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Australian Architecture : Harry Siedler
Did Seidler’s MLC Centre and the Capita Centre show a new way forward in high rise design.
Harry Seidler is a true child of the International Style; he was born in Austria, educated in Britain and the US, and is now living in Australia. He is widely regarded as one of the leading architects in this country. Considered a member of the third generation of twentieth century architects1., Seidler has maintained his faith in the modernist teachings of his mentors Gropius and Breuer. In many ways he has taken what was best and worked to improve those areas that were conflicted. Gropius’s teaching of a design process that included social use, aesthetics and technology2. remain the heaviest influence on Seidler’s approach. It is these qualities that are visible also in the high rise buildings to be discussed, namely the MLC Centre, 1972-78 and the Capita Centre, 1984-89.
While a true disciple of modernism in the sense of pursuing standardized, prefabricated machine made elements, Seidler’s structural rationalization and interest in Baroque type geometries of undulating curves and complicated structural solutions, often add interest to the repetitive elements used. As such his work avoids much of the criticism thrown at the bland Miesian boxes that plagued many cities and was giving the modernist aesthetic such a poor image.
Sydney’s commercial center is notorious for its mediocrity and ill planning. Most often, tall office buildings are designed to stand separately, resulting in a disjointing and fragmentation of the city. Seidler’s towers, by opening up their ground floors to pedestrians, help to create a more coherent and inclusive urban space. In both cases here a restricted site has been utilized to clever effect.
In the case of the MLC center, the geometrical planning around an irregular octagon avoided other services below and also presented an opportunity to emphasise the importance of the building by isolating it. Seidler has commented on the ground floor of any office block as being essentially for vertical travel by workers, leaving the remaining space over for public use. Use of curved and directional devices such as specific paving patterns further direct the user from the public street.
The Capita Centre also provides a pedestrian access, integrating the building more to those at road level and also making use of specific devices such as art and landscaping to entice the user through.
As they are more interactive at ground level, these buildings must then offer interest at this level. The structural rationalism and complex spatial effects Seidler uses creates intricate and interesting patterning, resulting in a more received language for those outside as well as inside the buildings, unlike many of the glass boxes. Such structural complexity and interest can be seen in the MLC Centre’s twisting columns, scooped window/shade beams and expressed ceiling structure, while the Capita Center’s exposed structure and dramatic atrium perform this role.
Both towers represent, apart from this social function, another element of the modernist manifesto successfully, that is the use of technology as paramount to progress. In the case of the Capita Centre in particularly, the building takes on the challenge of the small, crowded, dark city block and through vigorous appraisal, cleverly humane thinking and technological daring, lets in the light. Light penetrates the central core of the building, scooping from one side to the other in plan and section. As such it recognizes the comfort of users at all levels. Landscaping at various levels tributes Corbusier’s ‘gardens in the air’, confirming Harry Seidler’s loyalty to the modernist ideal of making cities more humane places to be in. With his work Seidler manages to maintain this ideal and continue the modernist tradition by practicing an architecture of integrity and inclusion.
Blake, Peter., Architecture for the New World. The work of Harry Seidler, Horwitz Australia Ltd., Sydney, 1973
Drew, Philip., Two Towers Harry Seidler: Australia Square MLC Center, Horwitz Graham Books, Sydney, 1980.
Master Architects Series III, Harry Seidler Selected and Current Works, Ed. Stephen Dobney, The Images Publishing Group Pty. Ltd., North Ryde, 1997.
1. Peter Blake, Arxhitecture for the New World. The work of Harry Seidler, Horwitz Australia ltd., Sydney, 1973, p.7
2. ibid., p.232