Harry Seidler: The Collector

by Boris Cornelissen | 7 July 2020

Whilst modernist architecture made its way to Australia through various routes, only one architect fully embodied the Bauhaus spirit that united art, architecture and design: Harry Seidler. With a significant collection of art and design of his own, and an impressive list of public commissions from artists including Alexander Calder, Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt, Seidler’s cultural contributions went beyond the influential buildings that he left behind. The tenth feature on ILEANA will be in two parts, looking at the Seidlers’ engagement with contemporary art in private (this week), and in public (next week).

“Architecture is as much a part of the realm of art as it is of technology; the fusion of thinking and feeling.”
– Harry Seidler

Not unlike the United States, Australia is home to a large number of European immigrants who fled during or after the devastation of the Second World War. The Seidler family left their native Vienna soon after the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938, and after being interned in England for a year Harry Seidler ended up in Canada, where he studied architecture. By the time the war ended, he was a registered architect and moved the United States to continue his studies. From there on, Seidler’s education reads like a who-is-who of modernist architecture: he studied at Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer in 1945-46, and worked on projects with Alvar Aalto and Oscar Niemeyer. He even studied briefly at Black Mountain College under Josef Albers, before returning to New York as Breuer’s first ever assistant. 

His first personal commission, however, came from the other side of the world: his family had moved to Sydney in 1946, and two years later his mother asked Seidler to design their new home. At just 25 years old, the aspiring architect delivered a Bauhaus-inspired residence that was unlike anything Australia had seen. The Rose Seidler House (1948-50) created a large amount of controversy, but ultimately led to a string of new commissions. Although Harry Seidler had no intention of staying in Australia when he arrived, he would end up living there for the rest of his life.

True to the Bauhaus principles that were passed on by Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers, Seidler constantly looked to incorporate art and design into his architecture. He had filled his mother’s house with design pieces by Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and Hardoy chairs. But it was his breakthrough project in the 1960s that provided him with the opportunity to work with internatinonal contemporary artists. Having designed Australia’s first ever skyscraper in what is now Sydney’s CBD, Australia Square (1963-67) was a landmark of new proportions and deserved to be decorated appropriately. After visiting the studios of the day’s leading artists, Seidler incorporated tapestries by Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, Victor Vasarely and Le Corbusier into the design, as well as a monumental Calder stabile sculpture outside of the building. 

“The dominant influences on Seidler were Gropius, Breuer and Albers; Gropius revealed the ethical basis of Modern architecture and demonstrated the importance of method, Breuer, in a real sense showed Seidler how buildings are made, and developed his architectonic skills as well as influencing his appreciation of space and feeling for materials, but it was from Josef Albers that Seidler learned about the perceptual basis of visual form.”
– Philip Drew

Harry's Seidler's study with Josef Albers' painting 'Homage to the Square: Impartial' (1966), Marcel Breuer chairs and a Le Corbusier recliner

Harry’s Seidler’s study with Josef Albers’ painting ‘Homage to the Square: Impartial’ (1966), Marcel Breuer chairs and a Le Corbusier recliner

So when the time came for Harry Seidler and his wife Penelope to build a new family home, they again followed the Bauhaus principles. Penelope Seidler, keen to not just be the architect’s wife, had by now graduated as an architect herself, and together they designed the Harry and Penelope Seidler House (1966-67) where they would live for the rest of their lives. Situated on a steep slope in the suburb Killara north of Sydney, the house was built from concrete, natural stone, wood and glass, following strict geometry without any curves in the layout, yet allowing for a generous flow of space inside. One of the first artworks they acquired for their new house was by Seidler’s former teacher, Josef Albers. As Penelope Seidler recalls:

“Before Harry came to Australia, he bought a few of Albers’s lithographs. Then the Museum of Modern Art in New York sent an amazing exhibition to Australia: ‘Two Decades of American Painting’. It opened at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1967, which was the year our house was finished. Fortunately, they were selling some of the works and we were able to buy the ‘Homage to the Square.’ We kept it in the study and it’s still there – it’s been a real joy.”
– Penelope Seidler

Two other Josef Albers paintings were acquired by Australian collections during this exhibition, both four-square yellow composition: Homage to the Square: Autumn Echo (1966) by the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and Homage to the Square: Early Fusion (1966) by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. As a teacher at two of the twentieth century’s most influential art schools – first at the Bauhaus in Germany, then at the Black Mountain College in the United States – Josef Albers occupies a key position in contemporary art history and has taught the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. As an artist he is best known for his endless investigation into colour relationships, demonstrating the instability of colour through juxtaposition with other colours. Between 1949 and 1976, he explored this through his famous series of Homage to the Square paintings, each with either three or four monochromatic colour fields organised as squares. 

Theo van Doesburg
Space-Time Construction #3, 1923
graphite, gouache and ink on paper
44 by 31 cm.

Theo van Doesburg
Space-Time Construction #3, 1923
graphite, gouache and ink on paper
44 by 31 cm.

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (donated by Penelope Seidler in 2010)

Another piece that has significant importance for Harry Seidler as an architect, was a gouache from 1923 by Theo van Doesburg, who was along with Piet Mondriaan and others one of the key members of the influential De Stijl magazine (and later briefly associated with the Bauhaus). Although he only acquired Space-Time Construction #3 in 1992, Seidler had known the piece since the 1940s, when it was on loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York from the collection of Burton and Emily Tremaine. The work was highly influential on Seidler’s own architectural practice (and specifically to the house he build with Penelope), as he recognised in it some of his own ambitions. After Harry Seidler passed away in 2006, Penelope Seidler donated the work to the National Gallery of Australia, which up to then owned no works by De Stijl artists.

“[Van Doesburg’s] 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. And this is particularly exploited later in my work of the 1960s in multistorey buildings. It makes sense both in terms of planning and expresses a visual quality that underlies my interpretation of modern architecture.”
– Harry Seidler

Frank Stella's 'York Factory' (1970) and Marcel Breuer chairs in the Harry and Penelope Seidler House, Killara

Frank Stella’s ‘York Factory’ (1970) and Marcel Breuer chairs in the Harry and Penelope Seidler House, Killara

Perhaps most impressive within the interior of the Penelope and Harry Seidler House, is a large Frank Stella painting. With it’s oversized curvilinear shapes, York Factory (1970) introduces the arcs that are otherwise absent in Seidler’s modernist house. Stella, who was best known for his austere black paintings from the lte 1950s, had developed a much more lyrical vocabulary, and was mostly working on a body of work called the Protractor series. When he didn’t have access the materials needed for creating unusually shaped canvasses, he would modify the compositions to fit within a rectangular surface, as in York Factory. Sources of inspiration for his move away from strict linear geometries were both Stella’s discovery of Islamic art, and the colours and line of Henri Matisse. Like the Theo van Doesburg gouache, Stella’s flowing llinear rhythms had a direct impact on Seidler’s work, who based his layout for the Australian Embassy in Paris on the American artist’s curved arcs. Seidler would later go on to commission Stella for another major building project in Sydney.

Another artist whom Harry Seidler discovered through his architectural collaborations was Alexander Calder. He first commissioned the artist for Australia Square, where his large mobile Crossed Blades (1967) still sits today. He added two smaller mobiles and a tapestry by Calder to his own collection at the couple’s Killara residence, alongside the other artists they collected – including  Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Sam Francis and Jesus Rafael Soto – and further works by Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella in their apartment in Sydney. Moreover, the artworks were complemented by design pieces from Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen. Whilst Harry Seidler passed away in 2006, his wife Penelope Seidler still lives in their house, where many of the works from their collection are still hanging. 

The living room with a Sam Francis painting titled 'Not Yet Thought' (1975) and Eero Saarinen chairs

The living room with a Sam Francis painting titled ‘Not Yet Thought’ (1975) and Eero Saarinen chairs