed is endearing precisely because it is unexpected.
Sadly, the drawings on show cover only the second half of Seidler’s remarkable career, the earliest being the 1980 Basser House at Castlecove. Even this asymmetry may bespeak a surprising posterity shyness, surprising since it arises not from curatorial whim but from Seidler’s own decision to discard the first 20-odd years’ worth. The effect of this possibly random act is to show only the more voluptuous and expressionist part of the Seidler opus – which I think of as Late Seidler and which Seidler himself described as his “baroque” period – while leaving the early, more square-jawed and astringent work unrepresented.
For me this is a pity, since the early Seidlers are so often my favourites: the diagrammatic clarity of Rose Seidler House (1947) or Australia Square (1967), the fearless brutalism of the Seidlers’ own house in Killara (1966) and their Glen Street office building (1971) in Milsons Point. To see those original sketches – now that’d really be something.
This gap is partly filled by the half-dozen seminal Dupains also on show in sumptuous black and white. These offer one or two moments of overlap – such as the Capita Centre (1984) and the Glen Street office extension (1986) – that allow a sketch-to-photo connection to be made. On the whole, though, Shaping Space makes no attempt to establish such a linkage.
This is deliberate. It makes Shaping Space less an architecture show than a show, in the words of its curator, Tom Heneghan, “about Harry making space”.
“A building, if it’s a good one,” Heneghan says, “is a complex of thousands of small and large ideas and ambitions which the architect usually wants the user to feel only subliminally. These drawings … give a glimpse into the intense struggle that is part of the development of these, often incidental, ideas and into Harry’s exhaustive reworking of them until he considers them right.”
This, in turn, makes “what is right” the pivotal question. It is in many ways the essential architectural question. What is the filter, or overlay, operating within a designer’s head that recognises one pattern as “right” while rejecting hundreds or possibly thousands of others? How do you know the “right” design answer from the myriad others that stare at you from the drawing board? For however the architect may protest (and protest they do), rightness is never a dominantly practical question – of structure and function, plan and efficiency. If it were, the result might be engineering, or perhaps building, but not architecture. In architectural design there is always an aesthetic filter operating, and it is this – its source, shape and criteria – that generates an architect’s signature style. Frustratingly, many architects, especially the good ones, are more skilled in applying this filter than in discussing it.
Seidler is no exception. He tends, when pressed, to summon Gropius and Albers and Niemeyer, whose influences are clear to see (the strict planarity of Walter Gropius, the contrapuntal visual play of Josef Albers and the muscular structural geometries of Oscar Neimeyer).
But there is, as well, another distinctively Seidler factor in the way he works and reworks a particular motif. Take the circle, a favourite Seidler geometry. First, as in Australia Square, Seidler keeps the circle whole and dominant. Then, gradually, project by project, he starts to pull the circle apart, into the halves and quarters and segments and arcs which, recombined, make the fan-forms of the Basser House and the Australian embassy in Paris, the half-round arch of the famous Seidler beams and, as a once-only visual device, in Sydney’s Mid City Centre – Seidler’s slipstream through ’80s postmodernism.
Later, we see the arcs arranged back to back, as in the Waverley Civic Centre in Melbourne, and front to front, as in Grosvenor Place, Sydney. Then, eventually, the quarter-circles are linked and reversed, Albers fashion, into the sinuous stairs and snaking balconies so characteristic of Seidler’s past decade or so.
Seidler has always regarded Australia as a “provincial backwater”. For decades, he campaigned tirelessly to drag us from our cultural swamp; railing against heritage “slums”, council planners and organised mediocrity in its myriad forms, most especially the sackers of Joern Utzon. Indeed, Utzon, while hardly a local, was one of the few Seidler regarded as a peer, which begs this question: could there have been a compositional influence, too? Did Seidler’s obsessional parsing of the circle draw in any way from Utzon’s famous 1961 “segments of an orange” solution for the shells of the Opera House?
Again, we may never know. But Shaping Space bears witness at least to a more porous and self-critical process than is usually apparent behind the smooth public face of Seidler’s shiny American modernism. A glimpse behind the mask. See it.
TWO PHOTOS: Behind the mask … a sketch by Seidler (inset) of the North Apartments in Goulburn Street, city; and (below) his vision and the result for a Milsons Point penthouse. PHOTO: MICHELLE MOSSOP; PHOTO: MAX DUPAIN