Harry Seidler is arguably Australia’s most internationally recognised iconic architect. For 57 years, he has been changing and influencing the shape of architecture in Australia. He is best known for buildings that have changed the skyline of Sydney’s CBD and surrounds over the past 45 years. These include Australia Square, the tallest light weight concrete building in the world at the time it was built, the 43-storey Horizon Apartments, and one of the most maligned buildings in Australia - Blues Point Tower. He has lectured extensively at universities in Australia and overseas, and has received a plethora of honours, state, national and international architecture awards.
Harry Seidler was born in Vienna on 25 June 1923, arriving in Australia in 1948 after studying in the United States. For more than five decades, he has been recognised as one of Australia’s leading architects, and as a key proponent of the modernist movement.
He has designed an extensive range of award-winning and important residential and commercial buildings, introducing new ideas and construction techniques, and making a major contribution to the architecture of Sydney in particular.
Consequently, Harry was awarded Australia’s top architectural prize, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) Gold Medal in 1976 and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Gold Medal in 1996.
His background and training are unlike that of other local Australian-educated architects. He studied at the Wasagymnasium in Vienna from 1933-38 and escaped to England six months after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. He went to Cambridge Technical College in England but was interned on the Isle of Man in 1940 and later transported to an internment camp in Canada. Released in 1941, he studied architecture at the University of Manitoba in Canada, graduating in 1944 with a Bachelor of Architecture (1st class honours).
Harry then won a scholarship to the Harvard School of Design, studying there under two of the 20th century’s most iconic modernist masters - Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus movement, and Marcel Breuer. He received his Master of Architecture from Harvard in 1946 before undertaking a design course at Black Mountain College in North Carolina with famous artist Joseph Albers.
During this period, Harry was also fortunate enough to work with more of the architectural professions biggest names. In 1945-46, Harry worked as an assistant to Alvar Aalto at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He followed this with a stint as chief assistant to Marcel Breuer from 1946-48 before travelling to South America to work with modernist master architect Oscar Niemeyer.
He decided to live and work in Sydney in 1948 after visiting his parents, who had re-located to the city. He formed his own private practice in 1949. Harry Seidler & Associates is today based at 2 Glen Street, Milsons Points - a building for which Harry received the RAIA Sulman Award for public or commercial architecture. Fellow tenants in the building include some of Australia’s best known architects - Alex Popov, Tony Caro, Bob Nation and Mick Viney.
Over the past 57 years, Harry has been responsible for some of the most important, innovative, commented upon, multiple award-winning, and controversial buildings in Australia.
1. Residential - houses:
Harry’s first and best known house was one commissioned by his mother - the Rose Seidler House at Turramurra (1948) on Sydney’s North Shore. The glass walled, elevated cubiform house was revolutionary, introducing the Bauhaus principles of Gropius and Breuer into Australia for the first time. He continued to use these principles in following years, designing many houses in either the box-like form of Le Corbusier or the ‘H’ plan of Marcel Breuer. From the 1960s, he was also known for his use of geometric curves, in both his residences and public and commercial buildings.
He is best known for houses in NSW such as the Hutter House in Turramurra (1952), the Meller House at Castlecrag (1950), the Muller House at Port Hacking (1963), the Gissing House in Wahroonga (1971-72) the Hamilton House in Vaucluse (1989) and the Berman House at Joadja in the Southern Highlands (1996).
2. Residential - apartments
Through his apartment building projects, Harry also introduced new design and construction ideas to Sydney and Australia. His apartments were based on European and American apartment types and featured split access, interlocking units with a divided plan, double height living rooms and mezzanine floors.
Harry is best known for apartments including Ithaca Gardens Apartments in Elizabeth Bay (1960), the still controversial Blues Point Tower apartments in McMahons Point (1961), Arlington apartments at Edgecliff (1965-66), Horizon apartments in Darlinghurst (1999), and the Cove Apartments at the Rocks (2004).
2. Commercial/civic/public buildings
Harry’s office building developments in Australia and overseas are of major significance. In Sydney, they were in many cases the first major buildings to contribute usable, public spaces back to the city, with the integrated development of office and retail space, parking and a public plaza.
One of the best known of these is Australia Square (1961) in Sydney’s CBD. He is also well known for Lend Lease House in Sydney (1961), the MLC Centre in Sydney (1972), the Barton Offices in Canberra (1973), the Ringwood Cultural Centre at Ringwood in Victoria (1978), Grosvenor Place in Sydney (1982), Waverley Civic Centre at Waverley in Victoria (1982), Capita Centre in Sydney (1984), Shell Headquarters in Melbourne (1985), the QV1 Office Tower in Perth (1987), Riverside Centre in Brisbane (1987).
Harry Seidler’s awards and honours are too numerous to list in full.
He is a Life Fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) and has received more than 40 RAIA awards for his work over the years, including five RAIA Sir John Sulman Medals for his public and commercial buildings and four RAIA Wilkinson Awards for residential architecture.
In 1976, he was awarded Australia’s highest architectural honour - the RAIA Gold Medal.
He received an Honorary Fellowship of both the American Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects, with the latter awarding him their highest honour, the Royal Gold Medal, in 1996. He was elected Member of the Académie d’Architecture de France in 1982 and was awarded Austria’s highest honour, The Cross of Honour for Arts & Sciences, 1st Class, in 1995, together with the Gold Medal of the City of Vienna in 1989.
He has received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Manitoba, Canada, the University of Technology in Sydney, the University of NSW, and the University of Sydney, as well as the Golden Decoration for Services to the Viennese State.
In 1972, he was awarded an Office of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) at a ceremony in Government House in Sydney. Fifteen years later, he was awarded Australia’s highest honour, the Companion of the Order of Australia from the then Governor General Sir Ninian Stephens.
Harry has won more than 40 awards in Australia’s premier architecture awards - the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) National Architecture Awards program for projects across Australia, as well as Vienna in Austria.
In 1987, he won the nation’s top public architecture award for public or commercial buildings, the RAIA Sir Zelman Cowan Award, for the Riverside Centre in Brisbane.
Since 1951, he has won NSW’s top architectural prize for commercial and public architecture, the RAIA Sir John Sulman Award, an unprecedented five times. He received the award for: Rose Seidler House in Turramurra, now known as Wahroonga (1951); Australia Square in Sydney’s CBD (1967); Harry Seidler & Associates Offices in Milsons Point (1981); the MLC Centre in Sydney’s CBD (1983); and, Grosvenor Place in Sydney’s CBD (1991).
He has also won NSW’s top architectural prize for residential buildings, the RAIA Wilkinson Award, four times for: Ski Lodge at Thredbo (1965); Muller House at Port Hacking (1966); Seidler House at Killara (1967); and, Horizon Apartments in Darlinghurst (1999).
Equally importantly, he has received multiple awards for major projects across Australia. These include:
- Queensland: RAIA Robin Dods Triennial Medal also for the Riverside Centre in Brisbane.
- Victoria: RAIA Architecture Medal for Ringwood Cultural Centre; and RAIA Commercial Architecture Award for Shell House in Melbourne.
- Western Australia: RAIA Commercial Architecture Award for ARCA Showroom in Perth; and, RAIA Commercial Architecture Award for QV1 Office Tower in Perth.
- Northern Territory: Architecture and Arts Award for Paspaley House in Darwin.
- ACT: RAIA Award for Lakeview Town Houses at Yarralumla; RAIA ACT 25 Year Award for Edmund Barton Building.
For the past 30 years, Harry has shared his architectural knowledge through academic positions with a number of key universities in Australia, the United States, Switzerland and Canada.
He has taught as a visiting professor at Harvard University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Virginia, the University of NSW, the University of Sydney, Eidgenossische Technische Hockschule in Zurich, and the University of Technology in Sydney.
In 2000, he was appointed Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney.
Projects: Examples of Seidler Buildings of Australian Significance
1. Australia Square
Australia Square is one of the first modern international-styled office towers in Australia. It established new principles in design and construction through its distinctive circular form and the creation of a large public open space at ground level. At the time it was built, from 1961-1967, the tower was the world's tallest light weight concrete building.
The public space is established by a plaza that is set above street level and steps down throughout the site and defined on the east by a six-storey rectangular building acting as a foil to the circular tower. The public areas include cafés, fountains, artwork (Le Corbusier tapestries, Calder Sculpture) and as one of the earliest examples of the development of comfortable public open space on private land.
The structural system was developed with one of the world's leading engineers, Pier Luigi Nervi, and features technological advances of the time such as patterned ribbing and tapering exterior columns in quartz-faced pre-cast concrete as permanent formwork. The tapering columns add emphasis to the height of the tower, further emphasising its elegance.
The circular form was structurally extremely efficient and the consistency of floor plan, the use of pre-cast façade and in situ core lead to floors being erected in five working days, which set new standards in office tower construction.
Australia Square Tower is an elegant building which has maintained its aesthetic appeal and is still regarded as a landmark building in Sydney and an icon of Australian architecture.
2. Rose Seidler House
Rose Seidler House (1948-1950) is one of the most uncompromising modernist houses in Australia.
It incorporates the modernist features of open planning, minimal colour schemes, modern conveniences, appliances and labour saving devices that were so new to Australia at the time.
Its original furniture by Saarinen, Hardoy and Eames forms one of the most important post-war design collections in Australia.
It was awarded the RAIA Sulman Medal in 1952.