April 2014

Arts & Letters

Helen O’Neill’s ‘Harry Seidler: A Singular Vision’ and Vladimir Belogolovsky’s ‘Harry Seidler: Lifework’

By David Neustein
The man who revolutionised Australian architecture

What did Harry Seidler say, passing through Australian customs for the first time in 1948, when asked if he had anything to declare? Exiled from his native Vienna, expelled from his adoptive Cambridge, then interned as an “enemy alien” on the Isle of Man and in Quebec before studying in Manitoba and in the United States, the young architect had plenty of emotional baggage. But he was also carrying an item that would revolutionise Australian architecture.

While working for Marcel Breuer in New York from 1946 to 1948, Seidler had collaborated with a colleague on the design of a starkly modern dwelling for a wealthy family in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The project fell through, but Seidler held on to a scale model of the design. On arrival in Sydney, having spirited this exotic artefact through customs, Seidler presented the model to his mother, Rose, and told her it was the design for her new home. He then found a sloping bushland site in what is now Wahroonga, on the Upper North Shore, replicating the woodland estate for which the original house was intended. The only modification necessary was reversing the sunshades for the southern hemisphere. Completed in 1950, this small timber pavilion – flat-roofed, glass-walled and elevated – sent shockwaves through the local architectural scene. Rose Seidler House launched the career of arguably Australia’s most important architect.

Spanning six decades and nearly 120 completed projects, Seidler’s practice evolved from the imported Bauhaus idiom of Rose Seidler House to the development of his own monolithic sculptural language that he in turn exported to seven countries on four continents. Though Australia’s self-described “torchbearer of modern architecture” died in 2006, the examination of his legacy is only just beginning. Two new books on Seidler, the first to be published since his death, attempt to provide definitive appraisals of his life and work. Helen O’Neill’s Harry Seidler: A Singular Vision (HarperCollins; $49.99) is a biography written for a general audience. Vladimir Belogolovsky’s Harry Seidler: Lifework (Rizzoli International Publications; $110) is a sober monograph. Both books contribute to our appreciation of the man and his work. However, neither quite lives up to the promise of its title.

Alice Spigelman’s 2001 biography of Seidler, Almost Full Circle, had a clear thesis. Drawing on interviews with the architect, Spigelman portrayed Seidler as a figure forever searching for the sense of boyhood belonging that had been stolen when the Nazis entered Austria. Standing upright in a silver cardboard sheath, O’Neill’s eye-catching hardback appears more overtly architectural than Spigelman’s small, dense tome. But the text repeats many of the anecdotes and quotations provided by Spigelman. Despite the book’s gross weight, O’Neill’s writing is lighter and shallower than her predecessor’s, stitching together disparate characters and events with arbitrary segues. Missing from O’Neill’s narrative are a clear definition of Seidler’s “vision” and what precisely made it “singular”. When Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House design is described as “curves cutting into each other”, it becomes obvious that the author lacks architectural insight.

Conversely, Vladimir Belogolovsky is an architectural curator who produced Lifework in tandem with the travelling exhibition Harry Seidler: Architecture, Art and Collaborative Design, opening at the Museum of Sydney this November.

Belogolovsky, who is from New York, discovered the architect’s work while visiting Sydney in 2010. Unlike O’Neill, he does not regard Seidler’s mastery as a given. Instead, he goes to great lengths to examine and demonstrate the architect’s historical significance, explaining, for instance, how Seidler’s landmark Australia Square tower (1967) made possible Sydney’s 1 Bligh Street (2011) and London’s iconic “Gherkin” (2003). Modestly placed after testimonials by luminaries Oscar Niemeyer, Kenneth Frampton, Norman Foster and Chris Abel, Belogolovsky’s own essay is the book’s lynchpin. The author argues that the architect’s “mature” phase of spatially complex concrete buildings, beginning with Harry and Penelope Seidler House (1967) in Killara, is more important than his lightweight and radically simple early houses. Belogolovsky makes some keen observations, such as how Seidler’s crucial relationship with developer Gerardus Dusseldorp coincided with the 1959 relaxation of height limits in Sydney’s centre. But Belogolovsky’s lack of contextual knowledge is apparent. While he credits Seidler with creating the first office towers in Australia to feature ground-level public plazas, Belogolovsky either misses or sidesteps the controversial destruction of historical buildings and streets these plazas entailed.

Lifework provides an overdue update to the 1992 monograph Harry Seidler: Four Decades of Architecture, co-written by Kenneth Frampton and Philip Drew and commissioned by Seidler himself. The new book provides superior reference material, with well-presented photographs and drawings arranged on tidy square pages. However, Belogolovsky fails to exploit the book’s unique opportunity. Lifework does not, in fact, contain Seidler’s life work. Rather than attempting to list and illustrate Seidler’s entire catalogue, Belogolovsky presents a curated selection. Missing from the book are some of Seidler’s most controversial buildings and some of the key works referenced in the opening testimonials. It is disappointing that a publication of this quality leaves the task of chronicling Seidler’s career incomplete.

In Ron Tandberg’s 1985 Sydney Morning Herald cartoon, Seidler surveys the city by helicopter, looking down on an enormous edifice that spells out his name. “I find it aesthetically pleasing,” deadpans Tandberg’s Seidler. Capturing Seidler at the height of his powers, this caricature is both a typically Australian attempt to cut down a tall poppy and an expression of genuine concern at Seidler’s self-interested apathy towards the historic fabric of our cities. Watching as Sydney’s Barangaroo towers fatten, stretch taller and sprout casinos in the middle of public parkland, I am reminded of Seidler’s alliance with Lend Lease founder Dusseldorp, which led not only to the creation of some of Sydney’s finest towers but also to the erasure of some of the city’s loveliest old streets and buildings.

As Spigelman makes plain, Seidler remained ambivalent about life in the antipodes. Forever the exile, he mourned the loss of his upper-middle-class Viennese habitat, and he often derided Australia as a cultureless Babylon. In Lifework, when the architecture writer and educator Chris Abel invokes the popular perception of Seidler’s infamous Blues Point Tower as “an austere and highly visible intruder on the harbourfront”, he could well be describing Seidler’s public image. “Despite all his well-deserved national and international awards,” writes Abel, “Seidler’s work has been repeatedly misunderstood and underestimated, both in his adopted homeland of Australia and elsewhere.” I would counter this by claiming that Seidler’s legacy frustrates outright devotion. Looking at the uncomfortably solitary Blues Point Tower, should we despair that Seidler’s megalomaniacal masterplan for Blues Point, and indeed his massive 1968 International Trade Centre design for nearby Milsons Point, remained unbuilt? Should we laud his role in saving the area from designation as an industrial site? Or should we feel relieved that only one Seidler-designed sentinel remains to shadow the harbour edge?

Seidler’s widow, Penelope, is still a director of their joint architectural practice, and maintains control over the Seidler archives. It was she who hand-picked O’Neill and hosted Belogolovsky in the Seidler penthouse at Milsons Point while he completed his research. The extent of her influence on both authors is apparent, particularly as their books gloss over serious controversies and present the architect in an unwaveringly positive light. I encountered Seidler in person only once. Invited to talk about a Man Ray exhibition in 2004, the 80-year-old architect instead launched into a tirade about vindictive local councils, ignorant planners and rules designed to hinder architectural genius. It was therefore quite a revelation to discover an entirely different Seidler in a recently unearthed documentary about the Sydney Opera House, Autopsy on a Dream. Smooth, calm and charismatic, a 45-year-old Seidler defends Utzon, his Danish friend, with word-perfect poise. As anyone who met him will tell you, Seidler could play both hero and tyrant. We can assign the architect his true historical significance only by acknowledging this duality.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

@dneus

Harry Seidler in 1997. © Michelle Mossop / Fairfax Syndication

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