Colin Griffiths: reflections on Harry Seidler

I went to work for Harry in 1953. He was fairly notorious from press publicity but was very active in promoting modern architecture and design, giving talks, arranging exhibitions and upsetting some of the profession.

But I was quite smitten, as any impressionable 19-year-old student should be, by the early houses that I had managed to visit – some completed, some intriguingly still in construction.

On recent occasions I have been asked to talk about those early years which were frantically busy with lots of projects, quite a lot of building, the first book, the RAIA Exhibition – and me trying to do a part-time course at ‘The Tech’.

I’ve now been endeavouring to make some evaluation of those times when Harry’s training, his experience and increasing opportunities here formed the plasma for his remarkable achievements and success.

He always demanded to build. Realisation was far more urgent than just drawing. The office in its several locations always demonstrated to clients and others that a deeply held architectural conviction and its philosophy was on show. We always enjoyed good space, views and excellent daylight in all the offices. As the projects increased in scale, staff numbers grew and so the demonstration culminated in the Glen Street Office – the ideal space, structure, working environment continuum.

Harry liked – no – depended on the comfort and familiarity of working colleagues and consultants. He was bewildered when anybody left, he just couldn’t fathom it.

But those working associations with engineers like Peter Miller and David Norman and many other designers and specialists were caught up in the intense design activities.

Harry would relentlessly chase, demand, push and exhaust everyone to get the right consistency, cohesion and interdependence of space, structure, services and constructability – and that was preliminary design. The truth was in the fact that the design was done, resolved and didn’t need to change.

Then there were favoured builders: the kind and forgiving Peter Cussel, the builder of many early houses; and the young duo, Grimson and Rose, who appreciated all the drawings and details and solidified our commitment to practical construction. Harry liked people who knew their stuff and delivered.

I believe the high level of technical interaction between the Seidler office and the construction, engineering, and systems and methods of Civil and Civic was mutually beneficial in refining, informing and extending design and construction potential.

Max Dupain was a collaborator of another dimension and magnitude. Both he and Harry were more than guarded, or perhaps just not able to express emotion other than profound admiration and respect for each other’s artistic professionalism.

Harry would do endless studies of models or completed buildings for composition angles, shadow angles, times of day. To be an observer as he and Dupain sparred until they finally agreed on each set-up was to witness two absolutely dedicated professionals at work. Harry drove many officers of the Department of Meteorology to despair wanting forecasts for perfect weather.

But the design journey from concept sketch to design resolution to perspective to model to the embodying photograph culminated in art and achievement at the most significant and satisfying level.

The factor that underpins a lifetime in design was Harry’s eye. It was incisive, informed, refined and dominant. He would see the line, the shape, the pattern, the fluency, the flight, the spatial connects and interconnects, the logic, the impulse amongst all the thinking, sketching and exploring and then provide the developing design its essence and life, by the right word or pencil stroke.

I remember at the time of the announcement of the Opera House Competition everyone was asking who was this Jorn Utzon? Harry came back to the office, went to his bookcase, pulled out a book, opened it up at some modest houses and said, ‘That’s Utzon’.

His eye was always informed.

Colin Griffiths