Sunday, August 18, 2013

Harry Seidler: father of modernist architecture in Australia

My daughter is an expert at photobombing. Photo ©Darren Bradley
When the Austrian-born architect Harry Seidler arrived in Australia after World War II (via North America - that's a long story), he didn't make many friends in the local architecture community. He called the local architecture "sad brick shacks" and poor copies of outdated European architecture. Town councils and distinguished local architects returned the favor, decrying his modernist designs as flimsy and "un-Australian". 

Shades of the Villa Savoye here. Photo ©Darren Bradley
For an architect trained by disciples of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier, it simply wouldn't do to set up residence in a Georgian or Victorian terrace house or a clapboard cottage (the predominant styles there at the time). So when it came time to build a house for his parents, he decided to design and build it himself. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
Now in 1948, there really was no such thing as modern architecture in Australia. Seidler had a terrible time and finding builders who could build it and finding the proper materials (in post-war Australia, there were still lots of shortages of materials - so instead of the brick he originally wanted for the walls of the pedestal beneath the house, he was forced to use stone quarried from the site - an adaptation which actually works much better, as far as I'm concerned). 

Side entry with office area. Photo ©Darren Bradley
View to the patio from the main entry staircase. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Harry may have been a modernist but his parents, Max and Rose, certainly weren't. They arrived in Australia from their native Austria with containers full of traditional European furniture. 
The main entry is from the bottom of these stairs. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Incredibly modern kitchen for 1950. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Those orange curtains really overpower the room when the light filters through them. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Master Bedroom. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Harry wouldn't let any of his parents' old, traditional furniture into the house and insisted on furnishing the place with the latest modern designs by the likes of Eames, Saarinen, etc. 
Living area with grasshopper chairs. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The house was completed in 1950, and created quite a stir. It was very controversial and mostly hated by the local town councils and the press of the time.  But he was able to build it because it was such an isolated area, away from the "respectable" neighborhoods with their proper brick homes. The only objection from the local council was the lack of a window in the bathroom, which was resolved when Seidler was able to demonstrate that the bathroom had a skylight in the ceiling. 

That mural just screams Le Corbusier. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Seidler felt that the predominant styles were not well adapted for the local conditions. He hated the narrow hallways, dark rooms, and tiny windows that were typical of those designs. He also said that the local architecture schools did a poor job of encouraging the creativity of their students, or properly training them to design for the local environment. Zing! 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
Despite fierce opposition from the establishment, the house was hugely successful and became both a tourist attraction (much to the chagrin of Seidler's parents, who disliked finding tourists in their rose garden) and a major influence on residential architecture going forward. 

It even won the Sulman Medal in 1951, which proved that it was starting to gain recognition (although this also triggered another round of fierce opposition in the local press). 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
From what I've seen in Australian residential architecture today, most Australians embraced modernist architecture and never looked back. Today, Australian residential architecture is still quite innovative, as a rule, and rarely inspired by traditional designs. So I guess Seidler won that argument. 

The dining area communicates with the kitchen via pass-throughs. Photo ©Darren Bradley
I've not seen a lot of Tuscan villas in Australian suburbia. Perhaps all of those people who objected to his designs immigrated to America?

Photo ©Darren Bradley
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Anyway, the Rose Seidler House is now restored and open to the public. It's a bit of a hike to get there from the center of Sydney, but it's well worth the trip. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley


Unknown said...

Is it terrible that I work for the Trust that manages this building and it's actually much closer to me than the properties that I actually work at, and yet I've never visited? That is awful isn't it?

Anyway, I've really enjoyed reading your blog so far Darren. Very enlightening.

Unknown said...

what lovely photos!

2 things

- the Sulman Medal for this house was for 1951 (not 1952) - see history of Sulman Medals -

- the local council did not really care about the design at the time as the site was at the end of a dirt road among market gardens. ie it was not a "respectable brick area" (where councils objected to modern designs eg flat roof, white timber etc). the only issue was the council was concerned there was not a window in the bathroom so Harry Seidler had to show them that the plans showed a window in the ceiling. then once they saw bathroom had a window - all approved fine.

modarchitecture said...

Thank you, Polly! Appreciate the info and feedback. I'll make the corrections!

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