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Defying Gravity Down Under

The house that Harry Seidler created for Peter and Bronwyn Berman is quintessentially Australian in its juxtaposition of ancient rocks and graceful modern forms. From the river that runs six hundred feet below, one can glimpse the edge of the roof plane as it curves down like a white comma over a deck that is cantilevered over the escarpment. Sandstone gathered from the site encloses the bedrooms on the southern side and is used for retaining walls that root the house to the rugged outcropping on which it is perched. The master bedroom opens up to the north and looks inward to a stone-backed fountain court. In contrast, the living areas to the west are walled in glass and command breathtaking views over the valley. Two arcs of cement-lined steel, topped with corrugated metal, soar and dip over the front and rear, containing the spaces within and providing a broad shady canopy inspired by the wraparound verandas of vernacular homesteads.

In a land as vast as Australia, where only a few coastal strips are populated, it is easy to find one’s own patch of wilderness. The Bermans bought the two-hundred-and-fifty-acre expanse of untamed bush, a two-hour drive from their apartment in Sydney, and spent weekends there with their young son and daughter before deciding to make it their principal home. Wildlife abounds: wombats and kangaroos, platypuses, koalas and a multitude of birds. Other urban émigrés have joined longtime residents who farm the uplands beyond, and the community of Bowral supports a private school, but the Bermans’ estate is located five miles from a paved highway, and the river, which supplies the city with water, is protected from development. “Peter is a publisher who’s always traveling,” says Bronwyn Berman. “From the time he and I first got together, we were looking for a retreat where we could get lost in the bush, create walks and grow vegetables.” Thoreau-like, they resolved to pursue the simple life, generating their own power and living off the land.

They found their architect by chance after seeing his work on a television program and running into him on the street the next day. The doyen of the profession in his adopted country, Seidler was born in Austria and imbibed modernism from Walter Gropius at Harvard and Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina before going to work for Marcel Breuer in New York. His parents emigrated to Sydney in 1946 and summoned their son to build them a house. Seidler never left, and he progressed from modest residences to major towers without losing sight of the principles he learned from his mentors. “A really good house can take more time and dedication than a fifty-story office building,” he says. “I’ve always tried to have one or two on the boards for the discipline they provide and to balance the scale of our larger jobs.”

Seidler considered siting the house on a sheltered ledge just above the river, but he realized it would be vulnerable to flooding. The Bermans urged him to build at the top, laughing off his concern that their children might tumble over the edge. He found two natural platforms in the sandstone, one slightly higher than the other, on which to place the house and a natural depression to the north for the pool. “A level roof would be rather a dull thing to do on such a marvelous site,” observes the architect. “Thanks to modern technology, we can bend and twist steel like spaghetti into any configuration we want.”

Engineers signed off on the daring steel structure, which is set on slender columns, with diagonal braces supporting the projecting deck like a suspension bridge. The reinforced concrete floors are paved with Alta quartzite, a hard Norwegian stone with a split texture, and walls of white concrete block complement the stone. These materials should withstand the devastating wildfires that can sweep through the bush; however, for additional protection, water can be pumped from the pool to sprinklers concealed under and above the eaves.

Rainwater is gathered from the roof, purified and stored in a basement tank, and waste water is cleaned and used for irrigation. In winter the floor is warmed by the low sun, and open fires in the freestanding stone hearths supplement the radiant heating. Windows are opened for cross ventilation on temperate days, and the interior remains cool in summer, thanks to the heavy insulation in the roof. Though the Bermans have not yet succeeded in generating their own electricity, they plan to do so with solar collectors and storage batteries that will reduce their dependence on the power company.

During the years it took to design and construct the house, Bronwyn Berman studied art, and she now uses the house as her studio. She and her husband found themselves in agreement with Seidler in the choice of furniture, which pays homage to his masters. A Josef Albers tapestry hangs in the entrance hall, and the living area has several Breuer lounge chairs, a design first realized in aluminum in Germany and then reinterpreted in bent plywood for Isokon in the mid-1930s. “I look for architect-designed chairs that are pieces of great sculpture and will never go out of fashion,” says Seidler. These and other classic forms seem to float within the soaring volumes of the principal rooms.

“There’s a flow, a harmony and a perfect composition—not a jarring note,” is Bronwyn Berman’s verdict on the house. She praises the architect’s sensitivity to texture and color in the joinery and the furnishings that complement the monochromatic structure and the multitoned sandstone. However, she reserves her greatest enthusiasm for the way he has intensified the couple’s experience of the natural world. “It’s difficult to express how it feels to live in isolation in such an ancient land,” she comments. “You can see how the river has built up sediment and then carved back through it, revealing layers of fossils. Every season is different—we can watch storms coming in, and when it rains and the mist drifts down the valley, you’re transported to Japan.”

Harry Seidler has been incorporating curves into his buildings for many years, exploiting the latest advances in construction technology and treating each job as a fresh challenge. Even he admits that, in over fifty years of practice, he has done nothing quite like this house. “De Kooning and Stella showed the way to free forms in space, and I want to catch up with the artists,” says the architect. “I want to defy gravity as [Italian engineer Pier Luigi] Nervi did, while creating something in three dimensions that is poetic and beautiful.”

Source: Defying Gravity Down Under