Harry & Penelope Seidler House: commemorating 50 years

Group shot on landing of modernist house.
Left to right: SLM Executive Director Mark Goggin, Penelope Seidler AM, The Hon Don Harwin MLC, Professor Philip Goad and Michael Rose AM. Photo © Lindy Goodwin for Sydney Living Museums
On Saturday 28 October 2017, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the iconic Harry & Penelope Seidler House in Killara.

The Sydney Living Museums Foundation fundraising evening was hosted by the Chairman of the SLM Board of Trustees, Michael Rose AM, and Penelope Seidler AM, who were joined by Minister for the Arts The Hon Don Harwin MLC, and more than 50 distinguished guests to pay tribute to the vision of the late Harry Seidler.

Guest speaker Professor Philip Goad from the University of Melbourne eloquently described the importance of the house (Professor Goad’s speech is reproduced in full below) and its place in history:

As a work of modernist architecture in Australia, it’s exceptional ... Not only does it represent one of the high points in the Seidlers’ move towards mass, texture, structural bravura and permanence in their architecture after the 1950s, it also continues career-long themes of the search for a total work of art that encompasses architecture, landscape, interiors, furniture all in combination with the collecting of paintings, sculpture and textiles. 

The event was a rare opportunity for guests to see this house and its surrounding landscape, and SLM would like to thank Penelope for opening her home, and our generous donors for their continuing support of the organisation.

Our thanks to Edward Simpson, Chair of the SLM Foundation, and everyone who contributed to the evening. The event raised much-needed funds to support SLM’s work of conserving heritage properties.

To support SLM’s work, please visit slm.is/foundation or contact Joy England, Head of Development & Fundraising, on 02 8239 2433 or joye@slm.com.au


Professor Philip Goad’s speech:

This is a wonderful house. In Australia, there’s nothing quite like it – a beautiful house designed by Australia’s best-known modernist architect Harry Seidler and his architect-wife and business partner Penelope Seidler for themselves and their family, a house which they’ve lived in and loved for fifty years.

As a work of modernist architecture in Australia, it’s exceptional. It’s one of the nation’s most important houses of the 1960s. Not only does it represent one of the high points in the Seidlers’ move towards mass, texture, structural bravura and permanence in their architecture after the 1950s, it also continues career-long themes of the search for a total work of art that encompasses architecture, landscape, interiors, furniture all in combination with the collecting of paintings, sculpture and textiles. This house has all of that. And it’s also what makes this house so rare. It’s also extremely personal. Works of art and objects have been collected, pieces of furniture bought over many years. So many of the pieces, especially the maquettes relate directly to Seidler commissions across Australia over the last fifty years.

Who could not have been dazzled by the Charles Perry sculpture as we arrived on the bridge? Or the Frank Stella paintings downstairs? Or the Saarinen tulip chairs with their orange seats counterpointed against the wonderful burnt orange rug just over there. But it is the setting around us that make it all appear seamless.

This search for the house as a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, can also be seen at the Rose Seidler House in Wahroonga, designed some twenty years before this house, and also a landmark in the history of Australian architecture. Designed for Harry’s parents, Rose and Max, that house was generously gifted to Sydney Living Museums by Harry and Penelope Seidler. As a composition with its near square plan, it’s an accomplished exploration of abstraction, colour and transparency, inspired by Harry Seidler’s Harvard teachers, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and especially his mentor at Black Mountain College, the ex-Bauhaus master Josef Albers – you can see in Harry’s study one of his most favourite possessions, one of Albers’s ‘Homage to the Square’.

But here at Killara, it’s very different. As a pair – the two houses present a unique biographical study but this house presents a new phase. There’s another near square plan but it’s pulled apart under this wonderful giant shading parasol roof. As Harry and Penelope wrote:

The main aesthetic aim of the house is not only to have horizontal freedom of space but by fusing and opening the various levels into each other and ‘by pulling them apart’ and thereby creating a two and a half storey high open shaft between them, to add a vertical interplay of space.

This living room is spectacular with its ability to see up, down and across and out into the garden. The dark tones of the rubble stone, slate floors, timber ceiling make the whole house feel warm and protected.

There’s also the house’s magical setting on the landscape, its rugged legs sitting above rock, it’s as if we’re standing on platforms in the trees. I’ve always liked the famous Italian architect Gio Ponti’s description of arriving here [in 1967]:   

…You arrive by a high road, you put the car in the garage, and then descend, going down, diving among the treetops, which reach the height of the garage, down along their trunks and down to the roots: and from all the great windows of the house, from all its openings, you see the same marvellous green, a fairytale colour humid and pure…

Today, that experience is still vivid. As we look out this evening into one of Sydney’s magical hidden wild hollows, you cannot help but be impressed by this house’s sense of rightness for its place.

It’s a great privilege to be here and for that we must thank Penelope Seidler and her family for their ongoing stewardship of this house and its landscape, and for tonight, allowing us to see a glimpse of their world.

This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our quarterly Members’ magazine.

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