Design Canberra Festival Design Canberra Festival

Campbell Group Housing by Harry Seidler. Photographed by Darren Bradley @modarchitecture
Campbell Group Housing by Harry Seidler. Photographed by Darren Bradley @modarchitecture

Harry Seidler

In the final week of our mid-century house tours we visit two townhouse groups designed by Harry Seidler, and an early 1950s modernist house designed by its owners.

Harry Seidler was born in Vienna in 1923, and arrived in Australia in 1948 via the United States, initially to design a house for his parents in Sydney. Seidler had studied under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the Harvard School of Design and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina with Joseph Albers. He also worked with Breuer in New York, and briefly with Oscar Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro. Harry Seidler made a major contribution to the architectural fabric of Sydney, designing many important residential and commercial buildings and introducing new ideas and construction techniques.

There are also good examples of Seidler’s residential and commercial work in Canberra, with two houses in the 1950s, three medium density housing groups and several office buildings, including the large Edmund Barton Building complex. With his apartment projects, Seidler introduced ideas new to Australia at the time. Based largely on European and American apartment types, the split access, interlocking units with a divided plan, double height living rooms and mezzanine floors, took advantage of views from all main rooms. The carefully composed facades of these buildings display abstract, asymmetrical, balanced patterns and are influenced by the European art movements of the 1920s and 1930s.

The medium density housing at Campbell (1964) is representative of Seidler’s post-war international style apartment block developments, while the Lakeview townhouses in Yarralumla (1982) are a good later example of his emphasis on the geometric curve and quadrant, and received the AIA ACT Chapter Award for Enduring Architecture in 2017.

Our final house was built for Robert & Alma Kay by builders T H O’Connor in 1954, a lovely example of how the ideas of modernism also influenced local builders, draftsmen—and owners. The house was designed by Mr & Mrs Kay, probably with assistance from T H O’Connor, who had the means to come up with modern designs. The firm also built the Turner Infants’ School in 1951—a very early Canberra example of post-war modernism, with its large sheets of glass; plain, smooth wall surfaces with contrasting face brick; and external sun control on windows. Along with the Bowden House, in Deakin, it may be the first example of a modernist building in Canberra.

This is the final tour in our mid-century house tours. While the major aim was to provide access to houses designed by three of the most important figures in Australian architecture from the mid twentieth century, we also wanted to make people think about Canberra’s mid-century period generally, and reflect on how mid-century houses continue to function superbly as homes, and are loved by their owners.

If you’d like to experience three remarkable mid-century houses, book a ticket on our final mid-century houses bus tour.