Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
More the machinations than the monuments Elizabeth Farrelly
Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetic issues for the Herald
HARRY SEIDLER is often seen as the Prometheus of Australian architecture, blazing the modernist firestick single-handedly across our parched culture-scape. But that isn’t quite it.
There were several overtly modernist firms working in Sydney when Seidler arrived in 1948 (Ancher Mortlock and Woolley, Stephenson and Turner, Bunning and Madden, and Douglas Snelling spring to mind). But Seidler, despite six furiously productive Australian decades, spawned relatively few disciples. Some say he trained our most famous architects, but the truth is Seidler’s most talented staff tended to tuck their entire careers into the great man’s capacious shadow.
Now, as two Sydney Seidlers (the Meriton Tower, the Ian Thorpe pool) inch to posthumous completion, it is timely to ask: what was his lasting significance, for us?
The answer is both simple and complex. Seidler did drag Sydney into the modern world, still screaming although half a century late. But he did it less through the buildings themselves – though they were startling enough – than through his extraordinary machinations in their cause.
It’s hard to imagine the Sydney that met Seidler off the boat. Sydney towerless. A city of men in hats, 6 o’clock swill and buildings that rose 12 storeys then flatly stopped; a city compressed beneath the statutory, 150-foot glass ceiling set by Parliament as the height of civilised life.
This one rule moulded the city. It was a rule based on fear; fear of fire, of building past the combined reach of ladder, hose and water pressure, and fear – above all – of the big, bad future. (New York, confronting the same arguments at the same moment, and with vastly worse fire history, nevertheless permitted the ziggurat-topped towers that became its signature, while Sydney wallowed in denial for 50 years – which may explain the swill.)
Vertically challenged, Sydney buildings filled their sites like mastic; boundary to boundary and slap-bang to the street edge. Like some half-baked European quartier, Sydney was a city of street fronts; all openings, decoration, and expense lavished strictly on the public face.
This fitted the lingering Victorian idea that, in buildings as in people, the public face was what mattered: inner workings were nobody’s business. It was a world where ornate facades concealed dank internal courtyards, gloomy offices and marble stairs that reverted to concrete past the first flight. A world that – like its postmodern reincarnation – valued form over content, public appearance over private fact; a world, to invert Galbraith, of public wealth, private squalor.
Seidler was repelled by all this. Vienna-born and US-educated, brilliantined and rubber-soled, he was a modern in the history-is-bunk mould. After the horror of the Kristallnacht and the tedium of internment he had boundless confidence and a headful of soaring imagery. Sydney didn’t appeal; too dull, too distant, too prone to infection from the Backsteinbazillus that early moderns like Paul Scheerbart believed inhabited the dank, cold masonry of Europe. Seidler, committed to the irreducible value of light, air and space, preferred America – until his mother, Rose, dangled the chance to build.
The Rose Seidler House (1948) is now a national monument. Quite rightly. But Seidler’s most important building, in terms of impact, was still 15 years off. Seidler, even before meeting the energetic Dutch developer Dick Dusseldorp, spent the time working towards the building that would reshape Australian cities visually, conceptually and functionally. It would be called, aptly, Australia Square.
Seidler’s initial influence was through the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. First, in 1954, he got it to invite his old mentor, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, to the Fourth Australian Architectural Convention. Gropius bashed councils, pushed functionalism and posed for photo opportunities at the Rose Seidler House. Inspired, The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised boldly: “Australia is a country without architecture.”
It could have been written by Seidler himself, even until his death earlier this year. At the time, it was a vacuum Seidler yearned to fill. He joined the institute’s acts and regulation committee and from there became a passionate advocate for removing the height limit and replacing it with a floor-space index, or ratio.
It sounds trivial, but the effect on the city was profound. Caltex House had breached the height limit in 1954, but it was a loophole breach, scarcely a skyscraper. In the skyscraper race, Seidler was beaten by Graham Thorp’s graceful AMP building, Circular Quay (designed in 1958, completed in 1962). But Seidler’s push had paved the way and his Australia Square – designed 1961, completed 1966 – became the icon.
It wasn’t just height. The advent of floor-space ratio as the main city yardstick signed in a whole new world view. Since the ratio governs not height but total floorspace, it encourages the slim and tall, creating a sparkling new commodity – view. It changed the city’s shape, pulling property value north towards the source of the view, and the retail core from the transport-friendly Haymarket.
More significantly, skyscrapers changed the public-private balance, giving the individual new dominance over the herd. Street? Forget it. Streets were slow, dark, local and cramped; towers despised them, often swallowing them whole in the quest for private air and space. For towers, as for Seidler, it was the big stage that mattered, and the long view – both from the building and of it. Stand-alone sculptures, like towering architects, resent any imposition on those rights.
But maybe it’s not so new. As Aristotle said, even before Galbraith: “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” Private wealth, public dolour.
PHOTO: Part of the legacy … the Ian Thorpe pool taking shape. Photo: Steven Siewert