‘When [the] house was finished, people used to come in … people were four deep. My mother had to leave the house sometimes on the weekend, because they were all standing around the windows you know, trying to see this incredible contraption’ (architect Harry Seidler, 2003).
The most famous Australian architect, Harry Seidler, began life in pre-war Austria. After the Anschluss of 1938 (the political union between Austria and Germany), he and his family fled Vienna. The next decade of his life would read like an architectural thriller: Harry studied in England during the war until he was sent to an internment camp in Quebec.
After the war he studied design at Harvard under Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School. Before reuniting with his family in Australia, Harry spent time in Brazil with Oscar Neimeyer, a modernist architect who was settling into his illustrious career. Neimeyer’s influence can be seen in the mural Harry incorporated on the deck of his parent’s house.
In post-war Australia it had been anything but easy to construct his ideal house. Many building materials were almost impossible to attain. “I remember going around in the car, my mother’s car, to try and get a few bricks for this fireplace. No bricks were available and you begged somebody for six bricks from this yard [and] another eight from another one”.
When completed in 1950, the Rose Seidler House was ‘the most talked about house in Sydney’. The kitchen was, “one of Australia’s best equipped, with a waste disposal unit and the very latest model refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, exhaust fan and Mixmaster.”
The idea had been to stay in Australia long enough to build his parent’s home, however Harry had not anticipated the amount of attention nor the amount of commissions the Rose Seidler House would generate. Suburbanites were knocked off their feet- they’d never seen a house with an open floor plan, floor-to-ceiling windows, and on top of that it didn’t even face the street!
If you know where to look, you will see Seidler’s influence all over Sydney. I didn’t realize it until browsing through a book of his projects, but I’ve worked on the 47th floor of his octagonal skyscraper on Martin Place. At the time of completion the MLC Centre was the tallest building in Australia and the tallest outside of North America. Some might consider it the pinnacle of his achievements, but perhaps his true masterpiece was much humbler.
In a eulogy given at Harry Seidler’s memorial service, the former director Sydney Living Museums hit the nail on the head: “Rose Seidler House meant a huge amount to Harry and I don’t think it was just because it launched his career in Australia. Although he never said so, I always felt that it represented something very deep for him.”
How to get to the Rose Seidler House: 71 Clissold Road, Wahroonga, NSW 2076 (only open Sundays)