SANAA’s Sydney Modern Project takes form as a cascading house of culture
by Jerry ElengicalDec 06, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jan 28, 2023
In 1948, while Harry Seidler, a young Vienna-born, Harvard’s GSD-trained architect, had been happily apprenticing at the Manhattan office of Marcel Breuer, a life-changing proposition came from his parents who had settled in Sydney, Australia, two years earlier. Their letter said, “We want you to come not just as a visitor, but to accept a commission to design us a house.” This straightforward news came after many fruitless attempts by his mother, Rose, to entice her son to visit them. He finally accepted the business-like offer, but not before his request to meet two conditions was granted. First, the parents had to pay for his ticket—few could afford transcontinental journeys before the jet age was kicked off the following year—and second, he preferred to come via Brazil where Oscar Niemeyer was running his trailblazing practice in Rio. And so, after not just meeting his modernist idol but succeeding to work for him, from April to June that year, Seidler arrived in Sydney in September. He immediately set up his single-person operation in a tiny apartment in Point Piper, an eastern harbour-side suburb of the city, with an impatient manifesto prominently displayed: "Australia’s present-day building practices are outdated. They cry out for rejuvenation. It is the policy of this office to create new standards which will produce a progressive contemporary architecture.”
The Rose Seidler House, that Seidler completed in 1950, in Wahroonga, a northern suburb of Sydney, did more for Australian modern architecture than any other project, until that time. It singlehandedly delivered a complete package of Bauhaus and Modernist principles to the continent. It became an instant icon and a model for local architects to follow. Historian Philip Drew wrote, “This house was to become the yardstick of all later Modern buildings in Australia." After all, Seidler, even if he was just 25 when he touched down in Sydney, happened to be the most experienced modernist in the country, having been educated at GSD under Walter Gropius and Breuer, at Black Mountain College under Josef Albers, working for Breuer one on one for two years, and learning directly from Niemeyer in Brazil with a similar climate to Australia’s. Not only did the house introduce Australia to an entirely new architecture; it came complete with chairs by Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen, as well as modern light fixtures, none of which were available Down Under at the time. All of those modern things Seidler brought from New York. The uncompromisingly modern house landed like an alien spaceship. Three spaceships to be precise, since he simultaneously designed two other houses for the extended family; all built within a stone’s throw of each other. Masterfully placed on a sloping bushland site, the houses celebrated modern living; they attracted strong interest and before he knew it the young architect found himself swamped with commissions for similar houses all over Sydney, which, even if reluctantly at first, became his home for the rest of his life.
Representations of the house—an architectural model, drawings, photos, and film footage—Seidler built for his mother will be on display at the upcoming exhibition Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture. It will be shown at the National University of Singapore—at a new gallery of the just completed building of the Department of Architecture at the College of Design and Engineering, from February 16 to March 8, 2023. The show will be the last stop of a world tour that has been on the road since 2012, and was on hold from 2019 to now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Seidler show comes to Singapore after visiting more than 30 cities in 20 countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Canada, and China.
Many of the venues that hosted the show played a critical role in Seidler’s life. Planungswerkstatt Gallery next to Rathaus in the heart of Vienna, the city of the architect’s birth, where the exhibit showed from May to July of 2015, featured his solo exhibition, decades earlier. University of Manitoba in Winnipeg where the architect received his Bachelor of Architecture, hosted this exhibit from September to October of 2013. Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville, North Carolina, where the show came from June to August of 2013, is devoted to mounting exhibitions related to the history of Black Mountain College where Seidler studied right after his graduation from GSD, in 1946. In Paris, the show was presented from September to November of 2016, at the Australian Embassy inside the building designed by Seidler in collaboration with his lifelong mentor Breuer and world-renowned engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. Finally, in Singapore, the show comes just in time to coincide with Seidler’s centennial year.
Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture traces the work of the third-generation modernist and Australia’s most prominent architect of the 20th century; it examines his distinctive place and hand within and beyond modernist design methodology. Apart from the aforementioned Rose Seidler House, there are dozens of featured projects: from single-family houses to multi storey residential and office towers to civic, sports, and cultural centres, as well as important government commissions, realised in Australia, Austria, France, Israel, Italy, Mexico, and Hong Kong. They bring to focus Seidler’s 12 long-lasting creative collaborations with progressive artistic visionaries: in addition to Gropius, Breuer, Niemeyer, Pier Luigi Nervi, and Albers, Seidler worked on projects with artists Alexander Calder, Norman Carlberg, Sol LeWitt, Charles Perry, Frank Stella, Lin Utzon, and photographer Max Dupain. These collaborations are exemplified in original and reproduced sketches, architectural models, photos, scrapbooks, correspondence, publications, miniature sculptures, souvenirs, and several feature films. The displays are accompanied by numerous insightful annotations and quotes from the architect and his collaborators.
The travelling exhibition which will retire in Singapore is designed to evoke the intersecting planes and basic colours of Theo van Doesburg’s painting, Space-time construction #3 painted in 1923, the year of Seidler’s birth. The painting’s matching colour panels float vertically and horizontally, serving as backgrounds for clusters of large images and table displays. The famed painting was cited prominently in Henry-Russel Hitchcock's 1948 book, Painting Toward Architecture. The book was in fact a catalogue of an exhibition, which originated at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and travelled to 24 additional venues in America in 1947–52. The tour was organised by the Miller Company, a manufacturer of lighting fixtures in Meriden, Connecticut, run by Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine, noted art collectors. Before being a part of the show van Doesburg’s painting was on display at MoMA where it was on loan from the Tremaine collection. Seidler saw it on his frequent visits to the museum while working at Marcel Breuer’s Manhattan office. Both the book and painting made such a strong impression on the architect that his very first essay published in Australia in 1949 was also titled: Painting Toward Architecture and it featured an illustration of van Doesburg’s painting. Knowing this history, it would be inconceivable to give the current show any other title.
This inspirational painting and other works of art fed Seidler’s creative imagination from the very beginning of his career. His buildings were conceived as thoroughly integrated fusions of ideas, each a total synthesis of architecture and art. Artists were never brought in as an afterthought. There are buildings that incorporate paintings by Albers or Stella in their plans, sections, or facades. The geometry used by Carlberg and Perry can be identified on a much larger scale in Seidler’s buildings, as he loved to employ circles, semicircles, and quadrants in a variety of ways. And it was Space-time construction #3 painting’s bold geometric forms that served as a spatial model for the architect’s very first built work, the Rose Seidler House. Seidler explained, "This house explodes those surfaces that enclose a normal house or a space and turns it into a continuum of freestanding planes through which the eye can never see an end; you are always intrigued what’s beyond, you can always see something floating into the distance, there is never an obstruction to your vision. It is a continuum that I believe 20thcentury man’s eyes and senses respond positively to, that we crave this.” In addition to designing the house as a continuum of space, various features of both interior and exterior such as accent walls, doors, kitchen cabinet sliding panels, window curtains, space dividing curtains, furniture fabric, and pillowcases were represented in primary and other colours. One would experience the sensation of being inside an abstract painting when visiting this house.
In terms of its spatial qualities, the Space-time construction #3 painting may be viewed also as a model for Seidler’s own family house in Killara, Sydney erected almost 20 years after the Rose Seidler House, which was built predominantly out of maintenance-free reinforced concrete. The house is conceived as the painting’s most fundamental quality, the embodiment of spatial continuity. This house has no direct resemblance to any other modernist prototype. Here, his architecture comes straight out of van Doesburg’s painting. Abstract planes of rectangular slabs are composed by the architect dynamically and effectively; they seem to expand the space itself. The colours, bright and vibrant, are transmitted solely through works of art over neutral backgrounds, particularly through large paintings by such artists as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Josef Albers.
The architect said about the house, “Concerning the space that is implicit in this arrangement of divorced structural trays that carry floors, one can only recall the paintings of the 1920s such as Space-time construction #3 by Theo van Doesburg, a remarkable man who seemed to have predicted what would concern 20thcentury man’s eyes about what he feels to express this spaciousness, this continuum of space. His painting reflects this continuum, of being able to look down and being able to look above from any one space, sensing that there is something beyond, having an illusion of something more, that the space keeps on going. It is not ever restricted or confined.” Killara’s plan has a simple rectangular outline and works essentially as a two-storey house broken along the middle and pulled apart by a two-and-a-half-storey open shaft to create a continuous flow of space on four interconnected split levels of various heights. All levels open onto ample outdoor, suspended terraces.
What is particularly fascinating about the Killara House is that it is where the architect and his wife started their lifelong passion for collecting abstract art that he had been exposed to since his student days at Harvard when he was introduced to the European avant-garde artistic movements, including Abstract Expressionism, the Bauhaus, Cubism, Futurism, Neoplasticism (de Stijl), Pop Art, and Russian Suprematism through frequently organised exhibitions. It was then that he discovered and fell in love with paintings by Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, van Doesburg, Mondrian, and many others. The Killara house would become the primary repository of strategically arranged works by the artists Seidler befriended in America, particularly those who worked with the modular geometry of a circle. Seidler’s design language continued to evolve in its geometric complexity, bringing new influences into his ever-expanding vocabulary, which he strategically sought out and refined over the course of his career. Specific examples are explored throughout the show, and a number of original works by Seidler’s collaborators are also on display.
Seidler pointed out, “I don’t think one can say that I am a disciple of anyone. It is an amalgam. One lives in the world and is like a sponge: seeing and absorbing influences, especially during one’s formative life. You digest those and produce them in your own way finally when you get the opportunity to work.” Despite incorporating other contemporary architects’ principles, layouts, materials, forms, and techniques, Seidler proved to be particularly meticulous in his details and level of precision, as his houses and buildings almost always looked more vigorous and finessed than by those masters whom he tried to emulate. He was, in his own words, “the torchbearer of modern architecture” and a sincere missionary for the cause of Modernism and its ideology, to make the world a better place. He inherited many qualities from his mentors: confidence, social purpose, and a methodological and collaborative approach to design from Gropius. From Breuer: residential types, the power of concrete, and the warmth of wood; from Nervi: standardised building systems and expressive structural language; from Niemeyer: sculptural fluidity and lyrical forms; and from Albers—a profound understanding of how our eyes react to visual phenomena.
Surprise and delight—these are two key feelings that strike anyone who experiences Seidler’s architecture, no matter how familiar one might be with his work. His forms are never illogical, yet they are always remarkable and beautiful, so much more so as they are achieved through the economy of means, as if to assert Otto Wagner’s dictum, “What is impractical can never be beautiful.” The architect’s houses and towers are thoroughly referential in their sources of inspiration and yet they are unmistakably Seidler-esque. Above all, Seidler’s architecture has become an integral part of the Australian identity, especially in Sydney where even taxi drivers can identify his buildings; these robust concrete buildings with elegant curvy lines—most distinctly such skyscrapers as Australia Square (1967), MLC Centre (1975), Grosvenor Place (1988), and Horizon Apartments (1998)—have given the city a characteristic identity that cannot be mistaken with any other’s.
It was well known to the architect’s friends that Space-time construction #3 was his favourite artwork and a source of inspiration. In 1992, on the occasion of Seidler’s 69th birthday, Penelope Seidler presented him with the original painting. She purchased it after being contacted by Berlin-based dealer Jürgen Holstein. He had bought the Theo van Doesburg when Christie's New York auctioned off the Tremaine collection, in November 1991. In 2010, Penelope donated the painting to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in her late husband’s memory. The exhibit at the National University of Singapore will offer a unique chance to explore Seidler’s life and work, his design methodology, and architecture inspired by van Doesburg’s painting as well as many other artworks.
For more information about the Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture exhibition at the National University of Singapore, please visit here: NUS DoA
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