Architectural Blatherations

The Seidler Files: Harry Seidler Waves His (Metaphorical) Dick

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The Good Oil

At Architectural Blatherations we have never been enamoured of very tall buildings. Dr Garry has worked in many of them, and finds them soulless and enervating places. Their raison d'etre relies more on simple hubris than vulgar economics. A great many people seem to be quite prepared to spend a lot of money to give their city the world's tallest building.

The World Trade Center catastrophe

Nothing has so demonstrated the tremendous folly of this hubris than the terrible catastrophe of the World Trade Center. These buildings were destroyed by fire (a discussion as to why they collapsed can be found here). As one New York firefighter was quoted as saying, a major fire above ten storeys is virtually uncontrollable. The trick is make sure that a minor fire never becomes a major one. If it does, all you can do is evacuate. For this reason, tall buildings are designed to withstand normal fires for two to four hours. As was discovered in the earlier bombing of the Trade Center, evacuation took six hours.

Modernist penis-waving

Blues Point tower
Blues Point tower

It seems to us obvious that all tall buildings are simply male penis waving, as Slate.com called it, whether it be the owner's, the builder's or the architect's which is so forcefully flaunted.

Harry Seidler, of Dr Garry's own country of Australia, was perhaps the world's last great Modernist, and its last great erectionist. His Blues Point Tower apartment building stands on a charming wooded promontory of Sydney Harbour, rising from the bush and trees of its surrounding parkland, soaring above the fuzz like a… well, like a huge penis, really. His 40-storey Horizon apartment building in inner Sydney also soars above the terrain.

Scientific modernism

Mr Seidler spent much of his career designing the tallest structures his clients let him get away with. We can only attribute this to his belief that the Modernists scientifically proved the economic and social superiority of such buildings.

They were wrong. Some British academics showed up the mathematical bloopers of Gropius and his colleagues some time ago. Dr Garry wrote up a simplified version in his book The Reasoning Architect. As many developers know, a 100 storey building is nowhere near as economic as two 50 storey ones on the same lot. Setback laws, the cost of bringing services so far, and the floor space required for bank after bank of lifts {elevators} all make very tall buildings marginal as profit-making ventures.

Mr Seidler's last gargantuan erection: The Grollo tower

In his desultory last years, Mr Seidler took to wandering the world with a model of his very own tallest building the Grollo Tower. The structure was originally intended to be built in Melbourne, Australia, as a tremendous monument to its builders, the Grollo brothers. As far as we can tell it had no other purpose.

An odd combination

After numerous false starts on the project in the late 1990s, Mr Seidler fell out with the Grollos. It always seemed an odd combination. Mr Seidler was the patrician's patrician: educated, debonair, graceful, sophisticated and cultivated.

The Grollos were none of these things. They were poor immigrants to Australia in the 1950s, who managed to make a great deal of money in heavy construction. (The Australian Taxation Office also thought that not paying taxes had something to do with their fortune, but the courts decided otherwise.) They have retained the rustic simplicity of their forebears, and believe that bigger can only be better.

The Grollos had the audacity to consult other architecture firms as to Mr Seidler's project. Mr Seidler, we understand, was more than upset. In 2000, when memories had faded, we were surprised to see a photo in the leading Sydney broadsheet, the Sydney Morning Herald, of a beaming Mr Seidler standing beside his tower (the 'Grollo' name, alas, no more). The message of the article was that Mr Seidler had a great gift for Sydney: the world's tallest building. If only the city had the vision to build it!

Harry Seidler's stupid science

Here is one thing we find odd. As described as a major feature of the building on Mr Seidler's firm's website, this titanic erection is a shining example of sustainable design. We quote:

City buildings consume huge amounts of energy for lighting and mechanical services, using non- renewable and polluting fossil fuel. This tower will harness the sun's energy by the use of photovoltaic devices embedded in the facades and North facing projecting apex structure. Just as plants face the sun to generate energy, so will all surfaces of this tower using silicone cell technology.

We find that last sentence really peculiar. Photovoltaic cells need direct sunlight. Shade doesn't count. The cells will only really work on the north face (remember, his building is meant to be located in the southern hemisphere). Are they saying that this building is mounted on a gigantic turntable, constantly rotating to keep its cells orientated to the sun? We're not really sure what he is on about here, with the oddball analogy to plants. Anything less like a plant than the Grollo tower, we would like to hear about it.

We did some calculations on just how effective this wonderful 'silicone cell technology' was. We figured that 50% of the wall-faces he mentions were covered in photovoltaic cells. By our back-of -the-spreadsheet calculations, these could supply about ten percent (10%) of the energy used by the building. My, that is impressive isn't it? Still, every bit counts. But we assumed that the building was roughly square in footprint, as shown in its photo. If Mr Seidler was seriously trying to maximise the use of solar energy sources, he would have designed a very thin and long building, with the long face oriented due north. This would maximise the effect of solar energy. A square-ish building is the very worst way to do it. We hate to say it, but in this case, we think that Mr Seidler was ill-advised. Either that, or—when it comes to energy conservation—he was talking out of his backside.