Premiering at the Australian embassy in Paris on 7 September 2016, Harry Seidler: Modernist (Daryl Dellora, 2016) documents the life of an architect both loved and loathed. Born in Vienna in 1923, Harry Seidler not only designed hundreds of homes and public spaces (including the Australian embassy in Paris), but pioneered Modernist architecture in Australia. Though often challenged by councils, premiers, and a public he believed simply did not understand his art, Seidler refused to be dissuaded by a country grossly unprepared for his vision. He was driven not only by passion for architecture, but by a strong social conscience.

Like countless other Jewish artists of the era, Harry Seidler was forced to flee his homeland due to Nazi invasion. He moved to England, but was interned and deported to Canada. Once released, Seidler completed a Bachelor of Architecture, then won a scholarship to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. There he was taught by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus movement, who would serve as a mentor and major influence on Seidler. In 1948, he joined his parents, Rose and Max, in Australia, to build a home for them in Sydney. The groundbreaking outcome, Rose Seidler House, was not only Seidler’s first commission but one of the most influential and imitated structures in the country. In 1958, he married Penelope Evatt, who followed him into architecture, and together they designed Harry and Penelope Seidler House, the home they would live in from 1967 until Seidler’s death in 2006.

A Harry Seidler documentary was first conceived by Daryl Dellora in the 1990s, but producers found it impossible to gain funding for the project until 2016. By this time, Seidler had passed away, meaning Dellora had to reimagine the project; he embraced the new opportunity though, taking the chance “to stand back and look at Harry through other people’s eyes and particularly through Penelope [Seidler’s] eyes.1 Perpetually stylish Penelope, now director of Seidler’s architectural firm, is the focal point of the documentary, not simply as his wife, but as his associate and defender. Other interviews glean insight from Seidler’s contemporaries, critics, and friends, while its choice of narrator serves as a nod to the biggest controversy of his career – Australian actor, Marta Dusseldorp, is the granddaughter of Gerardus “Dick” Dusseldorp, who collaborated with Seidler on the still-contentious Blues Point Tower.

While Harry Seidler: Modernist refers to the many architects and artists who influenced Seidler (Walter Gropius, of course; Josef Albers, Oscar Niemeyer, Marcell Breuer), it is worth also noting his continuing influence on contemporary creators both in Australia and overseas. Although not discussed in the film, one such example is American lowbrow artist Josh Agle, aka Shag, who painted two tributes to the first Seidler home, Cocktails at Rose Seidler House and Christina’s World (both 2006, and the latter a dual homage also referencing the 1948 Andrew Wyeth painting of the same name). Shag’s paeans to Seidler are not simply reproductions of architecture on paper – rather, they capture the technological advancements and celebratory lifestyles that informed Mid-Century Modernism as a concept and Seidler as its disciple.

Rose Seidler House was planned with entertaining and ease of living in mind. Harry Seidler extolled technology as fundamental to improving the quality of life, fitting the kitchen with the latest facilities to minimise both time and labour.2 Yet his innovation (open spaces, flat roofing, extensive use of glass) was met with staunch resistance from local councils who challenged almost every aspect; Seidler condemned it as “an infringement of endeavour to stultify creativeness.” Biographer Helen O’Neill explains in the film that to 1950s Australia, Rose Seidler House was akin to “a spaceship landing in the bush,” with nothing of its kind ever seen before in the country. Despite the shock to the unsuspecting public, the House went on to win the 1951 Sir John Sulman medal and resulted in a further 25 commissions (and, Dusseldorp informs us, “lots of parties and lots of girls” for its creator). Yet controversy continued to follow Seidler, culminating in the creation threatened to undo his success: North Sydney’s scandalous Blues Point Towers.

Completed in 1962, Blues Point Tower is considered by many as the city’s ugliest building. Seemingly plonked without regard (although the opposite was true) on the foreshore, the tower was part of a redevelopment of McMahons Point, in which a series of apartment towers were planned to prevent the area from being rezoned as industrial. But the council scrapped the idea before the others were built,3 leaving Blues Point standing alone as an equal monument to Modernist design and poor planning. Interview footage in the documentary shows a public labelling the block “brutal, plain, boring, jail-like, and an eyesore,” views that continue to linger today; Seidler critic Elizabeth Farrelly argues that while there are probably uglier buildings in Sydney now, Blues Point Tower should not have been built where it was. Seidler always maintained the building was one of his best, dismissing its detractors as “not trained on the subject.” Decades on, Blues Point Tower apartments easily sell for over one million dollars, suggesting the tower was not so much problematic as it was ahead of its time and in desperate need of accompaniment.

Sydney ultimately ‘forgave’ Seidler, commissioning him in 2000 after years of dissension to design the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre. The building was one his most celebrated, and one of his last before his stroke and subsequent death. Penelope Seidler misses him, she tells us, but he is with her all the time – certainly he is always with Sydney. Elizabeth Farrelly refers to the abundance of Seidler buildings in Sydney as the “eye teeth” that hold the city together, while Lord Norman Foster praises the “lack of transient fashion” that results in the timelessness of a Seidler building. Indeed, time has played a pivotal role in the appreciation of his structures, as well as in the creation of his cinematic biography. Perhaps it was fitting after all that the film was delayed almost two decades – being ahead of his time was the blessing and curse that followed Harry Seidler throughout most of his career.

 

Harry Seidler: Modernist (2016 Australia 58 mins)
Prod. Co: Film Art Media Prod: Charlotte Seymour and Sue Maslin Dir: Daryl Dellora Writer: Daryl Dellora with Ian Wansbrough Phot: Richard Kickbush Ed: Mark Atkin Mus: John Phillips
Interviewees: Penelope Evatt-Seidler, Helen O’Neill, Elizabeth Farrelly, Lord Norman Foster, Glenn Murcutt

 

Endnotes

  1. Lissa Christopher, “Harry Seidler’s grand designs, re-evaluated for Mad Men and modern times,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 October 2016,

    http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/harry-seidlers-grand-designs-reevaulated-for-mad-men-and-modern-times-20161010-gryldk.html

  2. “A New Way of Living,” Joanna Nicholas, Sydney Living Museums, https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/new-way-living
  3. Stephen Lacey, “Towering Ambition,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 September 2002, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/09/27/1032734319538.html