A column about Harry Seidler

If sheer impact on a city’s skyline were the measure of success, there would be no greater architect in history than Harry Seidler. His buildings are ubiquitous in Sydney, and some of them have been controversial ever since they were built. Who hasn’t admired the magnificent vista of the Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay, only to have it spoilt by Blues Point Tower sticking up like a sore thumb from the middle of a bushland reserve?

The only thing good about the brick hideousness of Blues Point Tower is that there’s only one of them – as opposed to Seidler’s original plan for a cluster of skyscrapers along the peninsula. But as an eyesore that dominates its surrounding environment, this Big Seidler puts the Big Banana and Merino to shame.

Similarly, the Horizon building sticks out above a heritage area where most buildings are two stories. This building has given the rest of Sydney a new attitude to Eastern Suburbs residents. Whereas once we used to hate them for cramming their ostentatious mansions along the waterfront, the Horizon lets us also hate them for cramming their ostentatious luxury skyscrapers into our views.

It’s the selfishness that’s always bugged me – the idea that very wealthy people can buy extraordinarily good views for themselves while imposing hideousness on the rest of us. Bugger the rest of us – the rich want good views, and don’t care what the rest of us paupers have to look at.

This approach has been replicated by Meriton, to the great misfortune of the CBD. They’ve thrown up lots of cheap, ugly apartments which have great views – as long as you can’t see any of the other Meriton apartments nearby. It seems fitting that Seidler’s last major project was the “Meriton Tower”, in progress bang smack in the middle of George St.

I do like a lot of the architect’s more recent buildings, and his city office towers like Australia Square and Grosvenor Place are excellent. But his death last week, with the accompanying evaluation of his legacy, got me thinking about residential architecture, and how different the Seidler approach is to the way things work in the Inner West.

There probably isn’t anything more egalitarian than terraces – a range of identical houses without even side windows, affording views only of the streets and backyards. Everyone’s house is exactly the same, meaning that no-one has bragging rights over anyone else. Seidler would have hated them.

Glebe itself was built by the Anglican Church to provide cheap housing to its parishioners – that’s what the word ‘glebe’ itself means. And the Sydney Diocese sold its cheap housing to the Whitlam Government in the 1974, which is why so much of the suburb’s properties are still administered through the Housing Commission – a stark contrast to the general trend of shunting the less well-off as far away from the CBD as possible.

The whole region is full of charming, low-rise workers’ cottages, and even though the housing price boom means that actual workers are increasingly rare in the area these days, it’s a refreshing antidote to a city that’s obsessed with cramming luxury apartments in wherever possible.

This heritage must be preserved. Let’s hope that in 100 years, the Inner West looks exactly the same as it does now, and that the residents of the horrible skyscrapers that choke the rest of the city skyline are the ones looking jealously at one place where buildings are human-scale and neighbours can still talk to one another across the back fence. It’s what Harry Seidler wouldn’t have wanted.

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