Is there 'a Sydney School of architecture'?

Over the last ten years a steady stream of architects have interviewed me for theses they are writing, to borrow photographs and to pick my brains about what 'really' happened in the Sixties in Sydney. 

No one took much notice of my early buildings until the last ten years, it's as though fifty years has to pass before they became a respectable enough subject for scholarly scrutiny.  I've just turned eighty-seven and every week I read the obituary of yet another contemporary, so the interviewers' must be only too aware that any revelations from the Sixties will not be available for much longer.

My interviewers are mostly interested in the small houses I designed in that period starting with the 'Wilkinson Award' Herbert House in Hunters Hill.  They want a good story of course and I mostly sense that my commonsensical descriptions of the factors that led to the designs and what actually happened, often disappoints them as not being interesting or clever enough. 

The catalyst for what became known as 'the Sydney School' was a slim monograph by academic Jennifer Taylor published in 1972. 'An Australian Identity: houses for Sydney 1953-63', was really just a catalogue of small architect-designed houses built in those ten years and she wrote that;

'During the nineteen sixties Sydney receive a significant sprinkling of individual house with several common form characteristics.  Most of these houses are to be found in the areas to the north of the harbour, where available sites are often steep with natural bush and outcrops of Sydney sandstone.  They are affiliated through the use rough textured, self finished materials, especially those that suggest rustic origins.  A second characteristic is their relationship to the site; a deliberate attempt to blend with, and hide amongst the existing environment.  This is achieved mainly by material choice, and by the forms that follow the terrain and echo it in the roofline.

It was all a bit too general for me and hardly qualified as 'a school' for which my dictionary requires a strong charismatic teacher, a shared philosophy and many conscious common characteristics and aims.  Some credence perhaps was given to the idea that Sydney houses were special in some way when Lend-Lease developed a residential estate at Carlingford and chose the young architects  in Jennifer Taylor's book to each design two or three houses for sale.  My office prepared the plan of subdivision and I designed two of the houses.  Kingdene was a great success, people still visit it apparently and my interviewers always want to talk about it. But building these houses designed by a group of these young architects in one place only demonstrated to me that there wasn't much in common between them in a design sense, much less that they formed any sort of coherent 'school'.

More over at this fifty year remove people think there must surely have been more to it than a group of young Turks all going their own way designing small houses in the same city at the same time.   They think that at least there might have been late night meetings to discuss a common philosophical approach, or to write a bold manifesto.  Alas, I'm sorry to disappoint them, there was little contact, we were all too busy trying to make ends meet. 

What these houses did have in common was that they all used the same economically available materials, there was a fashion for clinker bricks, and they were all located in the Sydney suburbs.  One of my interviewers thought 'that the Sydney School houses were 'architecturally and morally sustainable', a romantic idea that I'll be interested to see teased out; it would have received short shrift from Professor John Anderson of my student days.  The overwhelming factor for me at the time were too tight budgets, and although that in itself can often help simplify and shape design, in my case it probably only accounts for the paring down of forms to save money rather than any wider philosophic ideas.  

However something that might well be described as a 'school' developed naturally over the next twenty years. When I returned to Sydney in 1960 from six years working overseas, the Seidler office was still small, but with the impact of Australia Square and the MLC Centre was growing rapidly.  The people in the Seidler office became indoctrinated with Harry's straight forward work methods and strong design attitudes so that there started to be an increasing body of architects who had passed thorough what they jokingly referred to among themselves as 'the Seidler university'.  Seidler considered himself in the direct line of descent in the Modern Movement from Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and the Bauhaus, and in his 1992 book, he acknowledged over one hundred younger collaborators who had mostly worked in his office for periods of several years.

For example my ex-partner Mark Sheldon, who now runs the hundreds strong GroupGSA offices, had passed through the Seidler office, and in 1980 had just returned from a study period overseas.  I had just been commissioned to design the Dunk Island Resort and Mark was referred to me by Colin Griffiths simply because there would be no need to look any further if I needed help, and Mark did in fact join me to play an important role in the Dunk development. 

Casual referrals like this seem to me to be the beginning of what Jennifer Taylor was striving for with her talk of a 'Sydney school' in 1953-63 but it didn't effectively happen until the Eighties.  The Seidler office, without setting out to do so, effectively formed a real school in a casual way that has been accepted by the many people involved.  Perhaps in another twenty-five years the work of the over one hundred alumni of 'the Seidler school'will be being canvassed by academics, but they had better hurry up!

sydney school2
Don Gazzard and Harry Seidler.

Photograph courtesy of Polly Seidler.  Polly thinks it was taken in the Milsons Point penthouse by her mother Penelope, and possibly dates from 1991 when I chaired the NSW Institute awards jury that gave the penthouse an interior design award. 


Don Gazzard LFAIA
August 2016