Australia via Austria
This exemplary new monograph on one of Australia's most prominent Modern architects tells Harry Seidler's story from the points of view of various people who knew or worked with him. The author, Vladimir Belogolovsky, a Russian-born American architect who directs the International Curatorial Project, provides an insightful introductory essay, along with commentaries by Kenneth Frampton, Norman Foster, critic Chris Abel, and the late Oscar Niemeyer. Abel's comments are particularly helpful, since he began his career in Britain but was based for a number of years in Australia, so he can provide both international and local perspectives. At the end of the book, Belogolovsky's interviews with Seidler's wife, Penelope Seidler (also an architect); sculptor Norman Carlberg; painter Frank Stella; and multimedia artist Lin Utzon (who worked with Seidler on several projects) make this book more like a lively salon than a biography. There is also a well-chosen selection of Seidler's own statements.
The book's design by the late Massimo Vignelli—square, bold, spare, and black-and-white—matches the architect's aesthetic vision. Every project is shown in multiple views, some in color, with plans, sections, perspectives, interiors, and often contextual photographs. The illustrations are accompanied by Belogolovsky's astute descriptions of the projects and key information.
Although there are numerous books on Seidler—by Abel, Frampton, Peter Blake, Philip Drew, Wolfgang Forster, Helen O'Neill and others—this is the first architectural monograph published since his death in 2006 at the age of 82. And Seidler's story is not as well known as it ought to be, because this most cosmopolitan of architects practiced largely in Australia.
Harry Seidler was born in Vienna in 1923 into an upper-middle-class Jewish family. In 1938, when the Nazis seized Austria, he was forced to leave and soon joined his older brother studying in England. In 1940, Harry and his brother were interned, with all male German and Austrian citizens, and sent to Canada with German prisoners of war. Eighteen months later, he was released and allowed to attend architecture school at the University of Manitoba, where the engineering courses were particularly rigorous—an ordeal that turned out to be helpful later in his career.
In 1945, he received his architectural license and entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer became his mentors. At Gropius's suggestion, he went on to study with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. Seidler then became the first employee in Breuer's New York office in 1946.
After his family emigrated to Australia and asked him to design houses for them, Seidler moved there too, in 1948. At first his work was Breueresque, but influenced by Le Corbusier and Niemeyer. Eventually, he became a truly original architect, drawing on ideas from contemporary artists as well as from Francesco Borromini. Another important influence was Pierre Luigi Nervi, with whom he collaborated on his most important early buildings, such as the cylindrical Australia Square Tower of 1967 and the octagonal MLC Centre of 1975, both in Sydney.
It is ironic that this most international of architects never became better known. Most of his work is in Australia, and most people, during his lifetime, did not travel as much as he did. Frampton notes that “it is unlikely that [Seidler's] career would have taken the form it did anywhere else.” Australia was growing when he arrived, and its architecture was just taking form. With his international experience, Seidler was the perfect figure to make this faraway place cosmopolitan.