by John JervisMar 27, 2020
When in a 1994 interview, Harry Seidler (1923-2006), a famous Australian architect who referred to himself as "a torchbearer of Modernist Architecture,” was asked about his wife, Penelope Seidler, his response was quite telling: “She was a student at the University of Sydney doing various art subjects and after we got married, she said. 'You know, I am going to change to architecture.' Secretly, I thought—well, it will take six months or a year and I was sure she would give it up… But not so—she persevered and did a whole five-year course and I think her knowledge of history and architecture is more mature and deeper than mine. She has been a great support and a great critic."
Penelope Seidler is an architect, passionate art collector, and patron of the arts, and she has been a member of the New York Museum of Modern Art's International Council for 50 years. Penelope is a member of the Evatt dynasty of successful lawyers and politicians—her father, Clive Evatt, served as New South Wales's Minister for Education, Tourism, and Housing during and immediately after the Second World War, while her uncle, Herbert Vere Evatt, was the Justice of the High Court of Australia, Minister for External Affairs (1941–49), and President of the United Nations General Assembly from 1948 to 1949. Penelope's older sister, Elizabeth Evatt, became the first female judge of an Australian federal court.
Penelope married Harry Seidler at the age of 20 in 1958, earned her bachelor of architecture from the University of Sydney in 1964, and joined Harry Seidler & Associates the same year. In 1981, after completing her second degree as an accountant Penelope became her husband’s office business manager, the role she maintains to this day. In her interview with Alice Spigelman in 2001, Mrs. Seidler said about her husband: “I believe in what he is doing. He is the brains of the whole thing; he is the creator who makes it work architecturally. But then, I like to think he wouldn’t be able to do it without me. I suppose my role is fairly political, mediating between clients and Harry." In 2006, Penelope purchased the land adjacent to the Seidler office building on Glen Street in Milsons Point near the northern foot of the Harbour Bridge to prevent it from being developed into a multi-storey office building. A few years later, this site, perching right over Sydney’s Luna Park and enjoying spectacular views over the city’s skyline and the harbour, was transformed into Harry's Park, designed by Harry Seidler & Associates, and adorned by a sculpture of interconnected blue bars designed by Australian artist Robert Owen, who called it Tracing Light—for Harry 3D/4D.
In 2011, while developing a touring exhibition, Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture, I interviewed Penelope at her home, one of Harry’s mid-career masterpieces in Killara, north of Sydney. Our conversation that follows is published in this form for the first time on the occasion of the decade-long tour’s upcoming last stop at the National University of Singapore from February 16 to March 8 and coinciding with Seidler’s centennial year. Penelope Seidler spoke about her decision to study architecture shortly after marrying Harry, her role in designing the Killara House, commissioning Alexander Calder to produce a sculpture in front of Australia Square, insights about Harry’s collaboration with photographer Max Dupain, lessons young architects should learn from Seidler, and the role of art in Harry’s work and her own life.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: How did you and Harry meet?
Penelope Seidler: The house of my parents was in the same neighbourhood where his parents lived and I heard about the Rose Seidler House he built for them a lot. I also heard his name. I first met him at a party… He was with another girl… Then I saw him again for dinner and just became fascinated with his story and his love for architecture. I was a student then at Sydney University, studying liberal arts. It was a very interesting time. I was involved in the university’s theatre and newspaper, and such people as Robert Hughes and Clive James who became famous critics and writers were in my year.
VB: You studied liberal arts, but you come from a family of lawyers. Was it hard to resist?
PS: Well, my brother and my sister both studied law. My memories of my sister doing it are that she was studying all the time, always busy. But I didn’t want to do all that (Laughs). I wanted to do liberal arts. I didn’t finish it because I got married. I met Harry in May 1957 and we got married in 1958 on my birthday, which is the 15 of December. I was in my second year then, but just two months later I switched to architecture. Harry talked about architecture all the time and all his friends talked about architecture. You know how it is with architects… So, I decided it was no good for me to sit and listen most of the time. I wanted to be equal. And he convinced me that I could do it. He was always very supportive and even bought me a T-square. (Laughs)
VB: Were you involved in Harry’s projects?
PS: Of course. I went to the office after classes and took part in the discussions. We used to live in a small apartment in the city and on weekends started looking for land to build our own house here in Killara. We found this sloping land. We saw that it would be difficult to build here, but we liked it. It took us two years to convince the person who owned this land to sell it to us. There was nothing here. It was right at the time of my graduation from university in 1964.
As far as my involvement in the design of the Killara House, the fact is—he would draw it all. The only drawing I did was an electrical plan. We talked about it a lot and I made a few strategic decisions about the locations of some of the spaces. I certainly built the model. But then Harry would come and work on it too, so we really built it together.
Harry wanted this house to be his manifesto. He also wanted it to be more permanent, which was different from his early houses. This was the time when he realised that his first wooden houses with shallow canopies were not suitable for the sunny Australian climate. This became a good opportunity to work with concrete on a major house. And because it was his own house everything had to be perfect, absolutely everything. We were not in a hurry. It took two years to build it. We moved in here on his birthday on June 25 in 1967. The pool was built later, in 1974.
VB: You said that among all Harry’s projects, it is this house that gave you the most satisfaction. What do you like most about it?
PS: Every time I see it, I am very happy. I feel very comfortable here. I park my car, walk down 27 steps, cross the bridge, and it is a different world here. I like the flow of space, and how the trees surround it, and it is true that it is very easy to maintain. I don’t want to move from here. We got it right. I love this place—the terrace by the kitchen where we are sitting now. In the summer we would eat here every night and it is beautiful to sit here in the winter because of the low sun. And you can hear the waterfall down below. I like the mediaeval quality of this house. It is like walking into a mediaeval castle. It is very solid and tough. It is like a fortress. The Seidler fortress.
VB: Were there many schemes for this house?
PS: No, just one. He knew what he wanted.
VB: Could you talk about the role of art in Harry’s architecture?
PS: Harry was always interested in art. He always thought of particular art pieces to be fit for very specific locations. I think the pieces we have in this house work very well. He wanted to have a major artwork in every project and he was thinking about these art pieces from the very beginning. For example, we went to Helsinki in 1966, to buy furniture and some rugs. We brought the dining table frame from Switzerland. After the house was finished it took us two to three years of travelling around the world to find the right artworks. We have many pieces here by the artists that Harry worked with. There are pieces by Alexander Calder, Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Josef Albers, Kenneth Noland… The bronze sculpture by the bridge is by Charles Perry. There is a sculpture in the foyer by Norman Carlberg on a concrete pedestal that is permanently growing out of the concrete floor so it is integral to the house.
VB: Art plays a major role in your life. Could you talk about your passion as an art collector?
PS: I have loved art since my childhood. Now I follow art more than architecture. Harry liked very different art and he wouldn’t always agree with my choices. Art was the only subject that we ever disagreed about. So, I became an art collector after he died, really. I started buying aboriginal art. He would buy art to put in a place. He liked art in relation to architecture and not as a collector. I still buy art to put in a place… Except I have run out of places now. That’s why I got another apartment (Laughs).
VB: For Harry modern art and architecture was really a crusade. He continuously studied the latest projects, met the leading artists, architects, and engineers, and collaborated with them. He travelled the world to see projects firsthand. He gave lectures on his own work and organised talks by the architects he respected. Could you talk about his main intentions in exploring modern architecture?
PS: Well, he followed the ideology of the modern movement—to make the world a better place. He was always very interested in social housing. He thought that many building designs were capricious, irresponsible, wasteful, and not practical. Particularly in the later years he became disenchanted with a lot of architecture. He was a very convinced traditional modernist. But he didn’t have a frozen style. Modernism is a philosophy, really. This house is an exponent of it, and I think all buildings he did are exponents of it. He always designed having the totality of the project in mind. He always thought of structure first. He would never start with a facade. That would be inconceivable.
VB: Let’s talk about some of his collaborations with artists. You travelled a lot with him to meet them all around the world. This must have been quite an experience, right?
PS: It was in 1960, when Harry was given the first major commission to design the Australia Square office complex here in Sydney. It took a long time to happen. It was given to him by the Dutchman developer Gerardus Dusseldorp, the founder of Civil and Civic Contractors which later became the Lend Lease Corporation. Later he commissioned Harry for many large-scale projects. Being immigrants from Europe, Harry and Dusseldorp had a rapport. Harry always said that no local would have done such a daring project. He did see something that others didn’t. But Harry then did not have enough experience, so the developer wanted him to collaborate with a major international architect. At first, Harry asked I.M. Pei, who was his classmate at Harvard, to work on this project together and we went to New York to meet him. But in the end, Dusseldorp said that we didn’t really need I.M. Pei. By then he trusted Harry’s own experience. So, the project proceeded and when the first low building on treelike supports went up Harry thought the details were clumsy. So, when it was time for the tower to go up, he said to the client: “If you really want it to be done right, I will go to Italy and meet with Pier Luigi Nervi.”
VB: And then he brought in Alexander Calder for a major artwork in front of it.
PS: That was another trip. By then I had already graduated and we went around the world for a month, meeting with artists. It was fabulous. We went to see Henry Moore in England, but he said he didn’t care where his sculptures went. Then we saw Alexander Calder’s foundry in France and went to see him in Connecticut. We also wanted to see Isamu Noguchi but couldn’t get in touch with him. He travelled between Japan and New York a lot. Then, on our way home we stayed in Hawaii to see Russian-born American architect Vladimir Ossipoff. As we got off the plane, we went to a car rental place. Right before our turn, Noguchi’s name was called. That’s how we met. We also saw an Italian-born American sculptor, Harry Bertoia, and a few others.
VB: How did the Hong Kong Club commission come about?
PS: Harry was invited to take part in an architectural competition for HSBC Headquarters there. Six contestants were invited, including Norman Foster, Hugh Stubbins, and SOM. The bank flew them all to Hong Kong in the summer of 1979. I couldn’t go because I was doing my business degree then. I remember that the winner, Norman Foster, was announced just one day after the competition was due. Stubbins and Harry complained to the competition organisers. He said that they would not even have had time to open the drawings. How could they decide so quickly? So, they seemed to have their minds made up before the competition entries arrived. But during the competition, Harry and the representative of the bank became very close. He travelled the world visiting projects built by the six architects and when he was in Sydney he came to this house for dinner. It was just the three of us. Shortly after Harry lost the competition, he sent a telegram saying: “Sorry about the bank, but would you be interested in doing the club, the Hong Kong Club?” He was the head of the club. So, that’s the story about the club commission and it is more or less the same design as for the bank, but scaled down. Within just a few days after we got this project Norman Foster called to congratulate us.
VB: How was Harry as a person?
PS: Quiet…shy, really. Not particularly good at cocktail parties. He would always go sit in a corner with a book. He really liked to talk about architecture. And travel. Stories about cities, buildings…
VB: How was his collaboration with photographer Max Dupain?
PS: Max was a great photographer who collaborated with Harry for most of their careers. And great photographers know how to take pictures. But Harry would take all the photos of his buildings himself, then take them to Max and tell him exactly how every photo should be taken—from what point, at what angle, where the sun should be, and so on. And then he would complain to me: “Oh, Max is so difficult; he doesn’t listen to what I say!” And then he would come and say: “You know, Max found a spot that I haven’t thought of before.”
VB: So, did they travel together to other cities to take pictures?
PS: Oh, yes. He wouldn’t dream of letting Max do it alone. (Laughs) Yes, I know what you mean. If you really look at it, yes, he was a control freak.
VB: Did Max complain about this?
PS: Oh! They both complained to me about how terrible the other one was. But they really liked working with each other. They were very good friends.
VB: What was your role in the office and did you take part in any architectural design discussions?
PS: Sure, I took part in most discussions. I have a feeling for good architecture. But I never considered myself a designer. I decided that what the office really needed was a manager. So, I went back to school for three years and got a business degree majoring in accounting. So, I worked as an office manager, but not just that. I talked to the clients, worked on projects, and ran the business. Harry was responsible for all aspects of design, and people in the office worked mostly on the execution of his ideas. We are fortunate here to have very talented and dedicated people. The key partners have been working here since the late 1970s. At its peak, in the mid-80s, we had about 50 people. Now it is about ten of us.
VB: What would you say young architects could learn from Harry?
PS: It is to have the debate and to keep architecture in public discussion. Architects should pursue their dreams of making worthwhile buildings. Architecture is a noble profession. Harry wanted to make a better world. He tried to do that, always. Many people told me that it was Harry Seidler who put architecture into the discussion here in Australia. He was also very critical of the lack of thoughtful planning here. Now there is much discussion about architecture. Since Harry died, I noticed that people are more respectful now. They weren’t before. And now I am treated very well and it is sad actually because it should have been him, but it is me who is getting honours… He was a real fighter. You should have interviewed him.