Flat out architect

• Kransky designed “Ellen Court” in Fremantle in 1941.

AT the height of his reign architect Harold Krantz was responsible for 1000 flats a year going up across Perth.

From the 1930s to the ’60s, credible estimates place Krantz as being behind more than 90 per cent of the city’s apartments, making up the low-rise skyline on both sides of the river.

A new exhibition at the Museum of Perth, The Krantz Legacy, is now celebrating his life and works.

Museum director Reece Harley says he got the idea for the exhibition after hearing Krantz’s son David speaking about his father’s legacy and philosophy of building cheap but rock-solid units.

Mr Harley himself had lived in a Krantz apartment on Mount Street, and looking into the story realised how much of Perth’s apartment stock could be traced to one man.

“Krantz’s design and business model is the reason why we have so many affordable flats,” Mr Harley says. Most of his projects were flats including many of the blocks around King’s Park, but his firm was also behind the Sussan Store at the corner of High and Market Streets in Fremantle.

In 1941 he designed the “Ellen Court” two storey flats at 33-35 Ellen Street in Fremantle, which still stands today. It’s listed in Fremantle Council’s heritage inventory as “historically significant as a representation of post war flats in the Fremantle area”.

True to Krantz’ sturdy-design philosophy, the listing says it’s in good condition, a high degree of the original material’s intact and it has “high long-term sustainability”.

Krantz (1906-1999) was born in Adelaide to Russian Jewish parents and qualified as an architect when he was 20 years old.

In 1927 he accepted an offer from his uncle Harold Boas, an influential Perth architect, town planner and councilman, to move west and work for the Oldham, Boas & Ednie-Brown architecture firm.

But work with the firm was patchy because of a slowing economy, so he took a brief side job in commercial art with Poster Studios. It taught him the value of economies of scale and cost minimising that would shape his design philosophy.

He returned to architecture in the midst of the Great Depression, gathering syndicates of investors to pool their money to build flats.

But unlike some of today’s unscrupulous developers who are in the spotlight over unsafe or shoddily built apartments, his philosophy was ‘cheap and sturdy’ . He focused on hardy materials that would last and wouldn’t cost a fortune in maintenance and replacement. The low-rise designs used in most of his buildings also meant no costly elevators, or other money sinks like pools or gyms.

His early brick buildings remain rock solid.

“There’s lots of lessons to learned here,” Mr Harley says outside the old brick flat he lived at in Mount Street.

Reflecting on his designs in 1980, Krantz said they “had to be as functional as possible with no frills, no decoration … 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?”

Described as “functionalism”, his flats faced criticism that could come out of a modern day council meeting; they were “the slums of the future” critics warned.

Writing in The Western Mail in 1937, he said; “flats are condemned as being destructive of home life and encouraging slovenliness and laziness.

“There are many to whom the small self-contained unit affords the nearest to a real home that their limited income can accommodate.

“Young people saving for their own homes, and old folk whose families are married and to whom a large house is too great a responsibility are able to have the comforts and conveniences of a home at less cost, in more accessible positions and with less work and responsibility.”

Many of his early works have now been demolished, but his legacy is spread wide across Perth.

He’s associated with many prominent names like architect Robert Sheldon, whose works span both Vienna and Perth. Born in Austria in 1908, Sheldon arrived in Fremantle as a refugee in 1939 and would soon change his surname from Schläfrig.

“He walked into my office one day and said ‘I’m an architect from Vienna and I’ve come to Australia as I’ve run away from Hitler. I’m thinking of going to Melbourne; would you advise me to go there, or is there work here?’,” Krantz recalled in an interview in 1996.

Krantz asked to see some of Sheldon’s work, and says Sheldon told him “well, I’ve got a roll of plans down in the ship. I can get a taxi and bring them back to you in an hour’s time”.

Krantz said they were “superb drawings, beautiful … so I said, would you like to start on Monday morning? He started and he was with me ever since, until he died.”

The pair became the Krantz and Sheldon architecture firm in 1946, which was where renowned architect and fellow refugee Iwan Iwanoff got his start as a draftsman in 1950.

Krantz’s legacy also lived on with his son David, who would follow in his father’s footsteps as an architect. As his father’s designs had been moulded by the economics of the age, the younger Krantz’s works reflected a different era and the differing taste of clients.

One of his most prominent designs is the 1964 Mount Eliza Apartments at 71 Mount Street, affectionately known as the “rocket flask” for its circular finned design around a central core, requested by the client.

The Australian Institute of Architects notes the Mount Eliza Apartments “marked the change in generation from Harold to David Krantz”.

Like his father’s work, it too was controversial in its day, considered “a modernist imposition”. It’s now considered by the AIA as a landmark, and a nationally significant example of 20th century architecture.

The Krantz Legacy with photographs, displays, archival documents and a model display of the Burtway Apartments is at the Museum of Perth, 8-10 The Esplanade Perth (10am to 4pm weekdays, and the first Saturday of each month). There’s also an online repository of the research at thekrantzlegacy.com

by DAVID BELL

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