Australian architect, former member of National Gallery of Australia Council  and current member of the NGA Foundation Board Penelope Seidler was the wife and professional partner of world-famous Australian architect Harry Seidler and the daughter of the Clive Evatt QC (1900–1984), a prominent barrister and NSW Labor politician.

So when Harry Seidler started the practice, was it mostly focussed on domestic architecture?

Although he was well-known, he had a minute practice and just worked in his living room by himself. It was the houses themselves that created the media. The house he designed for his parents became a sensation.

His houses sit very nicely in the landscape, but they don’t try to hide, whereas a lot of houses that came a later adopted all these dark browns, earthy tones, and a low profile.

His first houses were sort of (US East Coast) New England mid-century modern houses, this is where he’d come from just before Sydney: white, timber, though his parents’ house had a concrete floor. But by the time we build our own house (1966-67), he (and we, I might say, as I was a qualified architect by that stage) built more substantial houses, more tough, more permanent materials. And really, it’s worked: 53 years and nothing’s changed. It’s concrete, bricks, stone and wood, but only interior wood. It has a very medieval quality: durable. Modern-medieval, I call it.

Would you say as he started getting commissions for commercial buildings and was called on by Dick Dusseldorp (the founder of Lendlease), he flowered into these famous large projects, working in concrete?

Yes, it’s interesting it was another foreigner, or immigrant, who recognised his potential, and grew to trust him entirely. Harry’s buildings: first of all they’re logical, they make sense. They’re structurally pure. There was nothing capricious. Then there was the aesthetics of it, but the practical side came first. It all came together. He’d think it all through, and once he’d settled something, he very rarely changed it. We would discuss it, and I’ve never put myself forward as a particularly creative architect but over the years I’ve developed a strong sensibility, and I did have quite an influence. He’d never do anything weird without showing it to me and talking about it, which was great.

These buildings, from Grosvenor Place to Australia Square to the MLC Centre to the Horizon, are a kind of white thread holding the city together. One wishes there were more, instead of these forgettable, disposable buildings.

They are very strong designs, because they are solid, they are gutsy. They’re not fun and games. Which I think is the problem with architecture today: capricious. Buildings from time immemorial have always been about defeating gravity: the columns, the great Gothic buildings, and then the 19th century when all of a sudden you could do a lot more with steel, and 20th century, with concrete. But there were still things you couldn’t do. Now you can bloody well do anything. You can draw a silly thing, doodle on a piece of paper and build it. But it’s got no logic, it’s got no integrity. And as for glass buildings, it’s ridiculous in our climate.

Did Harry see a future where Sydney would shift to a high-rise ring of apartments around the harbour?

I think so. He always said McMahon’s Point was an ideal place for high density, also Woolloomooloo, and he used to say: in a hundred years, the low-rise buildings won’t be there anymore. In 1957, the year I met him, Harry was working with a group of young architects, most of them students at that stage, on a concept on what you could do at McMahon’s Point. Everybody would have a view, young families would have a garden, that sort of thing, an ideal city if you like. They were lobbying against the authorities who were going to re-zone McMahon’s Point as industrial– and he said rather this is the best place in the world for high density living, and he with this group of keen architectural volunteers built the model. But as everyone knows the only thing to ever emerge from this idea was Blues Point Tower (even though it was not actually in the original concept). Alas Blues Point Tower, which has been much maligned – only because it sticks out there all alone. The North Sydney Council didn’t allow more buildings there. But you could – they should be on the ridge, not at the bottom at the edge of the water. People get all upset about high buildings, but it’s just the way they’re placed so closely to and blocking each other that’s the problem. When he did an apartment complex in Vienna, he was very admiring of the city government. You could not develop until the infrastructure was already in place: the transport, the schools. Everything was designed first, then you put the people in, whereas here it’s the other way around.

You’ve been deeply involved in the art world. What you think of the extension to the Art Gallery of NSW?

I am supporting it, in a modest way financially, but I think they are going to have problems with it.  I don’t think the structure is logical and there’s too much glass. I think it’s flimsy. It’s got a lot of columns in it. I’m sure it will be very pleasant, but I think it lacks gravitas. The Art Gallery of NSW has nice harbour glimpses, but it’s a very substantial building, imposing. I’m not opposed to the site, as a lot of people are, and I am sure it will be wonderful. But in the long term they are going to have problems with that building.

What now? Do you have any causes?

I am still running the business, Harry Seidler Associates, and it’s still afloat. And recently I’ve given money to Sydney University for a chair in the history of architecture, to get a distinguished international professor to come and work with the students and give some lectures. I’ve given one sum to the University of NSW for a professor of practice, because I think it’s important for people who teach architecture should know what buildings are all about. I’m having a wonderful time now, being at home because of the Covid-19 restrictions. I used to say I never had enough time at home. When you’ve lived in a house 53 years, it gets full of stuff. I’ve been going through everything, trying not declutter so much but trying to reject things that have no place to be in this now historic house.   

This is a shortened version of the full length interview which can be found in the April / July 2020 issue of Architecture & Design magazine.

Image: Dirk Meinecke 2013. Copyright Penelope Seidler / Supplied