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Architecture Misfit #28: Harold Krantz

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Abraham Harold Krantz
[1906 – 1999]

  • 1906: Born in Adelaide, Australia, to Russian Jewish parents
  • 1926: Qualified as an architect and worked for Woods, Bagot, Jory & Laybourne-Smith
  • 1927: Moved to Perth to work for Oldham, Boas & Ednie-Brown
  • 1929: Registered as an architect

1929 was not a great year to start a career. It was the beginning of The Great Depression that was to last until 1939. For the first two years Krantz ran a poster studio with John Oldham, son of his earlier boss John Oldham Snr. He and Oldham were able to make a living producing lino cut poster prints, many for the Australian Communist Party of which Oldham was a member. Krantz was to later recall how running this business made him look for ways of getting the cost down without spoiling the quality.  Krantz’s first designs for buildings were simple ones aiming at cost efficiency. They had to be if they were to have any chance of being built.

“It had to be as functional as possible with no frills, no decoration, the use of colour and materials, good planning, no waste of space, no passages and no breaks and funny shapes. The objective was to study every element in the building from the skirting, from the foundations, up to the top of the roof. Is there a better way of doing it for the same money, or a better job for less, or just as good a job for less money?”

Even as a reminiscence, this is amazing for the late thirties. These next two projects from 1936 are catalogued by Australian National University as Oldham’s but signed by Krantz. The automobiles won’t have been realistic for mid-Depression Australia so these are probably speculative designs, or possibly the research that architects typically turn to in lean times. For Australia, these buildings proposed a new way of living. They weren’t trying to be houses. In the one on the left, the grade is being used for car parking and the absence of gardens compensated for by the roof terrace.

The hope for better times isn’t being displayed as architectural excess. The symmetry about the entrance suggests minimal internal circulation with two apartments per landing. Even when times were better, Krantz was still never one to waste building volume.

It’s not surprising that some of Krantz’s first built projects were for small multiple-occupation dwellings in the wealthier parts of Perth towards the end of The Depression.

‘Melleray’ Flats, 1938
Corner Winthrop Ave and Hardy Road, Hollywood, Perth

“Coronel’ Flats, Harold Krantz, 1938
Corner Fairway and Clark Street, Nedlands 

The four flats give the illusion of a large house by the asymmetrical front elevation and by having the entrances on the sides. [It’s odd to think that between 1974 and 1978 I spent most of my daylight hours and a fair share of the nightime ones within 200 metres of this building.]

These apartment blocks must date from not too long after as the same principles are used in larger blocks, and repeated. Amazingly, some still remain.

These are the 1938 Riviera flats. There’s no hint of the jazz, cocktails and fast cars of the 1936 proposals, but the fact they were built in 1938 proves the concept was timely and achievable. Once again there are two flats per landing.

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Arbordale, Perth and Greenways, Adelaide, 1939

Nedlands Tennis Club, Harold Krantz, 1939

Krantz was a member of the Nedlands Tennis Club and designed its new clubhouse. With tenders advertised in January 1938 for AUS£1,600 including some restrained Art-Deco trim, this was a major project signalling the end of the building downturn.

Nedlands Tennis Club

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Krantz’s approach to architecture was thus well established by 1939 when Robert Schläflik arrived from Europe and began working for him. Schläflik registered as an architect in 1946, changed his surname to Sheldon, and the firm of Krantz & Sheldon began.

Building flats allowed Krantz the opportunity to more fully develop and apply the principles he had already established in his work on houses, that being an

  1. emphasis on reducing each dwelling unit to a minimum, achieved by tight planning rather than smaller spaces;
  2. conventional construction combined with rigorous detailing to maximise structural strength of building materials and minimise waste; and
  3. the bulk ordering of standard building materials, fixtures and fittings to achieve economies of scale. [architecture.com.au]

This is all brilliant in itself but another innovation was the system for funding some of the earlier buildings. “He organised friends, family and business colleagues into syndicates who would pool their resources to finance new building projects, particularly flats. These syndicates allowed small investors direct access to property investment. Significantly, as the syndicates were primarily for investment, Krantz and Sheldon was able to pursue design ideas without the restrictions of individual preferences.” [ibid] Those design ideas weren’t design ideas as we may understand the term today but ways of constructing accommodation more efficiently.

People in Perth did not take quickly to the idea of living in apartments. Newspapers were critical of flats as the “the slums of tomorrow’. In 1941 Krantz defended the building of flats in an article for The Architect magazine. He claimed ‘slums are low return propositions; whether small cottages, large luxury residences or flats of any kind’. This is a valid statement if the apartments are for sale and not for rent. 

In 1953, the Western Australian State Housing Commission commissioned Krantz & Sheldon to design the Wandana housing project in Subiaco. It included ten-storey block containing 242 apartments. Upon its completion in 1956 Krantz once again had to defend apartment living. 

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Wandana Housing, Krantz & Sheldon, 1956
93 Thomas Street, Subiaco

Krantz & Sheldon remained the predominant designers of flats in Perth through to the 1970s, with some estimates suggesting the firm designed as much as 90% of Perth’s flats up to this time. In response to limits on building materials, and to keep maintenance to a minimum, their designs pursued functionalism and included features such as minimal decoration, unpainted timbers, face brickwork, cream painted finishes.

Here’s their Caringal Apartments. The effect is like Danish Modernism but achieved with materials having a high cost-performance. I say that because parquet flooring would not have been the least expensive option and because Krantz knew the physical properties of linoleum.

Playhouse Theatre, Harold Krantz, 1956
[demolished but formerly in Pier Street, Perth]

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Many Krantz & Sheldon buildings had face brickwork and it has been their fate to be painted. This happened with Hillside Gardens and even more recently with the partial painting of Fremantle’s Johnson Court that featured in The Homestead Myth.

Hillside Gardens, Krantz & Sheldon, 1963
59-65 Malcolm Street, West Perth

This real estate listing will hopefully still take you around the interior of an apartment at Hillside Gardens. 

In Australia, internal face brickwork elicits the same reaction as raw concrete does in the UK and for the same reason – class prejudice. Beauty = Expensive therefore Inexpensive = Ugly. Internal face brickwork was never intended as a fashion statement so it’s impossible for it to have gone out of fashion. If we don’t see so much of it today it’s not that we grew out of the look but because we like to think we can afford “better”. The same prejudice lives on. This is ironic because we can’t afford better. Over time, the quality of workmanship declined to the extent it became cheaper to build sloppily using second-rate materials and then cover it all up after with plaster and paint. “Architectural aesthetics is a smokescreen for economic exploitation.” Discuss. There’s no architectural aesthetics on display in this next photograph. Instead, the good life is depicted by the television, flowers, the palm tree and the dinner party about to happen with three courses, chargers, napkins, and the promise of wine.

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Interior makeovers have occurred at Johnson Court and many other Krantz & Sheldon apartment buildings but the bathrooms remain next to the kitchen for simplified plumbing, easier maintenance and natural ventilation. Some things resist being changed because there’s no way they can be improved upon.

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden years of flat building in Perth and nobody made a greater contribution to it than Krantz & Sheldon. Their apartments were of many types and sizes, and for budgets and sites of all sizes. All share the same pragmatic planning, construction, and servicing. All of the photographs you see here are used with the permission of the State Library of Western Australia.

There were also commissions for hotels.

Riverside Lodge is the most central of these. I include it here to show what building visualizations once looked like. It’s still there, and Mt. Eliza Apartments can still be seen in the background.

Riverside Lodge, Krantz & Sheldon
Mounts Bay Road, Perth

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This links to a site that remembers Krantz’s actress wife Dororthy (and hence the connection with the Playhouse Theatre). There, it states that the 1964 Mount Eliza Apartments effectively marked the change in generation from Harold Krantz to son David. 

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Windsor Towers, which also featured in Misfits’ Guide to Perth, is from 1966.

Sheldon died in 1968 and Krantz retired in 1972. Krantz’s son David continued the practice with other partners Robin Arndt, John Silbert, George Sheldon (who I imagine is Robert Sheldon’s son) and Lourens West. The firm traded as Arndt, Silbert and West (KSASW) and later as Team Architects Australia. I believe it was later absorbed into Oldham Boas Ednie Brown and, if that’s so, is a case of the firm ending back where it began. Oldham Boas Ednie Brown now trades as The Buchan Group which is one of those global architectural consortiums that claim “a track record of excellence of service and design” or what passes for it these days. 

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Abraham Harold Krantz!

For developing a viable new housing product at the end of the Great Depression,

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for preparing the ground for an efficient new housing type of “minimum” flats in Perth,

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for your ceaseless efforts to make apartment buildings acceptable and affordable,

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for promoting a housing type, a construction system to build it,
developing a philosophy for its design and construction,
and for succeeding in rolling it out across Perth,
with various adaptions for site, orientation and budget.

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misfits’ salutes you!

Harold Krantz: Architecture Misfit #28

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The Western Australia Apartment Advocacy (http://www.waaa.net.au) is continuing the work Harold Krantz began and works to promote apartment living in Perth and raise awareness of its advantages.

It was in 1941 when Harold Krantz first had to defend apartment living against a hostile public. Ninety years on, the WA Apartment Advocacy still has their work cut out for them

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