Harry Seidler: Innovative modernist architect

Harry Seidler, architect: born Vienna 25 June 1923; principal architect, Harry Seidler and Associates 1948-2006; OBE 1972; AC 1987; married 1958 Penelope Evatt (one son, one daughter); died Sydney, New South Wales 9 March 2006.

by Dennis Sharp
Published: 14 March 2006, Independent newspaper, Copyright: Dennis Sharp

Harry Seidler was a key figure in international modern architecture and in the establishment of post-war modern design in Australia. He was a hands-on architect whose output was prodigious, with projects, buildings and developments in Mexico, Hong Kong, France, Austria (where one of his most recent housing projects is to be found) and Australia, where he had practised in architecture from 1948, building many private houses and tall urban buildings in well orchestrated and landscaped city centres.

Born in 1923, the second son of a prosperous Viennese family, Seidler received his early education at the Wasagymnasium in Vienna. In his youth he was a fine looking and scholarly boy, with an athletic interest in skis and bikes, as well as in travel. It seemed he had a bright future to look forward to, but this was soon threatened by external events. It was not a good time for any enterprising Jewish family in Vienna and with the Anschluss, life proved most difficult for the Seidlers.

Harry’s older brother Marcel – a talented photographer – was fortunately already in London and ready to receive him when he arrived on a boat train in 1938. He was immediately thrown into Cambridge society, staying for a time in “Barrmore”, the family home of Edith MacAlister, widow of Sir Donald MacAlister, former Chancellor of Glasgow University, and her sister Anne – a fellow devout Presbyterian – who were young Harry Seidler’s sponsors.

Internment - The Diaries of Harry Seidler May 1940 to October 1941 In three months, the 16-year-old had learnt enough English to enrol on a course of building studies at the local polytechnic but soon afterwards, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Seidler was declared an “alien” and quickly deported to the Isle of Man. There, he began to keep a diary. It is a remarkable documentary record of life in the camp, in which he recalls he did some practical building work. The diary, written in German, was published in English in 1986 as Internment: the diaries of Harry Seidler, May 1940-October 1941. Seidler recorded that 4 October 1941 was: “the greatest day of my life… the day of my release”. He was on his way to Canada and to a new beginning.

A few weeks later – still only 18 – when he began architectural training at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, he enjoyed the irony of donning Canadian army officer’s uniform in the university cadet corps. Seidler behind Walter Gropius in the Masters Class at Harvard, 1946 After gaining a first class honours degree, in 1945 he won a scholarship to the Harvard Graduate School where he joined Walter Gropius’s masterclass.

A number of his contemporaries on the course were to contribute to the march of modern architecture and design in North America; they included I.M. Pei, Paul Rudolph, Harry Cobb, Ulrich Franzen and the Canadian architect John Parkin. At Harvard, Harry also met Gropius’s Bauhaus colleague and acolyte Marcel Breuer, who was to employ him as his first New York office assistant in 1946-48. He worked on the architect’s own house at New Canaan and other Breuer designs.

This formative time was further strengthened by a period – at Gropius’s recommendation – at Black Mountain College under the former Bauhaus master Josef Albers. Seidler recalled that he learned from Albers “more about visual perception than at any architecture school. Albers made us think through spatial-visual problems… around and through objects by setting puzzling tasks [and]… exploring phenomena of vision.” This experience, short as it was, led to Seidler’s lifetime interest in collaborating with visual artists, and these would include Frank Stella and Alexander Calder.

In 1948 Seidler, excited by some bold sensuously curved projects he had seen published by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, travelled to Rio and worked for time in Niemeyer’s office, principally on a building in San José dos Campos. Later, he would collaborate with the Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi on the design of the fine Australian Embassy in Paris (1973-74) and on, as he put it, “the structural forms and technical means” of other projects.

In 1947 Seidler’s parents had left Vienna to go to Australia, and they invited Harry and Marcel to join them there. Marcel agreed but Harry declined. Nevertheless, once his parents had settled down in the new country, Harry was invited to design a house for them. He chose a plot, designed the house and stayed, opening his first office in Australia the following year.

Today, the Rose Seidler House he built in Wahroonga, Sydney, is a Historic Houses Trust Museum. It represents the epitome of the new Australian modern domestic architecture. It was soon followed by a succession of innovative house designs in various Sydney suburbs, including a house for his brother in Wahroonga and eventually a house at Killara, New South Wales, for himself. Each house design, he wrote in World Architecture in 1990, was

“a framework on which to hang very different and potentially changing images. Modern architecture could never be a style per se. It must remain in constant flux, responding not only to regional differences and social demands but also reflecting the changing visual language and the ever-expanding wealth of technological means…”

As the size of his commissions and office grew, Seidler was seen to be restating these principles in an urban context, with ambitious projects such as Australia Square, Sydney (1962-68), the MLC Centre, Sydney (1971) and a most fascinating design for the Hong Kong Club with an interior clearly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and a position in a Hong Kong square close to Norman Foster’s HSBC building.

For Seidler, the future of the Australian city was a huge contemporary architectural challenge, but one hemmed in by bureaucracy and “amazing and arbitrary rules, including design codes and density restrictions” that he claimed were “contrary to the fundamental freedom of action… for the advancement and development of architecture”. There were to be many conflicts for him with the authorities – whom he described as “arbiters of taste, imposing a dictatorship over the language of form”.

QV1: Horizontal and vertical aluminium sunshades It seems amazing, therefore, that Seidler was able to achieve as much as he did. In 1986-87, for example, his office had five major projects either on site or in project form in different Australian cities. They were working on commercial buildings in Melbourne (Westpac) (never realised), Brisbane (Landmark) (never realised), Perth (QV1) and Sydney (Casino and Hotel, Darling Harbour) (never realised), as well as an extension to his own offices at Milsons Point in Sydney.

In his tall buildings in Australia, Seidler moved away from the upturned functional cube, replacing the rectangular Bauhaus-style building with more shapely curved, sun-protected façades, many of them creating a special local ambience through thoughtful landscaping and enhanced views. Opting for tall, high-density buildings soon brought Seidler into conflicts about local, national and international issues – it seems such controversies were an essential part of his professional life. They reinforced his convictions on the continuity and regional reinterpretation of modernist principles, but also sharpened him up for a combative approach to architecture in a conservative country nervous of change.

He fully supported Jørn Utzon after his dismissal from the Sydney Opera House project and perhaps not surprisingly took up arms in the 1970s in a stance against the spurious historicist notions of postmodernism and those he referred to as the anti-rationalists. In attacking the American postmodernist architect Michael Graves in a submission to the New York Landmark Commission, concerning Graves’ proposed extenstion to the Breuer-designed Whitney museum, Seidler was reported in one newspaper as saying that postmodernism was “architectural AIDS”.

Seidler received many honours, including the Gold Medal of the City of Vienna (1990), the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal (1976) and the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (1996). In 1972 he was appointed OBE ironically later to become a founding member of the Australian Republican Movement in 1991.

The phrase “master architect” is a term often used to describe the work of those with somewhat limited talent in a profession that demands knowledge, enterprise and skill. In Seidler’s case it is an appropriate term. It signifies his architectural imagination and mastery of the art and techniques of architecture fused to a full appreciation of the formalism and structural clarity associated with pioneer Viennese masters such as Wagner, Hoffman, Olbrich and Loos.

In the 1990s Seidler was able to repay his respects to these origins with a fine and dramatic estate of social housing in Vienna, Wohnpark Neue Donau. Talking to a few of us in London at the time of his 80th birthday, he expressed great pleasure that he had been invited back to his home city, as a free man and of course as an internationally acclaimed architect. This scheme is a lasting tribute to his ideas of a modern, socially committed and ecologically sound architecture.

Dennis Sharp