Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sodersten, Emil Lawrence (1899–1961)

by Poppy Biazos Becerra and Peter Reynolds

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Emil Lawrence Sodersten (1899-1961), architect, was born on 30 August 1899 at Balmain, Sydney, second of seven children of Emil Gustavus Sodersteen, a master mariner from Sweden, and his Sydney-born wife Julia, née Dolleen. From 1915 young Emil studied part time at Sydney Technical College while employed by the architects Ross & Rowe. In 1921 he attended lectures by Leslie Wilkinson at the University of Sydney. Form, proportion and the historic styles formed the basis of his training.

With C. B. Dellit, Sodersteen joined F. R. Hall & Prentice, Brisbane architects, and helped to design the City Hall. In 1923 he returned to Sydney. He was registered as an architect on 26 June that year and worked for John P. Tate & Young on classically designed office-buildings. In 1925 he set up in private practice and executed presentation drawings for other architects. He was a council-member (1927-28) of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales and a fellow (1931) of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. An outstanding sportsman, he particularly enjoyed skiing and playing polo.

In 1925 Sodersteen had closed his office to prepare a set of drawings for the international competition to design a national war memorial and museum in Canberra. None of the sixty-nine entries satisfied all the requirements of the adjudicators. Only one, by John Crust, remained within budget. Charles Bean praised Sodersteen's design. It met most of the requirements and his architecture was judged to be 'exceptionally restrained and expressive of the purposes of the building'. Breaking with stylistic tradition, his domed hall of memory rose from a fortress-like base.

An architectural marriage between Crust's economy and Sodersteen's flair was arranged: they were commissioned to produce an amended joint-plan. While Crust managed the project, Sodersteen took control of design. Even more monumentally austere than his original concept, the new version was accepted in 1928, but the Depression delayed work on the building until 1934. Conflict arose between the two architects. Sodersteen withdrew in 1938, leaving Crust to complete the building. The Australian War Memorial was officially opened in 1941, but its Hall of Memory was not completed until 1959. Sited at the top of Anzac Parade on Walter Burley Griffin's Parliament House axis, Sodersteen's building was the first national architectural monument in Australia.

In Sydney, Sodersteen executed residential buildings, such as the impressive, nine-storey Birtley Towers (1934) at Elizabeth Bay. By imaginative planning and massing, the Art Deco design featured lavish brickwork and earned him 'the contemporary appellation of a modern Horbury Hunt'. Working with the architects Robertson & Marks on an extension (1935) to the Australia Hotel, Sodersteen used black glass embellished with silver to create an interior where everything sparkled and shone. Innovative mechanical ventilation of bathrooms allowed living-rooms and bedrooms to have maximum window areas.

Sodersteen's 'skyscraper style' tower for the City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd's offices (1936) was one of the first buildings in Sydney to incorporate fully ducted air-conditioning and automatically controlled lifts. During its construction, he had the assistance of his brothers Erik Magnus, an architect, and Karl Arva, a structural engineer. Leaving Erik in charge, Emil left by aeroplane for England in 1935. During his travels he came under the spell of the Functionalist style of the Dutch architects Willem Dudok and H. P. Berlage. On returning to Sydney, he abandoned Art Deco and designed Nesca House (1939), Newcastle, in an uncompromising version of the Functionalist.

Five ft 3 ins (160 cm) tall and about 12 stone (76 kg) in weight, Sodersteen enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 12 June 1942 and was commissioned in August. He served in Papua and New Guinea with No.13 Survey and Design Unit, and performed works inspection duties in Queensland. On 30 August 1945 he was demobilized from the air force with the rank of flight lieutenant. He and his brothers Erik and Karl had changed their surname by deed poll to Sodersten on 19 November 1943. At the Sacred Heart Church, Pymble, on 7 July 1951 Emil married with Catholic rites Elsie Vera Wynn, a 37-year-old secretary. He designed few buildings after the war. The government of Pakistan approved, in 1951, his plans for a chancellery and residence for the high commissioner in Canberra (which was never built) and invited him in 1953 to assist in planning new cities in Pakistan.

Always groundbreakers, Sodersten and Dellit had been the leading Australian architects working in the Art Deco style. They formed a link between Victorian conventions and Modern architecture. A clever and quick draftsman, Sodersten had an acute eye for detail and was a skilled painter. His presentation perspectives rivalled those of professional artists. Survived by his wife, he died of a coronary occlusion on 14 December 1961 at his Manly home and was cremated without religious rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £51,522.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Tanner (ed), Architects of Australia (Melb, 1981)
  • M. McKernan, Here is Their Spirit (Brisb, 1991)
  • Architecture, 16, Apr 1927, p 57, 23, Apr 1934, p 79
  • Art in Australia, 15 Nov 1934, p 91
  • Building (Sydney), 57, Jan 1936, p 24, 59, Oct 1936, p 28
  • K. Sodersten, Emil Sodersten FRAIA (B.Arch. thesis, University of Sydney, 1967)
  • P. Biazos (Becerra), The Life and Works of Emil Lawrence Sodersten (B.Arch. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1987).

Citation details

Poppy Biazos Becerra and Peter Reynolds, 'Sodersten, Emil Lawrence (1899–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sodersten-emil-lawrence-11734/text20979, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sodersteen, Emil Lawrence
Birth

30 August 1899
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

14 December 1961
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation