Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
When Harry met Sydney
HARRY SEIDLER 1923 – 2006
People either loved or hated the architect and his work. But then Harry Seidler was never one for dithering over opinions, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
I FIRST met Harry Seidler in June 1983 when I was all camped-up as the white-faced, black-cloaked MC in an irreverent romp through modernism-as-history, and he was keynote speaker. Modernism, while providing ratbags such as us with rich ironic substrate, was still, for Seidler, a fervent cause. He railed, as he would for decades to come, against postmodernism, likening its “licentious decorative caprices” to the “tantrums of a rich, spoilt child”.
One of the works he presented, however, was Sydney’s Mid City Centre, with its fetching pastel livery. Seidler loathed the colours, regarding them as the thin end of the postmodern wedge, but conceded wistfully that “people like them”. It was the only time I heard him evince anything less than the full bottle of adamantine confidence. I liked him for it.
From then on we crossed swords a number of times. I had invitations from Seidler to write and speak on his work, and accusations of abject ignorance when I did. All that aside, though, there is no way around the fact that, love him or hate him (and, thanks to his lifetime of fearless opining, most people do) Seidler is, even in death, Australia’s most interesting architect. Not the best, necessarily. Not even the most emulated, since there never was a School of Seidler. But far and away the most interesting.
Why? Three reasons, all related. First is that, in the way of mythic heroes, Seidler’s greatest strengths were also his greatest flaws. Second, that primary among these strengths was an extraordinary intellectual constancy – aka intransigence. And third, Seidler, for all the flaws and contradictions (and there were a few), always stood for something. He was no theoretician but his architecture was driven by an intelligent, enduring, passionate and fully articulated belief system. This last trait – reasonably common in Europe but not so in this stretch of the desert – was enough in itself to mark Seidler as a leader. But the combination gave him a stature unmatched in our bastion of intellectual insecurity.
Seidler’s relationship with Australia was as troubled as it was long. Within minutes of arriving here in 1948, he had established himself as a seriously classy fish in this smallish, dryish pond; a status he sustained, with varying degrees of brilliance, for almost six decades. Yet Seidler was never as impressed by Australia as Australia was by him. It wouldn’t even have been Australia, if he’d had his postwar druthers. “It was America I was interested in,” he recalled, “The skyscrapers and the big ships.”
More than 50 years later, Seidler remained underwhelmed, telling Wallpaper* magazine in 1998 that “Australian architects don’t measure up in international terms. There’s nobody and nothing here that sends the blood pressure up. It’s a backwater, a provincial dump, in terms of the built environment.” Many may think it now and then, but few would put it on record.
Arguably, though, Seidler’s bow tie-wearing, gunslinging style only made us admire him the more, even as we abhorred the sentiment. Which makes it especially ironic that even while he played to an international audience – and, for him, there was no other sort – Seidler was undoubtedly made by Australia. And by its backwater quality, in particular.
It must have been especially galling to be told, last August, that he had inadvertently lost his Australian citizenship in 1985. No one had thought to tell him previously. This, despite having been made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1987, and having repeatedly renewed his Australian passport. Citizenship was reinstated within days, but not before the issue made headlines.
Seidler was born in 1923 in Vienna, where his family was in the rag trade. His mother, Rose, was ambitious for her children, sending them to piano lessons and prestige schools, where they memorised Homer and Thucydides in the original Greek. Harry, though, showed no aptitude for academia. Instead, he delighted in the vast, elegant apartment Rose commissioned from the architect Fritz Reichl when Harry was 10, and in witnessing construction of the Vienna Hochhaus, “all steel and glass”, in the early 1930s.
With the Anschluss of March 1938, Harry, aged 14, was sent on a student visa to England. Disinclined to go to university, he enrolled at the Cambridge Polytechnic and would have studied engineering, except the course was full. Architecture had vacancies, so architecture it was. There, Seidler showed some enthusiasm for carpentry, metalwork and bricklaying until, in May 1940, he and his older brother, Marcell, were interned as enemy aliens – first at Bury St Edmonds, then Liverpool, the Isle of Man, and Quebec in Canada.
Seidler hated internment. Although he was able to undertake further construction courses and even occasional design work in the camp, he loathed the humiliation and the discomfort. He was appalled, as his diaries record, to find himself mixing with Nazi prisoners of war, but he was also convinced that even a German concentration camp would have been preferable. In October 1941, he was released on a student scheme to study architecture at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
In the same year, having read Sigfried Giedion’s modernist bible Space, Time and Architecture, Seidler resolved to study under the Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and his former pupil Marcel Breuer at the Harvard School of Design. He worked briefly for the modernist Alvar Aalto in Helsinki in 1945 – the same year Joern Utzon worked for Aalto for six weeks – before reading fine arts in 1946 with Joseph Albers at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. Later he worked briefly with the celebrated engineer Oscar Niemeyer in Rio, and with Breuer in New York.
To what extent Seidler’s remarkable tenacity was conditioned by hardship is difficult to say, although a former school friend described him at about this time as having become “a seriously hardened character with a rather cold and unyielding outlook on life”. The young Seidler had written to his parents in almost Nietzschean terms: “Willpower is all that is needed. I have a fanatical interest in the subject of architecture.”
Seidler’s parents, meanwhile, had immigrated to Australia. The family’s only known relatives outside Austria, the Herrmans, had moved to Sydney in the 1920s and established Herrman Plastic Mouldings (now HPM Industries). In 1938, Mr Herrman sponsored Seidler’s Uncle Marcus to move to Australia. He escaped Vienna with much of his factory equipment and set up in Sydney. That gave the Seidler family its initial foothold in the city.
For Harry, though, enjoying his “marvellous job in New York”, Australia was too unknown. Then, in 1947, came the offer he couldn’t refuse. “My mother,” Seidler recalled, “knew how to get me. She wrote a letter saying, ‘We not only want you to come and visit, but we want to commission you to design us a house.’ Boy, that’s different. I was 24 years old. That’s the thing you’re really striving to do. Not working for other people, but trying to do something. You can’t have a better captive client than a mother.”
And so it proved. By 1948, the house was built, every inch of it (with its open pinwheel plan and rough-hewn stone core) a homage to Breuer. In bare, postwar Turramurra it was more like a spaceship, with Seidler as haute-astronaut. The October 1950 edition of People magazine hailed Seidler as “high priest of the 20th century”, dazzling Australia with his “shiny American ideas”. Beneath a picture of the young, brilliantined architect – feet up, cigarette in hand, relaxing with a magazine – People ran the caption: “Seidler’s well-cushioned chair is built to fit the human form, his rubber-soled shoes to make the feet comfortable, the table large enough to carry the essentials. That’s modern living.”
The Rose Seidler house was a young man’s house, filled with light and hope, brimming with new-world optimism. It revealed more about Harry than it did about Rose. And it was more responsive to its time than its place; the embodiment of Seidler’s favourite secessionist motto: “To every age its art, and to every art its freedom.”
This may offer a clue as to why Seidler, so often credited with “bringing modernism to Australia”, stood largely alone, admired but uncopied. Seidler’s American take on modernism contrasted with the Euro-modernism of early Australian adopters, such as Syd Ancher and Robin Boyd, and with the Anglophile mood of postwar Australia. In Sydney, as modernism took hold, that mood became strongly nationalistic, abandoning any interest in universalism for an authentic Australian feel.
Nothing could have interested Seidler less. In 1948, as in 1998, he pursued an architecture that would “age gracefully”, and was unconcerned with particularities of place, culture or person. Spare a thought, then, for Rose, transplanted from her dark-veneered, silk-wallpapered Viennese apartment to this beautiful, shadowless, open-plan house.
It was a long way from the old Vienna of coffee mornings and cake trolleys. Here was a house designed to give uniform light throughout; a house where no plane met any other plane; a house without corners, much less snugs, inglenooks or cubbies. Even the furniture was designed to let light and space flow unimpeded. For Seidler, it was a symbolic microcosm, constant flux in built form. His only concession to his mother, he said, was a specially designed stainless-steel cake trolley.
Australia, though, was bowled over. Suddenly Seidler had a dozen houses on his books. “Everybody,” he recalled, “said simply, ‘I want one of those. Design me a house like that.”‘ Seidler was in business. Over 50-odd years he built scores of buildings – houses and offices, embassies and skyscrapers – in Australia and around the world.
In 1958, he married Penelope Evatt on her 20th birthday. She studied architecture in order to join in the conversation. Together, Harry and “Penel” occupied the Australian archi-scape like Henry Moore’s king and queen. They built a house for themselves in Killara; hosted parties for the international art set; commissioned works from Le Corbusier, Frank Stella, Alexander Calder and Sol LeWitt; marched against the Utzon sacking; lobbied premiers; produced two children (Polly and Timothy); travelled tirelessly; fought celebrated court cases (least successfully against the cartoonist Patrick Cook, for his depiction of Blues Point Tower as what he saw as the “Harry Seidler Retirement Park”, and most successfully against the Luna Park roller-coaster); won dozens of medals and awards; and ranted endlessly against institutionalised mediocrity in its myriad forms – planners, bureaucrats, councils, conservationists, politicians, journalists, heritage and Australia in general.
Seidler stories abound. He seemed almost to delight in scandalising the natives. His determination to fill his Milsons Point building with a single apartment to avoid sharing the lift with “mothers and strollers”, for instance; the day he sacked virtually his entire office after losing the Darling Park job to Eric Kuhne; and the day he called the government architect, Chris Johnson, the “lowest form of life” – on the record. But there are also the warm memories from those who worked with him closely. Alex Popov says: “Harry’s always been very helpful to me, even when I was a student and he didn’t have to. He’s incredibly generous to young people. He’ll open his office to students, as well as his mind.”
It was a remarkable life – long, prolific and apparently unmarred by doubt. There are scores of buildings. And yet, if I had to choose four for the desert island, they’d be early ones: the Rose Seidler House (1948), floating its planes of colour around rough-hewn stone; the Seidler House Killara (1967) and Milsons Point office (1971), with their confident concrete brutalism; and Australia Square (1962). Each is of its time and, like Seidler, distinguished forever by a fearless clarity of purpose.
PHOTO: “Design me a house like that” … Harry Seidler and a 1950 model.
DIAG: SHAPING THE CITY Seidler’s vision