Kenneth Frampton: reflections on Harry Seidler

I first became aware of the work of Harry Seidler around the time that his first monograph was published. The book Harry Seidler 1955-63 became a point of reference for us in the basement office of Douglas Stephen and Partners in Wimpole Street, London. He appeared to us then as yet another distant hero of the postwar world prospering in the remote, beneficent climate of sunny Australia after the renowned achievement of his mother’s house.

Henceforth we would encounter his work from time to time in the pages of the Architectural Review. Little did I imagine then that I would meet him eventually some 20 years later in Sydney on the occasion of The City in Conflict Conference given under the auspices of the RAIA in 1983. There he was, buoyant and bow-tied, the charming but belligerent Seidler championing the reconstruction of the Sydney Opera House auditorium and seeking our support for the cause.

It was a memorable moment for me because after the landing in Sydney I was taken to the top of some nondescript high-rise by a local newspaper and asked to comment on the Sydney skyline and to select what, in my view, were the finest high-rises in what was then still a rather small-scale city. Spontaneously my eye settled on three buildings, John Andrew’s American Express headquarters and Harry’s two mini-skyscrapers of the moment, his Australia Square and MLC Centre. There followed over the next day or two a soiree in the home of Harry and Penelope with all the international visitors in attendance and Peter Myers whom I met there for the first time.

These brief encounters were enough to cement our friendship, and three years later I was involved in writing a book about his Riverside project in Brisbane. Then, a few years later, I wrote an essay for a monograph covering the first four decades of his practice. Harry Seidler - Four Decades of Architecture This I agreed to do, providing a local architectural writer (which turned out to be Philip Drew) would also be asked to contribute a piece. It was necessary of course to have seen some of Harry’s more prominent pieces, and this I was able to do, but not to the extent I would have liked. However I did manage a trip to Canberra and hence a brief visit to the tectonically brilliant Trade Group Offices completed in Canberra in 1974, which surely remains one of the most elegant, generic pieces of his mid-career, which, incidentally, should surely be protected. Somewhat later I happened to be in Paris at that historic moment when Australia first captured the America’s Cup. I recall walking past the yin yang of the Australian Embassy, which ablaze with lights and merriment was a Seidler building in a festive mood.

Surely one of the most vital aspects of Harry’s civic architecture was the important expressive role to be played by structural engineering in the generation of his form as is very evident in such works as the Navy Weapons Workshop on Garden Island, Sydney of 1985 and the Hong Kong Club Hong Kong Club in downtown Hong Kong, completed one year before with its 17 metre span column free spaces. One might think of all of these works as amounting to a kind of isostatic baroque feeding partly off the joint legacy of Oscar Niemeyer and Marcel Breuer, with whom Seidler had briefly worked in the late 40s, and off the work of Pier Luigi Nervi, who was a perennial presence in Seidler’s architecture via his top assistant Mario Desideri, who was the engineer for many of Harry’s buildings from the mid-60s onwards.

One has to remark in passing that there was another side to Seidler’s output that one often tends to overlook, namely his feeling for collective habitation and residential space, evident at its best in his highly topographic Hillside Housing, Kooralbyn, Queensland of 1982 and in his city-in-miniature in Vienna completed in 1998; the remarkable Wohnpark Neue Donau built over an eight-lane highway.

Over the years I would meet Harry and Penelope fairly regularly in New York, when they would regale me with stories Seidler’s success d’estime in Vienna, which he quite justifiably perceived as a kind of architectural homecoming, after what was an absence of virtually half-a-century, following his exile from Vienna when he was 15, following the Anschluss of 1938. Little space remains in this brief appreciation except to remark on his exceptional prowess as an architectural photographer, which was finally to be recognized with the publication of the book Grand Tour book Grand Tour in 2003, designed by Massimo Vignelli and published by Taschen. I well recall trying in vain to get a New York publisher to take this on and failing dismally. Now barely three years later it has turned into a best seller. It has been translated into seven languages and gone through at least four printings of the original English text.

The last time I saw Harry was in 2004 in his office complex at Milson’s Point on the occasion of his 81st birthday. There he was with Penelope on the balcony of the mezzanine looking down at myself and Richard Francis Jones as we entered unannounced from the street. Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin were there, on their way out presumably, pausing at our entrance on the stairway down – a set piece, as it were. We had inadvertently crashed into a meeting of the Architectural Association. The mood was festive; Harry was ebullient and beaming as only he knew how to beam, masking a latent shyness which was an integral part of his complex character. This is how I shall remember him: a debonair cosmopolitan Australian-Viennese; a globe-trekker architect of consummate talent, ability and fulfillment, but still somehow an émigré who, after nearly sixty years, with all his honors on, had yet finally to arrive.

Kenneth Frampton