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What Australia needs: another someone to frighten the pants off us

By Natasha Cica - posted Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Architect Harry Seidler died in March. One of his best works was Rose Seidler House, the home he started building in 1948 for his parents as a 25-year-old Austrian-born migrant. His chosen site was suburban bushland on the North Shore, a very long way from the buzzier care culture springing up in the city's eastern suburbs.

When Rose Seidler House rose on its Wahroonga stilts it caused an instant sensation. A newspaper headline screamed "Houses with legs frighten Sydney homeseekers". That fuss has died down but the dwelling still stands, and looks as though it could have been built yesterday.

Could it really? Head in a different direction, and you'll land on another planet: the blowsy McMansionland of newer outer suburbia. A visit to the exponentially smaller, sparer and more tasteful Rose Seidler House can arm you with resolve to question the tastes of the McMansionistas.


Taste is an interesting word to associate with the McMansion market. It suggests a gargantuan, insatiable, unhealthy appetite. It also suggests there's such things as good taste and bad taste, and a variety of shades in between that would put a Porter's Paint colour chart to shame.

Yet taste and what might inform it - ideas, form, function and beauty - are subjects with which home-and-renovation-focused Australians are surprisingly uncomfortable.

Mainstream Australians today apparently want to be encastled, ensconced, entombed. They want to send each other farts on 3G mobile phones. They don't want "hard" news, except "good" news about mortgage interest rates. They'll dip into The Latham Diaries, sure, but mainly for the salacious detail of bitchy "crudity" - not for the pressing democratic truths about structures, vision and principle.

Domestic dialogue and debate on the things that really matter have become an ugly mix of the constipated and flaccid. Visible cracks have started to appear in the rendered facade of the so-called miracle of neo-liberal economics that's been the paradigm of my adult times.

Why is everyone so damned scared these days of any equivalent of Seidler "frightening Sydney homeseekers" - of questioning bad taste and wrong directions, and advancing sustainable and practical alternatives, informed by real ideas and ideals?

Seidler and his structures are worth revisiting. Partly because I'd rather walk down a curving staircase in the MLC Centre - preferably in a truly elegant cocktail frock, possibly second-hand - than ride an escalator in Westfield Bondi Junction on the hunt for Kenzo yummy-mummy baby accessories.


Also, because Seidler's forceful guiding philosophy was modernist and internationalist, committed to building a better world after the horrors of World War II. If modernism was doomed to fail, forever, and if the aspirational apex of civilisation really is megamalls, gated golfing communities, faux Victorian/Edwardian/Georgian/Federation sanitised spa centres with forest-frog muzak, and competitive corporate branding from pre-cradle ultrasound to post-pension prosperity, then why do the victors keep protesting so much?

Seidler was incorruptible. I don't mean he was flawless, either temperamentally or professionally, nor perfect in that airbrushed way of socialist-realist icons. What I do mean is there was an immoveable, uncompromising integrity, an honesty and a straightness, about what he strove to do with his life. This striving was for something far beyond himself, and beyond his immediate family, and beyond material wellbeing and status.

As the waters of corruption rose around Seidler - by corruption I mean disregard or contempt for the truth as he saw it and believed to be important - he held his line. This meant that he was often standing alone, but also that he made an invaluable and lasting contribution to our nation-building project.

Where are the incorruptible men now? The ones who'll call it like it is - not how a mishmash of focus groups, lobbyists, opportunists and rat cunning indicate will please most people in the shortest optimal term - and put themselves on the line accordingly.

What are we waiting for before we speak up? Tsunami-level cataclysm? Gilt-edged invitations inscribed with "It's safe and easy now - promotion, mega-bonus and Order of Australia enclosed"? Tickets to hear Swiss-born, London-based public intellectual Alain de Botton stand in the re-Utzonised Sydney Opera House to lecture us about the architecture of happiness?

I say this - just bring them on. Big, bold, generous Australian statements of substance. Statements that move us, and maybe even the rest of the world, like the curve of a Seidler staircase.

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This is an edited version of the Overland Lecture delivered on June 28, 2006 in Melbourne this week. First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 30, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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