05 August 2014

Harry Seidler, second generation Bauhaus architect in Australia

Harry Seidler (1923–2006) was born to a Jewish Viennese family in 1923. Clearly he was still in primary school when the Nazis closed down the amazing Bauhaus Academy in Berlin in 1933, yet he went on to become the first architect to build according to Bauhaus modernist rules in Australia. So we have to ask: how did he survive the Nazi Holo­caust? How did he adopt Bauhaus beliefs and architectural practices? And how did he create most of his major projects in Australia?

Soon after Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938, Harry’s parents thought they better get their son to a safe haven. Luckily older brother Marcel was already working in London and met Harry when he arrived on a boat train in 1938. The lad went to a technical school in Britain but in the darkest days of British anti-Semitism, British authorities imprisoned him as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. In May 1940, Harry had been only 16 and was not a danger to any one.

Worse followed when he and others were involuntarily shipped to Quebec and imprisoned over there. Yet miracles do occur - Harry Seidler was released to study architecture at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg! The irony of an ex-pat Austrian being taken to Canada as a British prisoner and learning enough English to gain a first class honours degree in architecture was not lost on Seidler.

The truly inspirational years came when he moved south into the USA. Seidler studied at Harvard where was taught by two of the great names of Bauhaus, visionary-cum-director Walter Gropius and master Marcel Breuer. He then studied design under the painter Joseph Albers, another great Bauhaus master, in Black Mountain College North Carolina. Seidler did some work for Finnish architect Alvar Aalto at MIT, before taking up the post of chief assistant to Marcel Breuer in New York. This was a young man in a hurry, wanting to learn everything from the old Bauhaus experts, themselves German-speaking migrants in an English speaking country.

Breuer designed house,
Wolfson Trailer House Salt Point NY, 1941


Mies van der Rohe designed house,
Farnsworth near Plano Illinois, 1946-

Stability finally arrived when Seidler joined his parents in Australia in 1948. Soon after settling down in Sydney, Seidler designed and built important domestic homes eg a rather impressive glass-walled house for his mother, the Rose Seidler House (1949-50) on the north shore suburb of Turra­murra. It became a display space for contemporary art and the furniture of Charles Eames and others. Had Seidler been uncertain about what sort of reception he was going to have in this strange, new, hot country, he could relax. Even though the name Bauhaus would have been largely unknown here, lots of people asked Seidler to design their news homes and his career in Australia looked certain.

When Walter Gropius came to lecture at the Royal Australian Institute of Architects conference in Sydney in 1954, he made special efforts to visit his old Bauhaus connections in Australia, especially Seidler!

His own home, the Harry and Penelope Seidler House, was built in 1967. It was also on the leafy north shore, in Killara. The concrete floors and roof, with rubble-stone retaining walls and fireplace reminded Australians of Bauhaus homes that had been designed postwar by Marcel Breuer in New York State and Massachusetts. Or Mies Van Der Rohe’s Bauhaus homes in Illinois and New York. Like the masters, Seidler’s homes used strong geomet­ry, the best use of concrete and other modern materials, floor to ceiling glass windows, cantilevered bedrooms and gallery spaces, strong balconied fronts and blade walls.

Seidler designed house
Rose Seidler house Sydney, 1950


Seidler designed house
Harry and Penelope Seidler house Sydney, 1967

Seidler was asked to design a number of modern houses and housing blocks; many of these displayed the very clever interlocking sect­ions, orig­inally devised by Le Corbusier. Corbusier had allowed for generous, double height living-rooms and mezzanine floors inside, rather simple flats. Sydneysiders were prepared to live in flats, but only if the flats suited the Australian life style.

The design of office towers in the City, in­corporating shops, parking and public plazas, was watched carefully by the citizens. People were dazzled and horrified, in equal numbers. The first, designed together with Italian structural engineer, Pier Luigi Nervi, was the circular Australia Square tower in Sydney, completed in 1967. The public squares included cafes alongside fountains, and displayed sculpture by Alexander Calder and tapestries by Le Corbusier.

So what was the relationship between Seidler and the Bauhaus Academy in Germany? Although Seidler had been too young to study at Bauhaus himself, he was exactly the right age to become part of the Second Generation of Bauhaus students. That is, he studied with the original Bauhaus masters who had themselves been transplanted to the USA - especially Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe and Joseph Albers. Thus when Seidler moved to Australia in 1948, he was in the perfect position to bring Bauhaus concepts and methods to the southern hemisphere, quickly influencing the shape of local architecture here. 





16 comments:

Andrew said...

I have mixed reactions to his architecture, but wow, how badly he was treated by England. No matter, England's loss and our gain.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

This is a most intriguing trail of the Bauhaus influence to Australia. It is amazing how the transference of ideas took place even in the most inauspicious of circumstances.

We were totally entranced when we visited the Bauhaus University in Weimar last year. So many architects and artists were influenced by this movement and elements of their designs and works are to be found throughout the building. It is so very interesting and we are sure that you would find it fascinating if you have not already been.

We love the dramatically contemporary lines of the Seidler houses.

Joe said...

I love your timing. This year's Archibald Prize went to Fiona Lowry for her stunning portrait of Penelope Seidler.

Hels said...

Andrew

I felt so sorry for young Seidler. He was tossed around between Austria, Britain, Canada and, more voluntarily this time, the USA. It was only when he finally got to Australia that he was surrounded by his family again, in peace.

But didn't he knock the socks off those 1950s Sydneysiders? :)

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

I too followed the Bauhaus Trail from Weimar to Dessau and finally Berlin... and loved every minute of it.

The transference of ideas always happened throughout history, often following pilgrim routes across Europe or along the Silk Road from Istanbul to China. But how much more amazing was this transference in, as you say, the very worst of circumstances!

Hels said...

Joe

sometimes I amaze myself with the timing. I wrote the post on Harry Seidler a few months ago, and didn't realise till this July that Penelope Seidler was the winning model in the most important portrait award in Australia.

In her acceptance speech, Lowry said she had wanted to paint Seidler, an architect and board member of the Biennale of Sydney, against a backdrop filled with memories and history. She said “Often it's about recording that response in a landscape. In this case we went to Penelope's house, an iconic house in Killara which she designed with her late husband, Harry Seidler, in the 1960s.”



Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, These Bauhaus houses today have a nostalgic look about them, and when the products of the original designers, one can see the built-in design quality. On the other hand, we were just taking a drive today (in Ohio) and noticing how all of the recently-built houses (the kind with giant arches and superfluous gables) were extra hideous. I wonder if the world will ever look fondly on these?
--Jim

Student of History said...

In lectures, we wondered if the glass walls were better suited climatewise to Australia and California than to northern Germany, northern USA and Czechoslovakia.

Hels said...

Parnassus

I read From Bauhaus To Our House by Tom Wolfe years ago. Needless to say, he loathed every.. single ..detail of Bauhaus architecture, on both ideological and aesthetic grounds.

Wolfe was wrong, but he did make clear how anti-foreign (meaning European) and how anti-modern many peoples' views were in 1981. I adored Bauhaus and was shocked by his views.

Hels said...

Student,

*nod* I also think the long walls of glass and flat roofs would have been unsuitable for snowy climes. So why did the Bauhaus architects build differently in the USA (and Australia)?

The Bauhausers used local, rural materials and large glass windows to set the house in its block. They wanted nothing to disturb the long view and they wanted to bring the natural environment right up to the house.

Mandy Southgate said...

Oh dear. There I was, just about ready to start looking for a home of our own in the UK and now I'm ruined. Nothing will ever be good enough now that I want a Bauhaus design house!!

I'm appalled at how he was treated in England. I think we came so close to a Nazi puppet state here.

Hels said...

Mandy

In May 1940, under the threat of German invasion, the British government interned about 30,000 German-speaking residents, mainly Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. The special status of the Isle of Man meant the prison served as a constitutional black hole, like Guantanamo Bay. Spouses were split up and children were removed from parents.

But that shouldn't stop you buying a Bauhaus inspired house in the UK. Just have a look at the Lawn Road Flats in Bel­size Park in Hampstead, for one example.
http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/spies-writers-and-artists-in-hampstead.html

Anonymous said...

Whilst much of your article is interesting it perpetuates a myth spread as much by the man himself as his biographers. A former [also Viennese Jewish] professor and contemporary of Harry's in Sydney corrected this myth repeatedly. When both were dwelling in England at the outbreak of war they and other refugees[regardless of creed] were given a choice- join an organization helping the war effort or face internment. Harry's contemporary enlisted and fought in an armoured car unit through to the end of the war. Harry for what ever reason decline to join the war effort. He was not required to enlist simply to help combat Nazism.

Can we have a bit more respect for those including the Professor who did join the war effort in thanks to their host country.

Hels said...

Anon

Seidler was born in June 1923 so he was still a young lad when the war broke out in mid 1939. The idea of giving a 16 year old a choice between joining in the war effort in some way or facing internment would have been immoral.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it was immoral. If my father volunteered the minute he turned 18, my uncle joined a hospital unit under age and spent much of the war in a POW camp in Poland and my former father- in- law at 18 enlisted and fought all the way down the Malay peninsular and spent from 1942-1954 as a POW in Japan witnessing the second atomic bomb, it is hardly unreasonable to expect an evacuee to join the war effort against his oppressor. He could have easily enlisted when 18 either in a Canadian or a US Unit and worked in a survey corps using the qualifications he already had. The myth that Harry was badly done by in England and Canada has for some unknown reason been woven into the idea that he struggled against adversity to become a celebrated architect. It had nothing to do with his obvious skill and should not be used as a distortion of history.

Read Elizabeth Farrely's recent revue of the latest Seidler bio.

I spend quiet a bit of time ensuring the conservation of several Seidler designs and support his work but not this ongoing claim that in a time when 50 million were killed, his experiences were the fault of those who gave him asylum while their own children were committed to a war they did not seek. Other emigre architects to Australia during the war years readily worked in camouflage units, and shock horror! factories.
Finally the war broke out in September 1939 by which time Harry would have been 17 not 16.
Anon again.

Hels said...

Anon

1939-1923 is 16, but I want to make my point again. A 16 year old lad needs to be in school, especially a lad whose parents were still in Austria. I wonder if Harry Seidler had a legal guardian, in their absence. He was in internment camp on the Isle of Man before being shipped to Quebec and continued to be interned there until October 1941 when he was 18 at last.