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Australia’s iconic modern architect, Harry Seidler, rediscovered in new film

A new documentary revisits the work and career of a forward-thinking designer who deserves more attention outside his adopted home.

For a man who helped change the country’s architecture, architect Harry Seidler never intended to stay in Australia very long. He arrived in Sydney in 1948, fielding a call from his mother, Rose, who wanted her son to design a house for his parents. Seidler would comply, and in the process, create one the most iconic residences in the country. Redefining ideas of what was capable in suburbia, the Rose Seidler House turned a remote site that was once a mine into a magnificent Modernist box.

While jobs would come pouring in and jumpstart Seidler’s career, it was his introduction to Sydney, and its beautiful harbor and light, that would really hook him on the possibilities and promise of working in Australia.

"Harry loved the light in Sydney," says filmmaker Daryl Dellora, who recently finished a documentary, Harry Seidler: Modernist, on the architect’s career, based in part on interviews conducted before he passed away in 2006. "If you see his work, you’ll notice the high-contrast photos, that strong and intense light; he really loved it."

Dellora discovered the story of Harry Seidler, an award-winning architect and a dean of Australian modernism, while working on a film in the mid-’90s about Jørn Utzon, the architect behind the Sydney Opera House. When Utzon was scorned by the New South Wales government and blamed for construction delays in the mid-’60s, Seidler had rallied to his defense, serving as an outspoken, loyal, advocate. Seidler’s uncompromising vision and loyalty would be both his greatest strength, and an occasional weakness, as Dellora was to find, but it certainly spoke to an intriguing character and story worth exploring.

Harry Seidler’s modernism sprang, quite literally, from his experiences during and immediately after WWII. Raised in Austria by wealthy middle class parents, Seidler had already taken a liking to architecture and design. When he was 10, he watched workman renovate his family’s apartment in Vienna, and was transfixed as they looked at plans, then slowly reshaped his living space. A year later, he would sneak into a construction site and climb to the top of the still-being-built Hochhause.

But soon this youthful reverie was interrupted by the larger conflict that would consumer Europe and the rest of the world. His family fled to England in 1938, where he and his brother were eventually interned as enemy aliens and sent to Canada. He would continue his studies in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and quickly became an architect in Toronto. But he was driven to continue his education after the war, and found the best place to do that was in the United States.

"He came out of a world that was completely destroyed, and thought it was his job to rebuild it," says Dellora.

Fueled by a passion for modern architecture, it was hard to beat Seidler’s post-graduate studies. He went to the Harvard School of Design and studied with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, figureheads of the Bauhaus movement, then, after a brief perios working with Alvar Aalto, attended Black Mountain College and studied color and design with Josef Albers. He even spent a few months in 1948 working with Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil, establishing a relationship (and obsession with curvilinear design) that would last until his death.

"You could see that Gropius and Breuer influenced him greatly," says Dellora. "From them, he learned to use the technology of the time, and use it for the greatest social advantage."

When he arrived in Australia in 1948, he arrived filled with ideas for a new type of streamlined, modern architecture, which he quickly displayed by designing a home for his mother. The Rose Seidler House would become his calling card, earning him the prestigious Sulman Medal in 1951, and the chance to build dozens of homes. During Dellora’s film, Pritzker-winning architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers talk about seeing those early Seidler projects and being simply blown away.

The Rose Seidler house, and other residential projects of the ‘50s, put the young architect on the map, and led to a string of commissions that would find him playing with the tenets of modernism at sites across Sydney. Seidler would build luxury residences or homes for the middle class, and showcased an incredible range. Eschewing the big firms and huge staffs that often become part of the working life of a rising architect, Seidler kept things very personal. By the time he was working on larger towers and housing blocks in the ‘60s, and then began working more internationally, he still only had a few dozen staff at his employ.

While Seidler would finish a number of larger towers and housing projects, perhaps his most famous building is Australia Square, a slender, tapering concrete tower and technical marvel that became a symbol of Sydney. In collaboration with the famed Italian engineer Pierre Luigi Nervi, he designed a column-like, lightweight concrete structure that utilized the supports as facades, a thin, elegant creation that added a level of refinement to the skyline.

Elegant and simple, the structure was also adored because Seidler didn’t forget the street-level impact of such a project. By including an open plaza that he promptly decorated with a huge Alexander Calder sculpture, he showed a commitment to public space that was ahead of its time. Even the commercial developers who were initially wary at the idea of not maximizing each available square foot came to appreciate how the square helped make the building a success.

Seidler’s legacy had grown to encompass numerous projects around Sydney and Australia. But beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the rise of post-modernism presented a challenge to Seidler. The architect would rarely go so far as to criticize other architects directly, but the style left him cold, an opinion he wasn’t afraid to share. The issue came to a head when Michael Graves, a leading figure of the movement, proposed making changes to Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum in New York. Seidler’s criticism was vocal and in the mind of many, rude, and tarnished the legacy of the modernist firebrand.

That impression, however, hasn’t stopped a new generation of architects from appreciating Seidler’s work. If anything, the admiration for his focused style has only grown with time, which makes Dellora confident the film will arrive at a time when many are ready to rediscover his work.

Set to premier on September 7th at the Australian Embassy in Paris, which Seidler designed in 1977, the film will, as Dellora hopes, showcase the timeless appeal of this godfather of Australian modernism.

"Looking at Harry’s work, it couldn’t be more restrained," says Dellora. "It’s simple and doesn’t need extraordinary adornment. People are always looking around for exciting work, and his is just extraordinary."