A beautiful day to be a flaneur yesterday. Seidler’s Australian Embassy is right at the end of the street I’m staying on, so worth a slight detour. One of the last boxes I hit in the MAXXI archives was the correspondence between Seidler and Nervi about Australia Square, the round tower in Sydney they worked on together, and the spinoff projects that followed–a government office building in Canberra, the (bigger) MLC Centre in Sydney, and this embassy.
Nervi’s work on all of these was advisory, and the correspondence is very much that of a master and star pupil. Seidler typically had a structural form pretty well in mind–in particular he was fond of precast, post-tensioned concrete beams that were shaped into nominal I-beam profiles. Nervi would review these, basically say “that looks about right,” sometimes do some quick calculations or advise on formwork, and pretty much be done. But these letters were also, usually, framed by genuinely affectionate correspondence about the families and about other work going on in the offices. The two were clearly good friends, and it’s kind of heartwarming to read letters that drift from static rhetoric to “how are the kids?” so quickly.
The building in Paris isn’t, probably, the best of the collaboration. For the most part it’s late Seidler, very shape-y but with interesting games about precast sunshading making patterns across the facades. With security fences it’s hard to get a sense of the open ground level, but you can see that the detailing is really good. Seidler knew what he was doing, even half a planet away. Nervi’s consultation was limited to the fanning piers that collect the loads of the office floors into point supports, opening up the ground floor in a very similar way to the piers at UNESCO–it’s a happy coincidence that these two buildings frame the theme of ruled-surface concrete piers in Nervi’s career and that they’re less than a mile apart. And, interestingly, it was Breuer who recommended Nervi to Seidler as a consultant for Australia Square.
It’s also apparent that Nervi was less involved by this point; most of the correspondence on this project and on the MLC Centre was with Antonio Nervi, though he reported his father’s opinions faithfully. “The principle is undoubtedly correct,” reads one review of a proposed structural element of the tower, “and the form of the slab in the section, which is always present in the compression areas, is unobjectionable.” If that doesn’t sound like a student review by an esteemed master, I don’t know what does…
Most surprisingly? After Australia Square, Nervi’s office never demanded a fee for their work with Seidler. There wasn’t a whole lot of actual drawing effort on the later projects from Rome–scope drawings, some schematic fabrication instructions for MLC, and some rough calculations. But, in the words of Antonio:
“I do not think it is the case that you worry about our fees or the way of attaching our name to the project. I consider the work done as a pleasant discussion between colleagues, a reciprocal exchange of opinions and ideas which is easier to be done with a drawing.”
Studio Nervi considered their work on these projects an investment, hoping for another large collaboration on the scale of Australia Square that, sadly, never happened. But like the work with Breuer, the trace of these collaborations on Seidler’s work is apparent; he learned a great deal from Nervi even though he seemed to have been predisposed to Nervi’s type of structurally inspired, smooth concrete forms. Nervi, too, was clearly impressed by Seidler, writing in a recommendation letter in 1972:
“From the premises which are at the basis of every intervention, Harry Seidler’s work [is] stimulated towards solutions which are valid both from an economic and a technical (functional and constructive) point of view.
“The fact that Harry Seidler’s most significant realizations are also valid from an aesthetic point of view is a consequence, in accordance with an often repeated belief of mine, of the elevated degree with which have been satisfied the functional, technical, and economic requirements.”