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Victor Belogovsky speaking at the event

Harry Seidler: Modernist Screened at Berney Theatre as part of Rady JCC's Morley Blankstein Architectural Series with Very Interesting Lecture by Belogovsky

by Rhonda Spivak, October 12, 2017

The first documentary retrospective of Harry Seidler’s architectural legacy, Harry Seidler: Modernist (2016) was screened at the Berney Theatre on Sept 28, as part of the Rady JCC's Morley Blankstein Architecture Film Series, which was attended by over 125 people. The visually appealing film was preceded by a very interesting lecture given by Vladimor Belogovsky of New York, who has authored a book about Seidler.


The film gave an intimate portrait of Seidler's extraordinary life and his legacy of internationally recognized work. Seidler is hailed as one of the greatest modernist architects, whose work serves as an inspiration to architects and artists all over the world. He won every architectural major prize in Australia, the Royal institute of British Architects Gold medal, admission to the exclusive French Academie D'Architecture and the Vienna Gold Medal of Merit. His work is represented in every major city, and was embraced internationally. During his career of almost sixty years, Seidler worked in New York, Paris, China, and Mexico, and succeeded in leaving his mark on Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Vienna. And Seidler also had a Winnipeg connection!


Seidler was born to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1923. His family owned a textile business, Belogovsky explained, and all businesses owned by Jews "were confiscated, and nationalized," with the Nazi occupation of Austria.


The Seidler family fled the country to find sanctuary in England, but, unfortunately once Winston Churchill came to power in England and war was declared, Harry Seidler's refugee status in England was revoked. He was interned in England as an enemy alien and then deported and "shipped to Canada" to be in a prisoner of war camp, as was his older brother.


"Harry was the youngest person in the camp. He was 17 years old," Belogovsky noted, and in order to get out of the camp you needed to be age 21 and to apply to university. Harry was able to get out of the camp and begin studies in architecture at University of Manitoba. However, since his brother was older than 21, Belogovsky explained that his brother "got stuck for four years in the camp."


"Harry didn't have any architect's in the family. He met a number of architects in the internment camp," Belogovsky pointed out.


Harry gained a scholarship to Harvard, where there "were many talented architectural students at the time." At Harvard he was taught by Walter Gropius, founding director of the Bauhaus, and Marcel Breuer. He then studied design under the painter Joseph Albers, another ex-Bauhaus master, at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. The German Bauhaus style influenced Seidler greatly and would be one of the continuing influences in his vision of architecture and art. In the lecture, Belogovsky showed how it can be seen that the work of Joseph Albers influenced Seidler.


Seidler worked as chief assistant to Marcel Breuer in New York. After the war in 1946, his family moved to Australia "because of the connection of one of the uncle's" and "they were successful in re-building their textile business very quickly," Belogovsky explained. His family missed Seidler and asked him to come to Australia to visit, but he would always respond that he lived and worked in the best city in the world, New York city.


Then in 1948, as Belogovsky noted, Seidler's mother Rose asked him if he could come and "design us a house."  Harry agreed on two conditions, one being that they had to pay his ticket "which was incredibly expensive at the time" and the second condition was that he could travel via Brazil, because he wanted to meet and work with noted modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer in Rio De Janeiro. Seidler did meet Niemeyer and his professional and personal relationship with Niemeyer remained for his lifetime. 


On arriving to Sydney, Harry was intending to stay for just a few months. In Australia he built houses for the extended family, Belogovsky indicated.  Seidler was attracted to the spectacular landscape of Sydney Harbour and the dazzling and clear Australia light.


The much-celebrated glass walled Bauhaus styled home Harry Seidler built for his parents in a remote bushland site "gave the family an opportunity to start collecting contemporary art," Belogovsky indicated.


The house, known as the Rose Seidler House (1950) was modern and futuristic and was so unique that it sent shock waves through the architectural profession and the community at large. Australians lined up to get Seidler to design homes for them.


Seidler became Australia's best-known architect, working on hundreds of projects-from private homes to high rise office blocks. His iconic Australia Square with its office space built in 1967 was until 1976 the tallest building in Sydney and remains a landmark building. The Australian Embassy (1977) built "very close to the Eiffel |Tower", was greeted with enthusiasm as work of art.


Seidler's Bauhaus inspired buildings weren't without controversy. His Blue Point Tower Apartment block (1967) that thrust up McMahon's point, Sydney harbour received criticism. (Seidler told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2002 that he was not worried people criticized the building. "What do you expect from illiterate people? They're insensitive and uneducated so why should I take that seriously?"


In the 1980's Harry's modernist program was out of favour but by the 1990's his approach was again celebrated with landmark designs in Vienna and Sydney including Berman House 1999 with its juxtaposition of ancient rocks and graceful modern forms.


Seidler died in Sydney in 2006 after suffering a major stroke. His wife, Penelope Evatt, whom he married in 1958, and a son and daughter, survive him.


As Belogovsky concluded Seidler was responsible for many great works of architecture, and has a legacy of incredible achievements.


When asked about Seidler's homes from the 1950's Belogovsky said many of them have survived (a number of them were demolished) and the people living in them "treasure" them and understand them to be "works of art" and treat the homes "as family." Some of them "remember meeting Seidler," Belogovsky noted.


"I met homeowners who are incredibly devoted to their [Harry Seidler designed] houses," Belogovsky said, and many of the houses are "vintage pieces" and when they are sold they are sold as "Harry Seidler original houses."


When asked about Seidler's children, Belogovsky noted that they did not become architects.&n

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.