The name Seidler is synonymous with Australian architecture and is associated around the world with modernism, major artwork commissions and city shaping. And now the Seidlers are inductees into the illustrious Property Hall of Fame. (Photo supplied by Eric Sierins, 1999)
For almost six decades, Harry Seidler AC OBE and Penelope Seidler AM worked together to design some of Australia’s most successful buildings.
The Seidlers “helped to transform our modern architectural identity, reinvented the centres of our cities and reimagined how Australians live and work,” says the Property Council’s national president, Stephen Conry AM.
Born in Vienna in 1923, Harry endured many forced movements as a child during World War II, before studying architecture in Canada.
Time at Harvard University followed, with Harry’s early influencers and teachers reading like a who’s who of celebrated architects and artists: Walter Gropius, Josef Albers, Marcel Breuer and Oscar Niemeyer among them.
Lured to Australia after his immigrant parents commissioned him to design their home, Harry arrived in Sydney in 1948 with no intention of staying long term.
But he was stunningly successful from the outset.
A radical rethink of housing
In 1950, Rose Seidler House in Wahroonga was the first completely modern residence to fully express the Bauhaus philosophy in Australia. Harry’s innovative approach to domestic design responded to our informal lifestyles, and desire for open, light filled living.
Rose Seidler House offered a radical rethink of housing, winning the Sulman Award of 1951 and attracting an enthusiastic clientele.
Penelope was 18 and studying liberal arts at the University of Sydney when she met the celebrated architect in 1957. They married a year later.
Determined to immerse herself in Harry’s world on an equal footing, Penelope switched to architecture, graduating in 1964.
She joined Harry Seidler & Associates, her husband’s architectural practice, that year as architect. She later became a chartered accountant so that she could manage the practice finances.
Artist Frank Stella once observed that Harry and Penelope functioned like “synchronised swimmers” – working collaboratively and harmoniously on each project.
The family home designed by the pair – Harry & Penelope Seidler House in Killara – won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Wilkinson Award in 1967.
The couple found the rugged, sloped site in the bush – which Penelope later called an “architect's block” – and the Seidlers brought their vision to life.
Attuned to its climate, the house demonstrated how concrete could be used skillfully to create a desirable home.
Professor Philip Goad from the Melbourne School of Design says the Seidlers “captured a shift” in housing to “something warmer, more intimate, more friendly”. The Sydney Living Museums Dr Caroline Butler-Bowden says the Seidlers’ split-level and open-plan approach was “replicated across suburbs” because people “took to the way of life” expressed in modern architecture.
Taking our cities to new heights
Harry met Lendlease’s Dick Dusseldorp in 1957 and went on to design several influential buildings, including the Ithaca Gardens, Blues Point Tower and what was once the nation’s then tallest skyscraper – Australia Square.
Australia Square was the world’s tallest light weight concrete building and was almost twice the height of its closest rival.
Harry’s design of consistently-sized beams and panels enabled fast construction of one floor a week. It was the first commercial office tower to create a popular public plaza with shopping and food areas all in one.
The award-winning tower demonstrated that architectural design excellence could be delivered alongside quick construction and commercial success. And boasting 100 per cent occupancy to this day, Australia Square remains admired and relevant more than half a century after its construction.
Two decades later, Seidler’s design for Riverside Centre led pedestrians to the water’s edge for the first time, reorienting Brisbane towards its river.
Harry’s architecture elevated Australia’s cities to new heights. Harry and Penelope also showed Australians how art and architecture could intersect with carefully commissioned, site-specific artworks – like Alexander Calder’s Cross Blades sculpture at Australia Square and Frank Stella's Cones & Pillars in Grosvenor Place.
Harry’s 1990s award-winning Horizon tower in Sydney was the first to demonstrate that Australian apartments could cater to high-end living.
Illustrious and indefatigable innovators
Harry received more than 50 awards during his lifetime, including five Sulman Medals and the Gold Medal of the Australian Institute of Architects. He was awarded the Queens Royal Gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1996, made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1987 and was awarded a British OBE.
Andrew Andersons AO, an architect and friend of the Seidlers says Harry’s work was “completely unprecedented”. Acclaimed architectural photographer John Gollings AM says he “gave Australia confidence that we didn't have to be looking for something parochial”.
Following a stroke in 2005, Harry died in March 2006. His legacy includes more than 95 buildings around the world, each recognised for its unique design and innovative-engineering.
Throughout their almost five decades of married life, Penelope worked and innovated side by side with her husband and remains the director of Harry Seidler & Associates to this day.
Penelope’s contribution to architecture and the arts is both illustrious and indefatigable, supporting everything from the Biennale in Sydney to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 2008 Penelope was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her work in the visual arts and architecture; and in 2011 was presented with the Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur – France’s highest decoration.
In 2011, in an act of public philanthropy rarely seen in Australia, Penelope developed Harry’s Park, a new green space Sydney’s Milsons Point that commemorates Harry’s life and work.
Today, Penelope’s patronage and philanthropy continues to support the next generation of architects who, like her husband decades earlier, are looking to make their mark on Australia’s cities.
View the Australian Property Hall of Fame video celebrating the life and work of Harry and Penelope Seidler.