Art Deco Master – Emil Sodersten

One of the most noted Australian architects of the mid-twentieth century, Emil Sodersten successfully fused the American stepped skyscraper with Northern European Moderne style to produce buildings that were both striking in design and significantly more functional than their predecessors.


Trained in Brisbane, Sodersten moved to Sydney having reached the limits of what he could achieve in the northern capital. In 1925, Sodersten prepared a design for the international competition to design a national war memorial and museum to be built in Canberra. Strongly monumental with many classical and Beaux Arts forms the building was undoubtedly Moderne in form. In 1928, a modified version was accepted in conjunction with fellow entrant John Crust, but the Depression delayed work on the building until 1934. Conflict arose between the two architects with Sodersten withdrawing in 1938, leaving Crust to complete the building to Soderstens designs. The Australian War Memorial was opened in 1941, but its Hall of Memory was not completed until 1959.


The publicity that arose from the National War Memorial project led to a flood of commercial and residential projects. In Sydney, Sodersten designed many residential buildings, such as the impressive, nine-storey Dutch brick influenced Birtley Towers at Elizabeth Bay. Working with the architects Robertson and Marks on an extension to the Australia Hotel, he worked with other Moderne architects including Bruce Dellit.


Sodersten’s best-known Sydney work is the ‘skyscraper style’ tower for the City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd’s offices (1936) on Hunter Street. This striking building was one of the first buildings in Sydney to incorporate fully ducted air-conditioning and automatically controlled lifts. The insurance chamber was richly decorated with stone columns and terrazzo flooring. Today the insurance chamber sits in much of its original condition and is used as the exclusive Rockpool restaurant.


His later work took a distinctly Dutch expressionist appearance using decorative brick extensively. A large proportion of his work still stands. His influence and skill is celebrated in the Institute of Architects award for interior design awarded in his name.

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