The recent death of architect Harry Seidler brings to an end a significant era of design and construction in Australia’s history. This controversial and outspoken architect can take credit for introducing European modernist architecture to Australia.
His contribution to the built environment of this country drew on his education in England, Canada and ultimately at Harvard University under the Bauhaus great Walter Gropius.
He was assistant to architect Alvar Aalto, worked with Marcel Breuer and Oscar Neimeyer, and through these European influences helped build the face of the Sydney we know.
He may not be universally lauded. Some of his buildings may even be considered downright ugly, but he is one of few architects that the everyday Australian might know by name.
Some of us might even be able to identify his buildings in our cities -“ Sydney’s Australia Square, the MLC Centre and Blues Point Tower come to mind.
In a country where architects do not enjoy the level of celebrity possible in Europe and America this is quite an achievement. The high profile, both literal and figurative, of his work means that his name and his face were often in the media.
He was an outspoken critic of the development approval process in NSW, which he perceived to be an unreasonable curbing of the architect’s artistic flair. He often spoke publicly on this issue, and was involved in numerous disputes with local councils who sought to modify his proposals.
He was also critical of Australian architecture generally, commenting to The Age in 2002 that Australia was a backwater, a provincial dump in terms of the built environment.
This, and the fact that many of his own buildings were perceived to have made their own dubiously negative impact on the environment, made him a figure to be loved or despised, admired or pitied.
In no small way Seidler made an important contribution to Sydney’s gay community and the face of gay Sydney through his design of the Horizon Tower.
This residential development looming in defiance above the gritty terraces and street-walker territory of East Sydney is today largely occupied by gay residents who enjoy the startling views over all of inner-city Sydney. It has become part of our world and, like Seidler’s name, part of the vocabulary of gay Sydney.