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Harry Seidler 1923-2006.

Harry Seidler, who died in March, was a key figure in the acceptance of an international modern architecture in Australia. After what was intended to be a brief visit in 1948 to supervise the design of his parents' house in Turramurra, NSW, Harry stayed. The Rose Seidler House was acquired by the National Houses Trust in 1988; his second Rose House followed in 1949-50 and was the first of his houses to be featured in the August 1956 issue of the AR. Since then Harry's work has included projects, buildings and developments of a consistently high quality not only in Australia but also in the USA, Hong Kong, France, Brazil, and Austria.


Born in 1923, the second son of a prosperous Viennese family, Harry undertook his early education at the Wasagymnasium studying the arts, sciences and classical languages. In his youth he was a fine looking and scholarly boy with an athletic interest in skiing and cycling as well as travel. Yet his bright future was soon threatened by external events. This was not a good time for any enterprising Jewish family to be in Vienna and under the Anschluss life proved very difficult for the Seidlers. Fortunately Harry's older brother Marcel--a talented photographer--was already in London and he received Harry when he arrived in 1938 after a horrendous journey from Austria on a boat train as part of the Kindertransport programme.


In England Harry was thrown into the upper class world of Cambridge society staying in the family home of Lady Edith MacAlister, widow of a former Chancellor of Glasgow University and her sister Anne a fellow Quaker--both of whom were young Harry's sponsors. In three months the 16-year-old had learned enough English to enrol on a course of building studies. Soon afterwards, with the outbreak of the Second World War, he was declared an alien and deported to the Isle of Man. Among a talented group of professional architects, musicians, and other artists, he wrote a diary, a unique documentary record of life in the camp. In it he recorded that 4 October 1941 was 'the greatest day of my life ... The day of my release'. Harry was off to Canada.

A few weeks later--still only eighteen--Harry enjoyed the irony of donning a Canadian army officer's uniform in the university cadet corps as he began his architectural training at the University of Manitoba. He gained a first class degree in 1946 and won a scholarship to the Harvard Graduate School joining Walter Gropius's master class. There he met a number of his contemporaries including I. M. Pei, Paul Rudolph, Harry Cobb, Ulrich Franzen and the Canadian John Parkin.

At Harvard Gropius introduced him to his Bauhaus colleague and acolyte Marcel Breuer who was to employ him in his New York office on the design of the architect's own house at New Canaan. This formative period was further strengthened by a time--on Gropius's recommendation--at Black Mountain College under Josef Albers. Harry learned from Albers 'more about visual perception than at any architecture school.... Albers made us think through spatial-visual problems ... around and through objects by settling puzzling tasks [and] ... exploring phenomena of vision ...' This experience, short as it was, led to a lifetime's collaboration with visual artists including Frank Stella and Alexander Calder.

In 1947 Harry's parents left Vienna for Australia making a short detour to New York. There they invited the young architect and his brother Marcel to join them in their new life. Marcel agreed but Harry declined. Nevertheless, once his parents had settled down he was invited to design their new home. It was an opportunity not to be turned down. In Australia he chose the site and designed the house. He opened his first office in Sydney the following year.

The Rose Seidler House was the epitome of the new Australian modern domestic architecture and it was soon followed by a succession of innovative domestic designs in the Sydney suburbs and eventually a house at Killara, NSW for his own family. Each house was 'a framework on which to hang very different and potentially changing images ... modern architecture is never a style per se. It must remain in constant flux, responding not only to regional differences and social demands but also reflecting the changing visual language and the ever expanding wealth of technological means ...'

As the size of his commissions and office grew, Harry re-emphasised these principles in an urban context with ambitious projects such as Australia Square, Sydney (1962-68), the MLC Centre, also in Sydney (1971) and the masterful Hong Kong Club with its Wrightian interior and position on the same square as Foster's HSBC building. For Harry the future of the Australian city was a huge contemporary architectural challenge, but one that was restricted by bureaucracy and 'amazing and arbitrary rules'. There were many conflicts with the authorities, who he described as 'arbiters of taste, imposing a dictatorship over the language of form'. It seems amazing, therefore, that he was able to achieve as much as he did. In 1986-87, for instance, his office had five major buildings either on site or at project stage in different Australian cities, and his staff had increased to 42.

For his tall buildings in Australia, Harry moved away from the upturned functional cube, replacing the rectangular Bauhaus style with shapelier, curved, sun-protected facades. Many of these engendered a special local ambience through thoughtful landscaping and enhanced views. Though his penchant for tall, high density structures soon embroiled Harry in conflicts and controversy, it seems such brouhahas were an essential part of his professional life. They reinforced his conviction about continuity and the regional reinterpretation of Modernist principles, but also sharpened him up for a combative approach to architecture in a conservative country nervous of change. He fully supported Jorn Utzon after his dismissal from the Sydney Opera House project and perhaps not surprisingly took up arms in a stance in the 1970s--shared with his lecture audiences throughout the world--against the spurious historicist notions of Post-Modernism and those he referred to as the anti-rationalists. Despite his combativeness, he received many official honours, including the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (1996) and an Honorary Fellowship from the AIA. In 1971 he was made an OBE despite the fact he was a staunch Republican.

In his projects Harry showed an appreciation of the formalism and structural clarity associated with Viennese pioneers such as Wagner, Hoffmann, Olbrich and Loos with whom he shared a commitment to a truly modern architecture. In the '90s Harry was able to revisit these origins with a fine and dramatic complex of social housing at Wohnpark Neue Donau. Talking in London at the time of his 80th birthday he expressed great pleasure that he had been invited back to his home city, as a free man and as an internationally acclaimed architect. His Vienna housing scheme is among his most successful projects and is a lasting tribute to his notion of a modern, socially committed and ecologically sound architecture.
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Author:Sharp, Dennis
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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