The life of Austrian-born, Jewish Australian architect Harry Seidler, who recently died aged 82, was publicly commemorated last week. The service featured Bach and black velvet, and the venue was one of his best creations. Sydney's modernist classic MLC Centre (1972) stands in the heart of the city that holds his most important Australian works, such as Rose Seidler house (1950), Blues Point Tower (1961) and Australia Square (1967).
In their making Seidler took strong cues from the creative cutting edge of European modernism as developed before World War II by Walter Gropius (director of the Bauhaus in the 1920s), under whom Seidler studied at Harvard, and from his working relationships with Marcel Breuer in New York and Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil.
The unfamiliar results frequently jangled with the mainstream mindset of Seidler's adopted country - despite the progressive bent of the influential Evatt legal dynasty he married into locally, still more a beer-and-barbie than a bowtie-and-martini kind of place. Accordingly many Seidler buildings were misunderstood in Australia and some harshly criticised.
None of this stopped Seidler expressing himself as he saw fit. A favourite Seidlerism was the Gustav Klimt Jugenstil slogan emblazoned on the Secession building in Vienna: “To every age its art, and to every art its freedom.”
His wartime experience, including internment as an “enemy alien” in England and Canada after fleeing Nazism as a refugee, meant Seidler valued freedom as much as beauty. Accordingly he engaged with the political content of his aesthetic, which was modernist and internationalist, committed to building a better world after the horrors of World War II.
Seidler was an outspoken supporter of Danish architect Joern Utzon after his shameful sacking from the Sydney Opera House project in the 1960s. Seidler recognised the social dimension of urban development, including the vital importance of publicly subsidised housing and of town planning that fosters community spirit.
Long before the mass arrival of blowsy McMansions in suburban Australia, he was a longstanding and vocal opponent of postmodernism as akin to “the tantrums of a rich, spoilt child” and a manifestation of “ludicrous bad taste”. He never approved of suburban sprawl: “People have to drive 60 kilometres before they can afford a piece of land and when they get there there's no shopping, there's no schools, there's nothing. It's a very barren life.”
As late as 1998 Seidler swung a Keatingesque biff at the continuingly substandard condition of Australia's built environment: “There's nobody and nothing here that sends the blood pressure up. It's a backwater, a provincial dump”.
Some may think it to Australia's credit that Seidler's Companion of the Order of Australia was not revoked after those last comments. (His Australian citizenship did technically disappear in the mid-1980s, when Austria granted Seidler citizenship to atone for historical wrongs, to the considerable later embarrassment of Australian authorities.) Others may wonder if in contemporary Australia someone like Seidler, who sends our blood pressure up without apology, by pushing an uncompromising “alien” vision in any field of activity, would even make the short list for a gong like that in the first place.
When Seidler was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1996 - formally joining the big international league of modernist greats including Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Llloyd Wright - Sir Norman Foster described him as, “up there ‘in the barricades’. It is his untiring belief in the importance of culture that informs his work, the cause he champions as well as his crusades against false values.”
That snapshot captured Seidler's essence. While fashion changed around him, Seidler always knew for what he stood. He spoke and acted accordingly, abhorred mediocrity, and was not frightened of unpopularity. He was a man who lived by values - real ones.
Like so much about Seidler, the timing of his death was impeccable. Australians dispirited by the public behaviour of today's political leaders, and by the private behaviour it sanctions, should be brightened by Seidler's contribution to our national imagination throughout his long and productive Australian life.
It's true that as a collective, Australians currently may not have a clear sense of what we stand for. Winning sporting medals? Selling uranium and wheat abroad, and fear and downwards envy at home, at any legal or moral price? Implementing or rolling back the GST, industrial relations reform or privatised health and education? SUVs, plasma TVs, minimalist-meets-opulent bathrooms? Seidler's legacy is the reminder that we can always work towards something better, something beyond and something more beautiful. And that it's our responsibility as individuals to recognise our own talents and freedoms. Then to use them well, in that democratic service.