Friday, February 20, 2009


Praise be to Harry Seidler, for without him it is rather doubtful if Sydney would have any notable buildings at all besides the Opera House. Born into a Jewish family in Vienna and forced to flee the Nazis as a teenager, Seidler began his architectural studies at Harvard with Breuer and Gropius before travelling to Brazil for a spell with Oscar Niemeyer. When his parents moved to Australia in the late 1940s, Gropius warned him against following them, saying that nothing of modernity could be found down under - no movements, no materials, no customers, nothing - but when Rose Seidler commissioned her 25-year old son to build his parents a house in the suburbs of Sydney, Seidler could not refuse.

Bauhaus preceded Seidler's arrival in Australia by around 20 years, and its principles were absorbed across the world by the end of the 1930s. But Australia resisted, retaining the colonial style reminiscent of imperial salad days. Seidler, always an outsider in Australia, remained critical of its architecture for the rest of his life, complaining in the 1980s that it still didn'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."

In post-war Australia, Rose Seidler House was utterly shocking in its modernity, though Seidler was keen to stress that many ordinary Australians, less in thrall to Modernist doctrines than their fellow Americans and Europeans but excited by the idea that a home should be practical and make life easier, greeted the house warmly.

Its living and sleeping areas are divided into zones, and the distinction between public and private space is determined by sliding doors and curtains. It is built away from the road in the (now extremely affluent) suburb of Wahroonga, and its only direct neighbours are two other Seidler-designed houses (both of which are private, but one of which can be seen here).

I visited RSH last week, taking the double-decker train from Sydney Central to Wahroonga, and then walking for a hour or so from the station to the house itself. Wahroonga itself is about as 21st-century-bourgeois as one can get: undead sylvan avenues glistening in the drizzle, picket-fences, newspapers still in their wrappers casually tossed onto lawns by Caucasian paperboys, a total reliance on private transport (hence, no buses, not even any pavements), deserted streets, a total abandonment of socialised living in favour of intercom-access, keep-off signs, security-gates and large dogs. These are palaces all right, but to what end?

Rose Seidler House looks like it emerged from the earth fully formed, a sandstone chimney-breast stuck through the middle like a stake to keep it in place. Its timber walls are pale grey, but its windows dominate, looking like a Mondrian painting when the blue and orange blinds are drawn, and maximising sunlight (and, presumably, sunheat) when open. Seidler believed that "people who lead complicated lives cannot be comfortable in a highly colourful interior," and the living-room is decked out in the same stone colours as the exterior, all punctuated by blocks of red, brown, yellow, blue and cyan via doors, blinds and panels. The original mod cons and features in the kitchen have been preserved, and Seidler was especially pleased with the cupboard-doors which slide rather than open out, and the underlit surfaces.

Like the greatest Modernist buildings, Rose Seidler House fills you with a sense of purity, moral purity almost, like looking at a religious icon. But of course, this is the opposite of religion - it is deeply secular, rational, functional and practical - a building made to be lived in. (Seidler was deeply dismissive of architectural postmodernism, calling it "the tantrums of a rich, spoilt child".)

The house is now effectively a national monument, closed six days out of seven (I couldn't actually enter the house), though if it were still a residential property, one suspects it would be affordable only to the Wahroonga business elite. But Seidler did not intend to build mansions for the well-to-do. He was both aggressively insistent on his own architectural opinions and sensitive to others' - while he disdained the criticisms of the bureaucrats who tried to block his plans ("arbiters of taste, imposing a dictatorship over the language of form"), he later claimed that the positive interest shown by working people to his radical designs was what made him decide to stay in Australia. His belief in the power of architecture (as opposed to what he called "expedient building") to improve society and change people's lives bordered on Messianic. His commercial projects - of which the MLC Centre is the most beautiful, and Australia Square the most celebrated - emphasised the importance of providing generous amounts of space around tall buildings for people to socialise and eat (both the MLC Centre and Australia Square have food courts underneath, selling cheap sushi and juices).

But his fervour for socialised living resounded most in his residential projects, particularly the Wohnpark Neue Donau, a mini-city housing 2,500 people, built in diagonal strips over an eight-lane autobahn along the Danube. Seidler was clearly very emotionally involved in this project, and it proved to be a homecoming for the Viennese exile. "We'd call it housing commission," he said at the time, "but I tell you, if that's housing commission, I wouldn't mind living there." Of the 850 apartments, the vast majority were subsidised housing, and each living-room or balcony looked over the river. Seidler oversaw the design and construction of a kindergarten and a health centre, and the Wohnpark remains a physically and socially coherent complex of social housing to this day. Public housing of such modernity and functionality (not to mention tranquillity - look at all those sunbathers!) simply does not exist in Britain today.


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