Seidler out of Sydney

[Ian Macready]

Currently running until the middle of March at the Sydney Museum is the exhibition “Harry Seidler: Painting towards Architecture” charting this late architect’s extraordinary career including his collaborations with some of the greats of the twentieth century from Frank Stella, Alexander Calder, Oscar Niemeyer, Marcel Breuer and Pier Luigi Nervi . It hardly seems necessary to hold the show in Sydney where most of his 180 buildings are gathered. But Viewport on tour has managed to snaffle a few snaps of his work outside of Sydney, while on a trip to Perth that stopped off in Hong Kong and Melbourne on the way.

First stop was the Hong Kong Club, built between 1981 – 84, which came as Seidler’s consolation prize after losing out on the HSBC HQ competition to Norman Foster. The new building controversially involved the demolition of the 1897 club, a renaissance style building, but its location right in the centre of the business district of Hong Kong was too valuable and despite an intensive conservation campaign, the members of the club voted overwhelmingly in favour of the new development which would create a 21-storey building with the first four devoted to the club. The upper floors are commercial office space, which now provide a substantial income to the club. The Club floors are free of any internal columns to allow flexible use of the space for the restaurants and bars of the clubs, while the offices above this podium level are expressed externally by the long span façade elements by the Italian structural engineer Nervi. Today, the building is overshadowed by the shiny glass tower that is the Bank of China, designed by Seidler’s classmate and friend when they were both studying at Harvard under Walter Gropius’ tuition.

From a few years later in conservative Melbourne on the corner of the CBD is a more typical S-shaped Seidler office building designed originally for Shell, the oil company. Standing outside is a piece of sculpture by his long time collaborator, the American Charles Owen Perry, originally an architect working at SOM who turned to sculpture in his mid 30s. And in the lobby behind the large granite covered triangular structural pier is another artwork, a porcelain mural by Arthur Boyd, one of Australia’s leading artists and first cousin of that other great Australian architect Robin Boyd.

And finally in Perth, and quite a few air miles later, stands Seidler’s 40 storey QV.1 Tower from 1991, which less controversially required the demolition of Fast Eddy’s, Perth’s first 24 hour burger bar. On its southern sides are its distinctive tinted double glazed windows with their combination of horizontal and vertical sun shades, which keep the AC costs down in the harsh Perth summer. And on its northern side is a two-storey plaza with a fancy waterfall and reflection pond. Another Charles Perry scultpure – a large piece of twisted red steel – is positioned outside. All this however seems a bit wasted on Perth where it has been deemed the city’s ugliest building although Seidler himself reckons the building is his finest.

For a spin through Seidler’s amazing life (but not enough critique of his work) that started in Vienna to internment (by the British) in Canada during the war, a spell with Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro and his combative relationship with the press and the planners of Australia, check out the 2013 biography by Helen O’Neill.

Hong Kong Club floor plan
Hong Kong Club front view
The staircase at the Hong Kong Club
No. 1 Spring Street in Melbourne
The Charles Owen Parry sculpture
A sketch of the S-shaped building originally designed for Shell
The triangular granite structural pier
The Arthur Boyd porcelain mural
The QV.1 building in Perth
The northern view of the QV.1
The outline plan of the QV.1
A close up of the horizontal and vertical sun shades
The red Charles O. Parry sculpture
The plaza waterfall