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Indesign Luminary: Harry Seidler

The death of Harry Seidler in March 2006 marked the end of an era and, for Australia, the loss of one of our most powerful architectural voices. Seidler was also our architectural conscience who, as Philip Drew points out, consistently argued the validity of modern architecture.

  • Rose Seidler house, 1948-50. Photo by Max Dupain.

  • Australia Square. Photo by Max Dupain.

  • Kooralbyn Housing, 1979-82. Photo by Max Dupain.

After training in Canada, then at Harvard under Gropius and Breuer and later Josef Albers, Seidler’s arrival in Australia in 1948 was almost accidental.

Seidler’s first house was designed in Breuer’s office for an American client at Foxborough, Massachusetts. When he arrived in Australia to design his mother’s house, he simply adapted this design with only very minor changes for a site that was the Australian bush equivalent of Foxborough.

It is surprising how many houses he then managed to build in little more than six years. His survey book published in 1954 illustrated some 29 projects, and this did not include all the work. It is little wonder he never returned to New York, although it was to remain his spiritual home. He was stunningly successful right from the outset. The reason is not difficult to understand: Seidler offered a comprehensive new approach to domestic design that was rational and took into account how people actually lived. Moreover, Hollywood movies often showed Modern interiors and were set in ‘modern’ houses, so people could recognise in Seidler’s architecture the coming tradition.

Rose Seidler house, 1948-50. Photo by Max Dupain.

Rose Seidler house, 1948-50. Photo by Max Dupain.

These early houses were done for quite ordinary clients, in contrast to his houses of the 1990s which are rich people’s houses. Their plans had clarity and were organised around the separation of night and day living areas. They also recognised outdoor living as a significant feature of Australian lifestyle by breaking down the boundary between inside and outside. Prior to Seidler, houses had been collections of rooms assembled along long hallways. He changed this by opening the rooms to each other so the space became continuous and flowed dynamically in a series of swirls, making the house appear larger than it was.

He was credited with inventing the inward sloping ‘butterfly roof’. His houses are highly articulated, concise open diagrams of living. Some, as in the ‘Rose’ house at Turramurra (1951), gained expressive strength from its lightweight steel frame of hangers suspended from slender columns.

The 1960s provided new opportunities for Seidler. He had already completed apartments in the city, but this repertoire was expanded by the Australia Square project under the aegis of Dick Dusseldorp. The chief obstacle was the number of small properties that would need to be consolidated to create a developable site. Dusseldorp sent him to New York to work alongside I.M.Pei, but, even so, the design did not come quickly. Even after he had settled on the cylinder, the tower still looked crudely raw. Enter Pier Luigi Nervi who supplied the idea of using the pre-cast cladding as integral formwork for the columns and gave them their subtle tapered profile. Nervi added the marvellous ribbed lobby ceiling and V-column pilotis for the low Pitt Street block. But the real achievement of Australia Square was its enormously successful food court and plaza area which even today has become the measure of public spaces in the city.

Australia Square. Photo by Max Dupain.

Australia Square. Photo by Max Dupain.

Towering high

The second significant architectural phase involved the development of a system of pre-cast concrete ‘T’ beams with the Australian engineer, Peter Miller, which was first applied in his groundbreaking Trade Group Offices in Canberra (1970-74) for 2000 employees. It was constructed from a combination of 15.24m ‘T’ floor beams resting on 24.38m span ‘I’ façade beams between cylindrical cores. As much as possible the construction used standard components and was mechanised. A similar approach was adopted in the later MLC Centre, Sydney (1971-75), in Seidler’s own offices at Milson’s Point (1971-73), the Navy Weapons Workshop, Garden Island (1980-85), the Australian Embassy, Paris (1973-77), and his many office towers. The beams became a structural signature of Seidler’s work.

The beams became a structural signature of Seidler’s work.

Before 1970, Seidler’s forms were strictly rectangular, but with the Rocks re­development scheme in 1963 and the Chevron project in Melbourne, he began to explore curvilinear geometry which led in the 1970s to the Australian Embassy where the curvature of the quadrants is opposed, and to Grosvenor Place which exploited overlapping quadrants around an elliptical core. This signalled a new geometry in his architecture and, while his commitment to standardisation and mass-production remained unaffected, it is indicative of his search for a more expressive poetic approach to form.

Australia Square plan.

Australia Square plan.

A crucial influence was Seidler’s visit to Rome in the early 1960s to meet Pier Luigi Nervi to discuss Australia Square. While he was in Rome he discovered Borromini and visited S. Carlo a lie Ouatro Fontane (1641) and S. lvo de Ila Sapienza (1643), as well as many other important examples. Seidler arrived back in Sydney with many photographs and a great enthusiasm for Borromini. This undoubtedly influenced his subsequent move away from a functional, masculine, linear planning approach to an equally disciplined curvilinear planning one. But the change did not take immediate effect and was delayed by at least a decade in making itself felt in Seidler’s major work. It was strictly a case of geometry without the metaphysics or religious belief on Seidler’s part.

Seidler’s deployment of Baroque-like balconies on his later towers is of interest as much because of how it defies Baroque convention and as an indication of a deep longing on his part to re-connect with his Austrian architectural heritage. Northern Baroque is austere on the outside all the drama and spatial effects are concentrated in the interior, Seidler inverts this and externalises his Baroque effects. The balconies are applied, stuck onto the outside and could almost be afterthoughts except for the fact that they do so much to sculpturally animate what would otherwise appear as less-than-exciting shafts. Bach and Baroque are really symptoms of Seidler’s longing to return to his abandoned Austrian roots.

Horizon Apartments, 1996-98. Photo by Eric Sierins.

Horizon Apartments, 1996-98. Photo by Eric Sierins.

There is a more personal explanation as indicated by Seidler’s pronouncement about J0rn Utzon’s Opera House design that it was “pure poetry”. The ‘poetry’ was largely confined to the shell roofs and this may have influenced Seidler because poetry is about making curves.

From the 1970s on and, more particularly the later work, Seidler’s forms became curvilinear until in the ‘Horizon’ (1996), ‘North’ (2004) and ‘Cove’ apartments (2004), at the end of the 1990s and early 2000, the balconies become so animated they almost fly off their façades. All the action is on the outside the balconies resemble angels’ wings attached to a solid torso: the wings supply all the movement while the body remains stationary and inert. Collin Griffiths regarded the Tuggeranong Offices, Canberra (1974-76) project as the opening shot in announcing this new curvilinear obsession, but Seidler’s Rocks scheme in 1963 also had continuous curved wings lifted above the site on pilotis which was reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s plan for ‘Obus’ in Algiers in 1932.

But the real achievement of Australia Square was its enormously successful food court and plaza area which even today has become the measure of public spaces in the city.

The Wohnpark Neue Donau in Vienna (1998) over an expressway beside the Danube is a surprise. It introduced a new splayed geometry in which the housing blocks are distributed across the artificial site so that they create open wedges to the river. This avoided the common problem experienced where standard blocks are arranged grid-wise facing each other which lock in the views. By angling the blocks, Seidler succeeded in freeing the views and in preventing any sense of being trapped visually within the housing. Neue Donau was a late triumph for Seidler on another level.

He spent his life pursuing his vision of social housing but achieved only limited success in Sydney. His larger more comprehensive proposals for The Rocks (1963) and Blues Point were rebuffed by the community. At long last, he now was able to realise that vision and it gave him a new optimism that overshadowed his increasingly negative perception of Australia.

Kooralbyn Housing, 1979-82. Photo by Max Dupain.

Kooralbyn Housing, 1979-82. Photo by Max Dupain.

One aspect rarely referred to, but which influenced many young Sydney architects such as Kenneth Woolley, Michael Dysart and others, is the enormous clarity of Seidler’s plans. Each was a beautiful diagram of living and memorable in its own right. By placing his plans side-by-side in series. the entire story of his architecture can be seen unfolding, becoming more diverse, taking up and developing particular themes, as in his series of office towers from 1975 on. The plans look like stamps or flowers in a kaleidoscope.

The plans look like stamps or flowers in a kaleidoscope.

This illustrates an aspect of Seidler’s career: his systemisation of form. There is nothing arbitrary. Ideas for projects are never wasted but are picked up at a later date and re-used where the program allowed it. Seidler never seemed to be satisfied until he had exhausted the formal possibilities of a particular motif.

No account of Seidler’s legacy can avoid mentioning his city towers and the themes they developed. Often accused of ignoring people and the street, Seidler undoubtedly adhered to the Modernist proposition of the tower set back on its plaza and has suffered for it. It was an approach he never apologised for, even extending it by adapting Utzon’s Opera House platform for his MLC Centre. The office towers should be taken as a series, much as one might view a series of Frank Stella paintings.

The MLC simplified the polygonal geometry of the Australia Square into a square with chamfered corners; Grosvenor Place (1982-88) imposed two quadrants around a core; Riverside, Brisbane (1983-86) is a triangle with round corners; the Shell Headquarters, Melbourne (1985-89) is a question mark posing as a shell growth generated from adjoining small and large circles; OV1 Tower, Perth (1987-91) is a combination of three circles in a triangular pattern pressed into by a smaller circle which distorts it into two swelling curves at the rear in a ‘V’ tower shape that looks out over the Swan River in two directions, but is pushed inward on the other side.

The Capita Centre, Sydney (1984-89) is more like a palm tree struggling upwards into the air trapped between its neighbours. It was configured vertically with its 30 floors on three sides forming an open spiral. In this sense, it is a departure from the Seidler pattern but is easily explained as a result of Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation in New York.

MLC Centre, Sydney, 1972-77. Photo by Max Dupain.

MLC Centre, Sydney, 1972-77. Photo by Max Dupain.

A change in clientele

Seidler’s domestic clients changed. They were now rich and wanted houses that were expansive up-market palaces. This was in contrast to his early 1950s domestic work for a broad cross-section of Australian society.

So what of the later houses? Despite his busy commercial practice, through the 80s and 90s, Seidler continued to design houses. They were a change of pace, an outlet for creative energies that were unsatisfied by the city office towers that required so much sustained dedicated effort on his part. The Hillside Housing, Kooralbyn, Queensland (1979-82), and Yarralumla Group Houses, Canberra (1982-84) are typical of his systemised vernacular approach using cubic shapes with single pitched roofs arranged in tilted combinations reflecting the contours, much like an expanded Mediterranean village.

The Waverly Cultural Centre, Melbourne (1988) is a literal translation with its two wave roofs which was to re-appear later in several houses, notably the Balmain and Southern Highlands houses. The Hamilton house, Vaucluse (1989-91) was a stylishly Baroque affair with its two dancing ‘S’ shaped balconies overlapping each other in a vertical sequence that recalled Borromini. Inside, with the exception of the central circular stair, everything is rectangular and square, the curves are imposed on the outside and over the entrance, so they do not interfere with the logic of the interior functions.

Seidler believed the will could accomplish anything it set its mind to. You could summarise his approach as ‘Architecture as Will and Imagination’ – to re-phrase Schopenhauer. But he is perhaps best seen as an instance of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Übermensch’ (Superman) trapped in a godless and irrational reality, destined to realise the fullest possible ‘enhancement of life’ through architecture. In Seidler’s case, the nihilism of the present is overcome by the heroic will of the architect in imposing order and geometry in an inherently unstable, disorderly world. As in ‘Superman’, the outcome depends on him alone.

Seidler’s self-absorption left little room for anything else, much less the appreciation of architecture that competed with his own work. He bitterly opposed Post-Modernism – perhaps rightly, given its shallowness and blatant misuse of history and lived long enough to see a revival of support for Modern architecture in the 1990s.

There can be no doubting that his death marked the end of an era.

There can be no doubting that his death marked the end of an era. Seidler dominated Australian architecture and for almost six decades he was the leading spokesperson, publicist, teacher and exponent of Modernism in this country. Though his work changed and evolved, his basic beliefs remained largely unaffected. What he believed, he held on to tenaciously. No one was ever left in any doubt about that.

Sometimes he was caught out – as when he deplored Sir Norman Foster’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building as “tin can architecture”, then abruptly switched his position after Foster arranged for his Gold Medal from the RISA in 1996.

While he was often a difficult and controversial personality in life, this should in no way obscure the true nature of his achievement and contribution to Australian life and architecture which was monumental and sustained over many years. With his passing, one is reminded that modern architecture, though just as valid now as it was when Walter Gropius completed his model factory for the Werkbund exhibition at Cologne in 1914, must, as the name requires, stay anchored in the present.

Seidler would have strongly approved that sentiment just as, in practice, he always sought to move with the latest technology, but saw it not as an end in itself, but as leading towards an architecture that was fully imbued with, and expressed, the spirit of its age.

Philip Drew is an architectural historian and critic who met Harry Seidler in 1974, and went on to write Two Towers (1980), and Harry Seidler: four Decades of Architecture (1992) with Kenneth Frampton. Portrait: Harry Seidler on site at the Horizon Apartments, photo by Chris Cole.

Harry Seidler was featured as a Luminary in issue #26 of Indesign, August 2006.

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