For once in his life, the operatic Harry Seidler was playing it cool. “There might have been a few antics and histrionics beforehand, but when the moment came he was quite calm and businesslike,” said Tony Caro, the trusted lieutenant who was at his side for the final showdown.
Harry Seidler walked into that meeting Australia’s most prominent architect, with buildings worth $1 billion on his books.
He walked out less than an hour later, having kissed it all – or nearly all- goodbye, for the sake of his professional reputation.
Eight months later, the man who has done more to change the shape and scale of Australian cities than anyone alive, ridiculed as “wishful thinking” his rivals’ suggestions that he may have built his last skyscraper.
“It’s too absurd for words,” he barked, before performing one of his signature bangings-down of the telephone.
But for the first time in nearly three decades, Harry Seidler has time on his hands – no major construction site in Australia has the Seidler name on its scaffolding, and he has had to sack two-thirds of the staff at his headquarters in Milsons Point, overlooking the Harbour Bridge.
Appropriately enough, that final confrontation last November was in the offices of the Lend Lease Corporation, one of Australia’s most powerful property companies, high in Australia Square Tower – the great white phallus(as his critics have called it) which was Seidler’s first attempt to reshape Sydney’s downtown skyline, back in the 1960s.
The row was over plans for Sydney’s newest mega-building, the $1 billion Darling Park complex being built on a 3 1/2-hectare site linking the city with Darling Harbour. The first office tower, the first of five planned stages of the development in a 10-year scheme, is due to open by mid-1993.
Lend Lease, the developers, had again gone to Harry Seidler for the major design work. But early last year, as the building began to sprout from the site, the company’s executive chairman, Stuart Hornery, told Seidler he was bringing someone else in – Eric Kuhn, a New York architect, was appointed”civic space consultant” responsible for the design of the building’s lobbies and plazas … everything below 10 metres from the ground.
Tony Caro says Seidler was surprised by the choice of Kuhn, who was”unknown in commercial building … the biggest thing he had done was a one-storey golf club somewhere in the (American) Midwest”. As Kuhn’s plans for the public areas of Seidler’s building developed, the surprise turned to rage
Says Caro: “(The designs) were anathema to Seidler. They reminded him of Albert Speer at Nuremberg – very static American Post-Modern architecture of the kind that was popular in the US in the ’80s … Harry just abhors that stuff.”
Seidler fought for months to persuade Lend Lease to change its mind, but at that final meeting in November, Hornery and the other executives made it clear that they preferred Kuhn’s “kinder, gentler” designs, to Seidler’s trademark monolithic marble austerity.
Seidler coolly tendered his resignation on the spot, saying that the parting was “amicable but necessary to maintain (my) professional integrity and reputation”.
Kuhn was in New York this week and not available to defend his plans, but a Lend Lease spokesman said the public areas of the building would be “much friendlier, much warmer, less hard surfaces” than Seidler’s usual designs.
By resigning, Seidler turned his back on one of the fattest commissions in Australian architecture.
Although he refuses to discuss fees, other commercial architects charge 1 per cent for designing large city tower blocks, 2 to 3 per cent for documentation and 2 per cent for supervision. The fees for Darling Park could have been up to $10 million.
Seidler went back to his office, called his staff of about 30 together and told them the news.
About 20 were to be retrenched – some were paid up until Christmas, some transferred to set up a new design office at Lend Lease. Even Caro, who had worked with Seidler for 19 years and was one of his senior associates, was laid off.
For the skeleton staff that remains, there is none of the grand projects of the past decades. Apart from a refit of the MLC Building, the only work known to be going on at the offices is putting together a book on Seidler to be published this year, and designing a couple of houses and a small office building on land one of his companies owns next to his own offices in Glen Street.
Seidler’s plans for a 43-storey apartment building towering over Surry Hills on the old ABC site have been shelved indefinitely because of the”economic climate”, a spokesman for the overseas owners says. The only other major project with which his name has been linked is an ambitious commercial development on an island in the Danube near Vienna which Seidler told Vienna’s Die Presse newspaper he was keen to tackle.
Seidler, a short, intense man who wears gold-rimmed glasses and bowties, was a refugee from wartime Vienna who studied architecture at Harvard under Bauhaus masters like Walter Gropius, whose stark Modernist style became his hallmark.
He came to Australia in 1949, and has been the country’s most prolific, controversial and most decorated architect, winning the Sulman medal five times. After the most recent award of Australia’s premier architecture prize(for Grosvenor Place), the architect/critic Neville Gruzman said Sir John Sulman would be “rotating in his grave to see his name once again linked with urban destruction”.
If the Darling Park tower does turn out to be Seidler’s swan-song -although, according to Caro, “the fire still burns brightly” he did turn 69 last month – it will be an appropriate epitaph.
Seidler’s glass and concrete skyscrapers have all been marked by their ostentatious size: apart from the Australia Square tower, Grosvenor Place and the MLC building, he has given Sydney the new Capita building, and the notorious Blues Point Tower, described by cartoonist Patrick Cook as Sydney’s first example of “screw you” architecture.
In Melbourne he designed the S-shaped Shell building (did the ‘S’ stand for Shell or Seidler? asked the wags), and in Brisbane and Perth, those cities’largest buildings – the Riverside towers and QV1 .
Although his claim to Die Presse that “only Vienna is missing” is a typical exaggeration, he has done some work overseas – a block of flats in Mexico, a club in Hong Kong and the Australian Embassy in Paris, described by former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam as “Chateau Seidler”.
Along the way he has fought pitched battles with the public, with colleagues foolish enough to espouse the decorative Post-Modern style which he detests, as well as with councils which he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars contesting in court over the past 40 years. Just a few months ago, in a dispute over his Milsons Point building plans, he likened the North Sydney Council to “a hospital orderly telling a surgeon how to hold a scalpel”.
Although Caro believes Seidler will “bounce back once the recession is over”, other architects are not so sure. One pointed to Seidler’s love of a 15th-century house he and some friends have bought in Tuscany recently.
And Seidler himself? His last major interview was two years ago, with Craig McGregor, head of visual communications at the University of Technology, who believes Seidler is “probably the most significant architect in Australian history since Francis Greenway”.
Seidler, with characteristic modesty, said: “OK, so in my 42 years here I’ve created a little impression. It will take maybe a generation or two for the message to really sink in.” And as far as retirement was concerned: “I’m gonna work till I drop.
Pub date: Saturday 1 August 1992
Section: News and Features
Word count: 1479
Keywords: Biography, Harry Seidler, Eric Kuhn, Resignations, Retrenchment
Caption: Darling Park … may be the architect’s epitaph.
Portrait: Mr Seidler … resigned for the sake of integrity.