This article appeared in the Sun Herald 10 May 1992 p25


but Harry's wild about me

ARCHITECT Harry Seidler's reputation casts as long a shadow as Sydney's MLC Centre late in the afternoon. Seidler is very nearly as famous for his belligerence as his buildings, but no forewarning could have prepared me for the experience of interviewing him.

Though we had not run into each other before, he started shouting a moment after we met, and he shouted some more if I failed to agree instantly with what he said - a habit of his that must have cowed countless wealthy clients over the years.

No-one is neutral about Harry Seidler. Depending on whom you ask, he is either our most brilliant architect or he is the man who has disfigured our cities with towering monuments to his monumental ego.

For his part, Seidler portrays himself as an artist constantly forced into battle with the barbarians. Frequently at war with one council or another, he seems to be driven to stir up the conflict that has kept him in the limelight almost from the time he came to Australia, late in the 1940s.

Now getting on for 68, Seidler, a small man with heavy-lidded eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses, was in his office at Milsons Point in a drab grey dustjacket, a grey-and-white striped shirt and the inevitable bow-tie.

"Come in here, it's quieter," he said, stumping through an inner door of the office to a private apartment so bare and imposing that it resembled the board room of an international conglomerate.

Seidler seated himself with his back to the view of McMahons Point, with Blues Point Tower looming up across the harbour. It didn't seem to be the moment to ask him about it.

The sight of my notebook had provoked the first signs of his frantic irritability and he was shouting at me. "Don't tell her how to do her job,"said his wife, Penelope, who had just walked into the room.

Judging by the role she was about to play, Mrs S - an architect who met him in the late '50s, - may have spent much of the time since mediating Seidler's contact with the rest of the human race.

"He was an angry young man and he still is," she told me, smiling.

The latest row erupted after North Sydney Council informed him that his plans for an office and residential building in Milsons Point would not be approved unless he took off a floor and added an awning.

Other architects, confronted with the council's insistence on sheltering pedestrians from the rain, have designed canopies and sails, awnings and colonnades which add to the district's well-planned appearance.

Seidler, in contrast, is outraged by what he sees as the council's meddling.

HARRY Seidler has never bothered to hide his contempt for the lowbrows who try to get in his way. In fact, he produced copies of ancient newspaper clippings describing ancient battles with councils which objected to his designs. Several of the buildings in question had later been awarded the Sulman, the most prestigious prize in Australian architecture.

Though Seidler has been singled out for five such awards, it doesn't mollify his restless ambition, any more than it lets him ease up, for once, on the invective inspired by the slightest opposition.

Indeed, he still sounds off on the unquestionable rights of architects.

"It is totally unreasonable for unqualified people to be the arbiters of taste in art or architecture," he said - as usual forgetting that most people have an opinion, aesthetic or otherwise, about a 60-storey building that pokes up out of the urban landscape.

It was no wonder that he had more trouble than most with local councils, I told him, since he was so unegalitarian - so un-Australian - in condemning anyone who happened to disagree with him as a "philistine".

"They tell me to hang a shop awning," he said. "Can you blame me for getting furious? What's your opinion?" I claimed to have no idea and he exploded. "Don't get so angry," said Mrs Seidler.

In fact the council had approved the plans - without the addition of a colonnade or an awning - the day before the case was to be heard in the Land and Environment Court.

But Seidler is convinced that he is having more trouble than ever getting his plans through the council: " ... as you say I rub them up the wrong way".

THAT was putting it mildly. Harry Seidler has absolutely no idea whatsoever of how to deal with people.

Like his mentors in the Bauhaus - the pre-war German movement which promoted architecture (and design) as the means of creating a socialist paradise, right here on earth - he is more concerned with abstraction than with the people who inhabit his pure spaces.

Bauhaus architect, Walter Gropius, subsequently to teach Seidler at Harvard, once designed apartments for German factory workers with rooms less than seven feet high. Mundane desires (like the desire not to live in a place like a box) were not permitted to interfere with the designs for the Modernist Utopia.

In much the same way, Seidler was always inclined to regard ordinary human clutter as something that messed up his visions.

Leading cellist Nathan Waks grew up in a Seidler house in Northbridge, Sydney.

"Harry liked to have the deciding say in the colour scheme and the furniture," Waks recalled. "Everything had to be precisely designed and organised. The walls were bare. The furniture was on very clean lines. They were very good things, I'm sure, but I do recollect it being on the clinical side ... "

That particular house, Waks added, "is on a very steep site. It's built on pylons and it sticks right out".

The criticism could be levelled at much of Seidler's work, from the houses and apartment blocks to skyscrapers like Australia Square and Grosvenor Place

The lonely buildings appear to draw attention to themselves; even the most impressive of them are more satisfying from a distance - up close the effect is bleak and overwhelming. In fact, his towers dominate the surroundings, if not the skyline.

The building he has dreamed up for the ABC site at the top of William Street, in Darlinghurst, is a 43-storey monolith which will dwarf everything around it.

"Up there, on the top of the hill, it will stick out like a sore thumb," I remarked.

"For a while, maybe", he said, suggesting that the area would soon be bristling with skyscrapers.

FOR all the straight talk, for all the colourful quotes about his real or imagined enemies, Seidler can be a bit disingenuous about the impact of his work.

"Okay," he told another reporter last year, "so in my 42 years here I've created a little impression."

In reality, of course, he has left his monumental mark on some of the loveliest sites in Sydney. But even Blues Point Tower, the city's most unpopular building, has its defenders.

"It's so unfair that it's always singled out as Sydney's most horrible building, when Sydney is saturated with awful buildings," said architect Michael Dickinson, the design editor of Belle magazine.

The unfairness is a judgement with which Seidler himself concurs.

He may be our leading architect, but he is seldom slow to describe the man-made environment in Australia as shoddy and substandard.

"Either people got it or they ain't got it," he told me. "If we compare ourselves to the best there is elsewhere, we ain't got it ...

"We seem to be going backwards rather than progressing. To develop taste and direction takes a long time. But I'm getting impatient because there isn't much time left."