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Harry Seidler

Harry Seidler (1923–2006) is an icon of Australian architecture. When he moved to Australia in 1948, he brought international modernist ideas and methodology, almost immediately influencing the shape of local architecture. He is often credited with bringing modernism to Australia.

Australia Square, George Street, Sydney

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Australia Square, George Street, Sydney by architects Harry Seidler & Associates, October 1968. Image courtesy State Library of New South Wales: PXD720/90.

Seidler believed that architecture was an art form; art that flows out of simple yet functional design. He was committed to making a better physical world, wherein architecture is modern, socially aware and ecologically sound. His work is considered ground-breaking for its design and advanced construction techniques.

Seidler is arguably best known for changing the skyline of Sydney's CBD and contributing useable, public spaces to the city. Australia Square (1961), the world's tallest light-weight concrete building at the time, is a case in point.

For more than 50 years, Seidler produced distinctive, bold modern architecture, including houses, apartments, offices and embassies—in Australia and internationally. While some designs were criticised for being out of place, Seidler received numerous awards and honours. In addition to his architectural work, Seidler travelled and lectured extensively.

Seidler's early life

Seidler was born in 1923 to a prosperous family in Vienna, Austria, where he attended the prestigious Wasagymnasium. Fascinated by new things, the young Seidler developed an early interest in architecture. He keenly observed the design of every room of his apartment home and marveled at the construction of the Vienna Hochhaus (city high-rise).

In 1938, Seidler left Vienna and joined his brother in England to escape the Nazi Anschluss . Here, he studied building and construction at Cambridge Technical College. However, in May 1940, aged 15, he was interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien, then sent to a prisoner of war camp for 18 months in Canada. His diary from this time was later published as Internment: the diaries of Harry Seidler, May 1940 October 1941. It was a traumatic experience that contributed in no small part to Seidler's tenacity and world-view.

Modernist' education

Portrait of Harry Seidler with Walter Gropius.

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), Portrait of Harry Seidler with Walter Gropius, 1954, photograph: 32 x 29.8 cm. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic- an12660573.

Released from internment in 1941, Seidler began architectural training at the University of Manitoba,Winnipeg, Canada. After graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture, he won a scholarship to the Harvard School of Design, studying under Walter Gropius, founder of the revolutionary Bauhaus school of design, and his protege, Marcel Breuer; two of the 20th century's most iconic modernist masters.

In Gropius' Master Class, students were urged to create a better man-made world. They were taught that architecture must be socially responsible; a marriage of social use, aesthetics and technology. For Seidler, this became a fundamental design principle from which he never deviated.

In 1945, Seidler worked briefly for modernist Alvar Aalto before undertaking a design course at Black Mountain College in North Carolina with artist, Josef Albers. Around this time, he also worked briefly for Breuer in New York, and later with Oscar Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro. Working in Rio's warm climate and learning about sun protection would soon prove valuable. Seidler's next destination was Sydney, Australia – where his parents had relocated after the war.

The captive client' in Australia

Seidler's first and best known house was built in Turramurra, Sydney. It was commissioned by his mother, Rose Seidler; an irresistible captive client. It's glass-walled, open plan, flat-roofed, elevated cubiform is still considered an uncompromising expression of the Bauhaus principles. In 1951, it won Seidler the first of many awards; the prestigious Sir John Sulman Medal.

[Rose] Seidler House

Seidler, Marcell (1919-1977), [Rose] Seidler House 1935-1966, Royal Australian Institute of Architects, New South Wales Chapter. Image courtesy State Library of New South Wales: PXA 6900.

For a young, ambitious and identity-seeking Australia, the Rose Seidler House created a sensation. Such a dramatic use of sun, light and air had never been seen before; it was a clear response to its time and place.

Seidler established his business in 1949 and filled numerous commissions for the glass box' house over the next decade. However, the attention attracted by his houses was not always positive, and he was often drawn into conflict with local councils over design issues. Such clashes continued throughout his career.

In 1958, Seidler married Penelope Evatt. He built their home on a hand-picked block of land in Killara, where they two raised their two children, Timothy and Polly.

Growing buildings ... and business

From the 1960s, Seidler's commissions grew to include apartment buildings and commercial offices. His business, Seidler & Associates, peaked in the mid-1980s, employing 42 people to work on five major projects.

Seidler frequently collaborated with artists and engineers, such as Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Max Dupain, Sol Le Witt, Pier Luigi Nervi and his mentor, Joseph Albers. It was a style of working wherein new design and construction ideas were forged. Notably, Seidler's designs evolved to include the use of geometric curves, which began to feature in his work.

Seidler consulting with Pier Luigi Nervi in Rome, 1972

Seidler, Penelope (b. 1938), Harry Seidler consulting with Pier Luigi Nervi in Rome, 1972. Image courtesy of Harry Seidler & Associates.

Seidler's approach to urban design was distinctive in its boldness. He opted for tall, high-density buildings that afforded public spaces and incredible views at time when such ideas were new to Sydney and Australia. Often misunderstood, many Seidler buildings attracted controversy, and in some cases harsh criticism.

Residential apartments

Seidler's first major apartment commissions were the Ithaca Gardens Apartments in Elizabeth Bay (1960) and the Blues Point Tower apartments in McMahon's Point (1961). Other notable examples include the Arlington Apartments at Edgecliff (1965–66), Horizon Apartments in Darlinghurst (1999) and the Cove Apartments at the Rocks (2004).

The Seidler apartments were a dramatic shift away from suburbia to city living.

Blues Point Tower

Seidler, Harry (1923-2006), Blues Point Tower, 1958, architectural drawing. Image courtesy State Library of New South Wales. PXD 613 tube 147

Blues Point Tower was originally proposed as part of an urban design scheme for high density housing providing all residents with views and gardens. However, it was the only building of the scheme that was realised. Finished in 1961, Blues Point Tower was the tallest apartment block in Sydney. Although, in the 1980s, it was heavily criticised for its prominent placement on Blues Point, Seidler stood by it as one of his best buildings, with its surrounding open spaces and spectacular harbour views.

Seidler also developed the award-winning Wohnpark Neue Donau in his home city, Vienna (1993)—virtually a whole suburb. This dramatic estate of social housing comprises 850 apartments, most with water views of the Danube, built across an eight-lane highway.

Commercial buildings

Seidler's commercial buildings are significant for their inclusion of useable public space that integrates office and retail areas, parking and public plazas.

MLC Centre

Dupain, Max (1911-1992), MLC Centre, Sydney, 1972. Image courtesy Harry Seidler & Associates.

Well-known examples include the MLC Centre (1972) in Sydney, the Australian Embassy in Paris (1973), the Hong Kong Club (1980), Grosvenor Place (1982) in Sydney, the QV1 Office Tower (1987) in Perth, Shell Headquarters (1989) in Melbourne, the Riverside Centre (1987) and the Riparian Plaza (2005) in Brisbane.

It is Seidler's Australia Square (1961–67) however, that is arguably the most significant: at the time, it was the world's tallest lightweight concrete building; it employed a radical circular design set around a public plaza; and its construction broke new ground by using pre-cast concrete for its facade and core. With one of the world's leading engineers, Pier Luigi Nervi, Seidler changed the face of Sydney's CBD and created an icon.

Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre

Meinecke, Dirk (b. 1965), Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre, Sydney, 2007, Exterior of Centre. Image courtesy Harry Seidler & Associates.

The last public building designed by Seidler was the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre (2007) in Ultimo, Sydney. It has a dramatic wave-like shaped roof, and makes use of natural light and ventilation.

Other curves along the way

For 30 years, Seidler taught architecture in Australia and overseas, including the University of Sydney, Harvard University and the University of British Colombia. He also travelled extensively, and photographed what he considered to be '...the peak achievements in architecture and the built environment ... around the globe'. A selection of images, along with Seidler's commentary is published in The Grand Tour (2003).

Seidler is also known for fearlessly expressing his views, publicly. He was openly contemptuous of bureaucrats and administrators; he marched against the dismissal of Sydney Opera House designer, Jørn Utzon; he denounced post-modernism as architectural AIDS'; and as recently as 1998, he accused Australian architects of not measuring up to international standards.

Seidler's architectural journey spans decades of commercial and critical success. Among his awards and honours, are five Sulman Medals, four Wilkinson Awards, seven various honours from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, the Royal Institute of British Architects Royal Gold Medal (1996), a Companion of the Order of Australia (1987), and he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (1992).

Harry Seidler, Australia Square, Sydney

Dupain, Max (1911-1997), Harry Seidler, Australia Square, Sydney, 1961-67. Image courtesy Max Dupain & Associates.

In April 2005, Seidler suffered a massive stroke, from which he never fully recovered. He died 9 March 2006, aged 82. His beloved wife, 'Penel' still resides in the iconic Killara home, and manages Seidler & Associates' finances.

Useful links

Select biography

Select collections

Seidler's buildings

Print references

  • Harry Seidler: The Master Architect Series III, introduction by Dennis Sharp (1997), The Images Publishing Group Pty Ltd, Victoria and Craftsman House, NSW
  • Harry Seidler visual chronology' p.388-425, from Frampton K and Drew P (1992), Harry Seidler: Four Decades of Architecture, Thames & Hudson, London
  • Seidler H (2003), The Grand Tour Travelling the World with an Architect's Eye, Taschen, Kln
  • Spigelman A (2001), Almost full circle. Harry Seidler: a biography, Brandl & Schlesinger Pty Ltd, NSW

Last updated: 31 July 2009
Creators: Rachel Roberts Communications