Ours is a strange profession. On one hand we fancy ourselves to be on the forefront of technology, using cutting edge 3D modeling to design and BIM to build. On the other we romantically cling to the feudal method of prolonged apprenticeships where wisdom is personally disseminated from master to disciple in the laborious process of initiating the next generation into the architectural guild. It begins in school with the studio system where the desk crit is sacred and reigns supreme. And that is how I met Harry Seidler.
Under any other circumstances, our paths would likely never have crossed. He is of a different era and lived at the opposite end of the planet. Since Australia was so far removed physically from the East Coast, pretty much everybody in our neck of the woods at our level was totally unfamiliar with his work even though he had actually just won the Royal Australia Institute of Architects Gold Medal prior to getting on the plane. Harry Seidler was returning to a Harvard where the pure Modernism he preached was falling out of favor and the school was transitioning into what would become Post Modernism. Harry’s experience there as a student was so transformative in his life that it occupied a hallowed place; he really wanted to recreate the aura of the Harvard he remembered. He reached out to the students. And so we became the audience for his insights and memories.
In the architectural fraternity, there are barely six degrees of separation, allowing you to claim relationships that are at least one or two steps removed. You couldn’t actually work for Aalto, but you could know someone who had. And there was Harry who could talk about drafting Baker House, his time in Breuer’s office and of collaborating with Nervi as his structural engineer. Well, no longer were we lowly little students. We began to see ourselves as part of this grand architectural tradition.
No good deed goes unpunished. Needless to say, just out of school, when there were no architectural jobs to be readily had, it seemed like an excellent time to make a grand tour. So, off I went to Sydney. Not only did Harry spend a week with me and take me to visit most of his buildings, but I got to sleep in the guest room in the house at Killara. It was probably the first time in my life I saw world-class art that wasn’t in a museum and began to appreciate that the pictures on the wall could create a dialog with the architecture that surrounded them. It was breathtaking and eye opening at the same time.
He was born in 1923 into an upper middle class Jewish family in Vienna. With the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s he and his older brother were sent to boarding school in England. When the war broke out a couple of years later, the two teenagers were interred as enemy aliens first in England and then in Canada with the result that Harry didn’t see the rest of his family again till the war was over. The Canadians had a program that would pay for free education if you were under 21. It got Harry out of the interment camp in 1941 and into the University of Manitoba, but didn’t help his brother. He studied engineering, which gave him a strong technical background.
Harry discovered the Bauhaus and decided to go to Harvard where Gropius and Breuer had landed. His timing was off and he missed the admission process, but ended up being specially accepted on a full scholarship to the Master Program by Gropius as one of the most “talented students of his class.” And what a class it was. All through his life he would begin his slide show with a picture of his fellow classmates. There was Gropius, Franzen, I.M. Pei, circulating among the dozen students. Star pupils are often hired by their teachers; when Breuer decided to open an architectural office in New York his first employee was his former teaching assistant, Harry Seidler fresh off a year at Black Mountain College where he had completed his education with Albers.
Meanwhile his mother and the rest of his family had immigrated to Australia. She hadn’t seen him in years and began writing him letters begging him to come and visit. He really didn’t want to leave because he had a fabulous job. So, the letters became progressively more enticing until she invited him to build her a house in Sydney. Even then, he played hard to get, but agreed to do so if she would agree that he could stop off in Brazil for a short apprenticeship in the office of Oscar Niemeyer. She agreed. He got to Australia in 1948; the initial plan was to only stay till the house was completed.
The house he built for her bears more than a striking resemblance to the ones that he was working on for Breuer, especially the never built Marion Thompson house. The Rose Seidler House effectively brought modern architecture to Australia. Everything about it was innovative from the plan to the materials to the furniture; much of it had to be imported. Nothing like it had ever been seen in Sydney before; instantly it became an icon. Not only was it widely published in architectural journals, but it became the backdrop for photo shoots for clothing, cars, or anything modern. It led to a series of houses.
Here are all the ingredients for his future career: a world-class education, a network of international connections, a deep understanding of structure, the integration of art and architecture, and very supportive clients. It is no wonder that in short order he became Australia’s most famous architect. He didn’t disappoint. He was all of 26, in fact, when Breuer invited him to set up an office in Los Angeles three years later. He was much too busy.
After the houses, his next major building was Australia Square, which, when it was completed in 1967, became the tallest lightweight concrete building in the world. Nervi was its structural engineer and the pair went on to collaborate on many projects. In the end, Seidler built over 180 buildings, mainly in Australia but also in Vienna and Hong Kong before he died in 2006. Over the course of his 60-year career at least a dozen monographs on his work were written by Chris Abel, Philip Drew, Kenneth Frampton, and Peter Blake, among others. What makes this one different is that it tells a bigger and different story.
Vladimir Beglogolovsky, who wrote the book and curated the accompanying travelling exhibition, was introduced to Harry Seidler’s work after Harry died. So his perspective is strictly historical and curatorial. Because he came in after the fact, he approached it from outside. His story is a little different than the man I thought I knew. The insights and the way things are framed add a level of richness to Harry’s work that I hadn’t appreciated.
He rightfully reached out to some of the people Harry knew and worked with to capture the flavor of his life and some of the people who impacted it. So there are pieces by Norman Foster, by Oscar Niemeyer, by Kenneth Frampton. There are also interviews with some of the artists who collaborated with Harry, such as Norman Carlberg, Lin Utzon, and Frank Stella, and some of the people who played a major role in his life, such as his wife Penelope. They are absolutely wonderful because you can listen to her reminisce about her marriage, the commissions, and some of the development of the buildings. It makes him and them come alive.
The book was designed by Massimo Vignelli, which is fitting as they were friends and collaborators. Its layout is very elegant and simple. The photos are absolutely gorgeous. In a pre-Photoshop world, nothing is out of place. Every picture beautifully composed; the skies are blue, buildings are white, and the sculptures are in primary colors. The earlier black and white images are stunning too. Harry loved photography and took many pictures when he traveled with his Leica, and he traveled widely. Taschen even published a book of them in 2003, The Grand Tour, which Vignelli also designed.
When architects want to find out about buildings, they generally turn to the web rather than sifting through a “coffee table” book about someone’s work. Book sales have plummeted accordingly. The architectural monograph has become a rite of passage for the architect with pretentions, conferring gravitas and a level of significance on the work, whether deserving or otherwise. It is touted as a marketing vehicle as much as a critical one with the consequence that architects tend to take matters into their own hands, and often self-publish them to control the message. The accompanying writing veers between the hopelessly dense or virtually nonexistent and the resultant books become quite one-dimensional. One tends to forget how powerful a good monograph about a strong body of work can actually be and how it can tell an amazing story about an incredible person who played a significant role in the development of Modern Architecture that transcends its time and place.