Architectural Blatherations

The Seidler Files: Harry Seidler, Architectural Aristocrat

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The Good Oil

The Austro-Australian architect Harry Seidler dominated Australian architecture for almost fifty years. He was perhaps the world's last hard-core Modernist. He followed the century-old Modernist party line in espousing the well-being of the people who would see, live in and work in his buildings. But, like all his Modernist forebears, he wasn't that interested in asking the people what they actually wanted.

Who was Harry Seidler?

Mr Harry Seidler was a redoubtable Modernist. (Don't bother with the Wikipedia article: it's pretty poor. Try a book instead.)

Mr Seidler's credentials were enough to make a freshman architecture student go weak at the knees. As listed on his office site, Mr Seidler studied under or worked with such incandescent luminaries as Walter Gropius, Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer and Oscar Niemeyer.

Was Harry Seidler a sad old sausage?

Call him a sad old sausage trapped in an aesthetic that flowered in the tragic years between the Wars, and he replied that this was no aesthetic, but the very definition of architecture. Modernism was the end of history. Reason and science had vanquished vain style, mere aesthetics. The high-rise and the skyscraper were rational solutions to age-old problems. Simplicity of form, and truth to materials and structure returned architecture to its true heart. No longer was architecture about style for the rich: as it had been for 500 years after Brunelleschi. No: Modernism placed the user above all. Now architecture was dedicated to utility for the user: sane, rational design. As one reporter quoted him as saying:

we ask Seidler of his inspiration when designing tall buildings. He looks taken aback. Inspiration? he says incredulously. Architecture is not an inspirational business, it's a rational procedure to do sensible and hopefully beautiful things; that's all. [S. Lacey, Blues Point power, Spectrum, Sydney Morning Herald , 28 September, 2002, p 4.]

This is best definition of Modernism we have ever heard, and one that all kiddies should take to heart.

Yet, like all the other Modernists, Mr Seidler came to despise the very people he claimed to be the champion of. He rejected the least criticism from their quarter (read the full quote):

What do you expect from illiterate people? They're insensitive and uneducated so why should I take that seriously?

No career more demonstrates the intellectual poverty of Modernism than does Mr Seidler's, espousing on the one hand the cause of the common person, while at the same time despising their values. Mr Seidler was a great architect, but not for the reasons he thought he was.

Was Harry Seidler an aristocrat?

Like most of the architectural greats, Mr Seidler was a grandee. His biographer Alice Spigelman, (Almost Full Circle, Brandl & Schlesinger, 2001) uncovered an unlovely fact (at least, for him). Mr Seidler had always been a little vague about his origins. The canonical story mentioned antecedents from Czechoslovakia who emigrated to his true home of post-imperial Austria.

Some dutiful enquires by Ms Spigelman showed that Mr Seidler's paternal grandfather was not of the bluest-of-the-bluebloods, an aristocrat amongst aristocrats, but a poor Romanian timber cutter.

Ms Spigelman was quoted as saying Harry didn't want to know. He considers himself Viennese. (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 28 2001). Harry also objected strongly to people discovering his early history: from school to a British internment camp for enemy aliens during the War, then to university in Canada. He thought he would become the object of ridicule.

Why all this should be an embarrassment is utterly beyond us. Dr Garry's paternal grandfather was a clerk in the Hungarian railway during the Imperial era, and that was regarded as a great step up for a peasant family. Dr Garry's father also spent time in internment camps in the (then) USSR and Italy.

Dr Garry is damn proud of his grandfather and father. Mr Harry Seidler tried to hide his antecedents.

Mr Seidler always portrayed himself as the very essence of a European intelligentsia. Though he may have left Europe as a callow youth, studied in the Anglophone nations for a further seven years, and then moved to Australia in the late 1940s, Mr Seidler remained rooted in his European origins. He may have worked in the Antipodes for nigh on sixty years, but yet the Old Country beckoned. He held Australia in disdain:

Seidler's retort was that Australians don't measure up in international terms. There's nobody and nothing here that sends the blood pressure up he said. It's a backwater, a provincial dump in terms of the built environment.[J Rollo, The Age , 17 April 2002]

Despite his apparent contempt for the culture of his adopted country, and his on-again-off-again threats to leave it for somewhere more civilised, he never abandoned the Sydney sun for Austrian snow; preferring to be a whale in the Australian fishpond. And Harry had a big heart. His dear friend and Aussie colleague Glen Murcutt won the Pritzker prize, architecture's highest prize, in 2002. A story—no doubt apocryphal—has it that Mr Seidler wept with joy at Mr Murcutt's laureate, avowing that he would never accept a Pritzker while such a master still lived. Mr Seidler achieved his wish.

Architecture for living or sculpture for looking?

We discuss what Slate.com has referred to as architectural penis-waving elsewhere. Mr Seidler had a great way with tall buildings. No doubt about it: if you wanted 40 storeys of beautiful sculpture, Mr Seidler was your man. His skyscrapers in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane knock for dead the glass boxes of his rivals. At least on the outside.

Grosvenor Place

Dr Garry has actually worked in one of his office buildings, Grosvenor Place, in Sydney. As far as we know, this is something Mr Seidler never did. We don't believe that Harry spent a single moment slaving in the open-plan workstations that fill his office buildings from top to bottom.

A more claustrophobic space Dr Garry has yet to find. Thanks to the amount of floor space dedicated to lifts {elevators} and services, tenants had to squeeze as many people as possible into their space to justify their rents. While we have complained elsewhere about an overprovision of glass wall in office buildings, Mr Seidler had for some reason decided to provide the minimum. The low ceilings reinforced the claustrophobia. In our time there we felt like we was in prison.

The Horizon apartment building

The high-rolling residents of Mr Seidler's Horizon apartment building, also in Sydney, feel the same squeeze. A premium block of 260 apartments, occupied by some of Sydney's wealthiest trendies, and holder of the prize for Australia's most expensive apartment. Externally, a joy and delight.

The Horizon apartment building
The Horizon apartment building

Internally, perhaps not as brilliant. The tenants must be grateful they are rich enough to spend most of their nights out. Many of the kitchens are so small that some tenants find that the largest white-good they can install is a bar fridge. About the most complex meal the average cook can make is a gratin. Anything else generates too much culinary clutter for the bench space to hold.

Noise has been a major problem. So bad, in fact, that one group of sleep-deprived residents took the builder (Grocon) and the developer (Elarosa) to court.

It was all too much for Mr Seidler, who resigned from the Horizon's board in mid-2001. In general the culturati had supported his works. Mass protests against his architecture by wealthy and very well-connected people were new experiences, and not ones he cared to continue having.


Don't blame the architect, blame the standards

As a footnote, we mention some odd remarks by the new chair of the Horizon board, Mr Ewan Samway. Looking for a way to ditch the blame on anyone but the illustrious architect or builder, he said:

What we're saying is the walls make the Australian Building Code Association standards but, as far as our owners are concerned, we're not happy with the Building Code of Australia. (Domain, supplement to the Sydney Morning Herald, May 31-June 6 2001, p 2).

Elite architects often criticise the building codes as being a stifling influence on creativity. In this new twist on the theme, Mr Samway deftly faults the government for the noise problem, not the builder nor the architect. Do tell? As both of these latter worthies know full well, building standards lay down minimum performance criteria, not maximum. No one forced Mr Seidler to design to the minimum standard, nor Grocon to build to it. Lay the blame where it really lies, Mr Samway.

The last word

We leave the last word to Christopher Hawthorne, reviewing the Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture for Slate in June 2004:

Still, the book implicitly argues not only that there's a kinship among these jewels of sophisticated architecture around the globe, but that each example has more in common with the other ones here than it does with the buildings next door or around the corner—or even with the less showy bulk of each architect's work. That's a pretty detached, rarefied view of how architecture works—especially for a book that trumpets its global reach and its comprehensiveness. And it shows the degree to which the philosophy that underpinned the first International Style – and that made context such a dirty word in architecture for a good chunk of the 20th century – is back in vogue, at least among the tiny-type types listed at the back. Even as a high-end design book meant to be flipped through, the Atlas communicates very little sense of how buildings operate in the world. Wait, let me rephrase that: It communicates very little sense even that they do operate in the world. The entire thing might have been photographed on a sound stage somewhere.