Harry Seidler was an architect with a singular vision. His modernist ideas would help shape Sydney both physically and socially, as he became a key figure in post-war modern design and, eventually, Australia’s pre-eminent architect.
Penelope Seidler, Harry’s widow, spoke to his biographer Helen O’Neill and modernist architecture enthusiast (and comedian) Tim Ross about personal stories and some of the battles the architect faced during his career.
Penelope is the daughter of New South Wales politician Clive Evatt. “Evatt was a well known and polarizing name,” she said. “When we got engaged, I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to change my name to Seidler’?”
The Seidler name would prove to be just as polarizing as her previous one. His biographer was initially shocked to learn he was such a controversial figure among those who knew him. “In certain quarters, there was a river of venom, and I was quite intrigued. Harry Seidler is quite a provocative character.
“To this day, he generates a high level of emotion,” said Ms O’Neill, who is the also the biographer of another influential Sydney-sider, textile designer Florence Broadhurst.
Harry Seidler was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, and narrowly escaped the Holocaust. He went to Britain and Canada but was incarcerated for the rest of World War II. After being released, he studied architecture in Canada and at Harvard University. He never intended to settle in Australia, but after visiting his parents in their Sydney home, he became mesmerised by the natural beauty of the harbour.
He was a newcomer who would change the skyline of the city dramatically. But that change did not happen without a struggle. When he arrived in Australia in the 1950s, Sydney was a different place. Conservative local councils could see little merit in Seidler’s avant gard designs and he was frustrated by Australia’s recalcitrant attitude to modernist architecture.
His widow gave some personal insights into the legal and bureaucratic struggles that Seidler became famous for. “He was consumed by frustration, it was difficult to get things done, to get things approved, and of course he hated local councils,” she said.
Things started to change for Seidler was 1957, a landmark year for Sydney. It was the year of the competition for the Sydney Opera House, and Seidler would become a champion of Danish architect Jorn Utzon’s ambitious design. He embarked on an enduring partnership with Nick Dusseldorp head of construction giant Lend Lease. It was the same year Seidler met Penelope.
Speaking with a fondness for her late husband (who died in 2006) and his work, Mrs Seidler pointed out the many things immigrants have done for Australia: “We see in the book most of the big moments in his career are enabled by immigrants. Dusseldorp gave Harry a job. They built Australia Square, which is still beautiful and has lasted the test of time, and it was done by immigrants. It was after the World War II that immigrants made an impact. Prior to the war, Australia was very much a closed Anglo society,” she said.
Mrs Seidler still lives in the heritage-listed family home in Killara, which she and her husband designed together: “I haven’t changed anything, his shoes are still on the floor. No one else is living there but me, why should I change it?”
The architect may have been contentious in his lifetime, but since his death, opinion is becoming kinder. Tim Ross said he is becoming increasingly influential: “Every Sunday, young architect students catch the train and make the pilgrimage to Rose Seidler House,” he said.
“I’ve seen a lot of his houses and they are works of art, testament to his singular vision.”
Mrs Seidler said Harry was an evangelist for modernism and never ceased to talk about it. “Harry had such strong opinions and they were never varied. He shows us, architects do leave a legacy.”