When is a Seidler not a Seidler

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Architecture, General, Musings

When I first started this blog a few months ago, foremost on my mind was the conservation versus renovation conundrum. We’re part of the way to solving that issue for ourselves because we’ve decided to respect our original building and develop ideas with our architect from there.

But, initially, I was horrified to come across an entry in one of my favourite blogs which truly disturbed me. Modernist Australia (MA) regularly posts the listings of rare modernist homes for sale around Australia. Usually there’s a little write-up and photos for us to swoon over. I genuinely enjoy the posts every time. But one entry, a “Harry Seidler-designed” home up for sale in Sydney’s Palm Beach caused a ruckus, and I can see why. (As most readers may know, Seidler was one of Australia’s pre-eminent architects for some 50 years, a leading figure in modernism and influenced by the Bauhaus movement and worked with several notable architects of the post WWII period….but I digress.)

The MA entry in question had come under fire from the Seidlers themselves when representatives contacted Modernist Australia (MA) to refute some of the information stated about the so-called house for sale. Upon reading this exchange on their blog, I was mortified…mostly with fear.

I suddenly thought: What if a fairly innocent (even, well informed) renovation of a home results in a total dissing from the original architect themselves? Ugh. I could not think of anything worse. And yet, it would  be nearly impossible to avoid. Renovations happen every day, people paint over perfectly good Pettit & Sevitt wooden beams and that makes me cringe enough. The idea of actively destroying original features for no good reason or accidentally changing features that held a certain function and meaning…how could one even predict the thoughts of the original architect on that? It’s a bit of a minefield.

That’s when I turned to the details. What was the Seidler’s objection about? Polly Seidler pointed out to MA that sometimes a house design doesn’t quite come out as the vision was originally intended, and the home MA listed was such an example. (Cringeworthy if you’re the owner that made the changes, but too late now I suppose). She even listed the many negative ‘enhancements’ have been carried out over time and as well as this quote from her mother, architect Penelope Seidler: “The house is a ruin, it has been savagely altered”. 


The problems included “no classic modern house is painted cream” (take note), new bathroom and kitchen (unsure of how much of a crime this is); new bedroom (also unsure of this crime); garage enclosed (gulp); new living room; expanded balcony and an added timber walkway.

To see photos of the house in its original form, go to Harry Seidler: Houses and Interiors 1 & 2′ (2003) 

On subsequent reflection, I have several problems with this…err, problem.

On the one hand, I can see how problematic it is to claim to be selling a “Seilder” or similar house when the design has been altered to the point of no return. On the other hand, I can also see how some modernist houses, beautiful and unique as they were for their time, are not completely faultless. People live in them and invariably figure out the inadequacies of the design, if there are some. As time goes by, residents have different needs and spaces get used differently. What then should an owner do to extend an important house without ruining it? Is that even possible for some homes designed by unique architects or architects no longer around? And to what extent must time “stand still” in these homes, even when a bathroom has become inadequate and desperately needs updating?

I’d welcome your thoughts.

You can view the current home here: http://www.modernistaustralia.com/realestate/#/23-cynthea-rd-palm-beach-nsw/

And the original Seidler design here: Harry Seidler: Houses and Interiors 1 & 2′ (2003)

(Photo credit: realestate.com.au)

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