Architectural Blatherations

The Seidler Files: Harry Seidler, Architectural Standover Man

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The Good Oil

Mr Harry Seidler was the elder statesman of architecture in Dr Garry's own country of Australia. He was without doubt a brilliant architect: praised for more than fifty years. Even we can see that. But he was also Australia's greatest architectural bully. He spent much of his career cowing his critics into submission: think a less sensitive Gordon Ramsay. Like all bullies, he could dish it out but he couldn't take it.

In Australia, you couldn't do much else but praise him. Like most of the humourless architectural elite, Mr Seidler construed the gentlest jape and calmest cavil as a vicious assault on his entire being: the more so if it arose from one beneath his intellectual stature. Which, it would seem, was the rest of the planet.

Rather than rely on his manifest talent and works to speak for themselves; he used his power, influence and wealth to quash unfavourable comment. Of course, he didn't see it that way: Mr Seidler thought he was upholding standards. Just like Tony Soprano did.

For almost all those fifty years, Australian architects, critics and academics lived in trepidation of offending his genius. Mr Seidler rarely had to say a word. He was the chief gatekeeper of Australia's tiny and incestuous critical and academic community. A flick of his eyebrows, and your career in Aussie architecture, literature or academia was on a fast road to nowhere. No more gallery openings for you!. If you were too dim to get that hint, then a perhaps a few remarks about Australia's exciting defamation laws might leave you with second thoughts.

Constant battles

Mr Seidler was engaged in a constant battle with the hoi-polloi: uneducated and insensitive, was his favourite epithet for anyone who ventured a critique of any of his buildings. He waged many a legal battle (like this attack on the Pig'n'Whistle) against local building authorities and private individuals, whom he saw as his inferiors, bourgeois philistines working to thwart the architectural millennium. No doubt he was a better designer than many of those who opposed him, but, as they say, Taste is in the eye of the beholder.

Mr Seidler telephones a reviewer

Typical of Mr Seidler's standover tactics was his conversation with an eminent Australian architectural scholar. The scholar had been asked to review a book on Mr Seidler's work. A call from Our Harry duly followed. Mr Seidler hoped that the review would be fair-minded: very fair-minded, indeed. The academic replied that he would write as he wished. The temperature dropped. Mr Seidler asked on what basis the scholar considered himself an authority on my work. The conversation continued frosty. As a courtesy, the scholar later asked the publisher if they wished him to continue with his review. They thought better of it.

The scholar thought himself intimidated into writing a good review. We doubt if Mr Seidler thought that he was intimidatory. We're sure he thought he was simply trying to assure a competent review. But through such means did Mr Seidler cower an entire profession.

Mr Seidler telephones a professor

Many years ago Dr Garry's old department at the University of Sydney was commissioned to carry out a sun shading study of one of Mr Seidler's buildings. The local consent authority was worried about overshadowing of popular parks and streets. Mr Seidler lodged a call to the head of department at the time, Dr Henry Cowan. The report's conclusions would not be untoward, would they, asked Mr Seidler? And if they were, the department should realise that there might be consequences.

To his eternal credit, Dr Cowan was not to be cowed. He stated clearly and firmly that his department would conduct an unbiased study, and would report as the facts said. Dr Cowan heard no more from the bully.

The Patrick Cook cartoon

Like most bullies, Mr Seidler could dish out punishment, but he couldn't take it. The best known case involved this cartoon by Mr Patrick Cook, published in an Australian national weekly, the National Times, in the early 1980s.

Patrick Cook cartoon about Harry Seidler
The Patrick Cook cartoon.

We thought the cartoon was rather hard. It could apply to any number of major building developers, but not to Mr Seidler's work.

But then, that's what cartoonists are supposed to do: satirize. Mr Seidler was furious. No crocodile tears or feigned shock here. How dare he be lampooned! How dare a mere member of the public criticise his expertise, his judgement, his taste, his skill!

So he sued for defamation.

He had forgotten, though, the rules of court reporting (we owe these details to the excellent discussion by the legal firm Simpsons Solicitors ). The original cartoon had appeared on the inside of a limited-circulation elitist paper (think the UK's Guardian). When the case eventually came to court, he was mortified to find the cartoon reprinted at twice the size on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Oh, the pain! the pain!

The jury tossed the case out.

Mr Seidler appealed. To his discomfiture, Judge Glass in the New South Wales Supreme Court dismissed his appeal in 1982. In the concluding comments about this case, Simpsons Solicitors wryly quote a defence constructed by Dr Johnson and put by his friend James Boswell in a Scottish defamation case two hundred years before:

Whether there was, or was not, an animus injuriandi, is not worth inquiring, if no injuria can be proved. But the truth is, there was no animus injuriandi. It was only an animus irritandi, which, happening to be exercised upon a genus irritable, produced unexpected violence of resentment.

Bullying from the Grave

Mr Seidler's family have jealously guarded his heritage, years after his death. In a review of Helen O'Neill's biography of the great man, A Singular Vision, published in 2013, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote a few words that we think are absolutely spot on:

My theory is Harry Seidler came out of the womb spinning his own yarn. Of course, we all do this to a degree. But Seidler's desire and capacity to self-narrate were inordinate. Even now, seven years after his death, his widow Penelope and daughter Polly sustain this tradition, guarding, guiding and censoring the flow of information.

Almost every book written on Seidler is part of the tapestry and Helen O'Neill's A Singular Vision is no exception, its author handpicked by Penelope for the purpose. This is not to say it's a bad book, nor that he was a bad architect. On the contrary. The man had a towering talent and the book faithfully records that.

…The book valorises and glamorises Harry Seidler the legend. It just doesn't do anything else. So in the end it's less like a book than like some sort of shrine.

O'Neill's book - weaving it all, with assorted extras, into a single landscape - is the most complete rendering to date. Yet it is still, unmistakably, the authorised version.

This is understandable, since the Seidler machine makes it almost impossible to write anything else. If you want access to the material, you must play the set game by the set rules. But it does not make for a gripping read. Orthodoxy, along with an almost complete absence of architectural insight, gives the book a gushing politeness that verges on obsequy.