We celebrate Harry Seidler, the architect behind the MLC Centre

The MLC Centre was one of Harry Seidler’s most definitive works. An achievement of elegance in design and soaring optimism; the original vertical village, the building also represents a significant change in the history of the architecture of Sydney City. On June 25th, on what would have been Seidler’s 94th birthday, we reflect on the architect and the story behind the landmark MLC Centre.
Seidler, an Austrian immigrant, is credited with introducing the Bauhaus style to Australia when he arrived in 1948. One of the harbingers of Australian modernism, Seidler had a bold approach to design. His first work was the Rose Seidler house in Wahroonga, completed in 1950, still a much-visited monument to early Australian residential modernism. Seidler became an Australian household name in 1967, when he completed Australia Square tower, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year.
“Architecture is not an inspirational business,” once said Seidler. “It's a rational procedure to do sensible and hopefully beautiful things; that's all.” Indeed, the MLC Centre is the quintessential example of a rational response to a complex brief, with a beautiful result. Prior and during the build, the MLC Centre was the subject of much controversy. The site was formerly the location of the Australian Hotel and the former Theatre Royal, as well as many small boutiques on the Rowe Street precinct. The design underwent several iterations to ensure that the community’s desires were carefully considered, including the addition of a theatre and space for the community to interact. Practical considerations also needed to be met, including allowing for the new Eastern Suburbs railway line to pass beneath it, and accommodating the needs of 23 individual sites that were carefully considered in the final design.
The final building is one of landmark modernist design. The curves and contours of concrete are sculptural and refined, while the open spaces act as an invitation for gathering and enjoyment. For his work on the MLC Centre, Seidler received the RAIA Sir John Sulman Medal in 1983, one of Australia’s most prestigious architectural awards, and his fourth RAIA Sir John Sulman Medal at the time (Seidler won five in his lifetime).
Colin Griffiths, fellow architect and Seidler’s right-hand-man, reflects on what the building contributed to the city – then and now. Says Grifftiths: “In 1977, The open space provided the opportunity for city people to come outside and connect with the community, in the great tradition of plazas of old. Today, it still plays that role. The building is constantly evolving to make it as enjoyable and rich as possible. The MLC Centre contributes to the life of the city.”
“Good design doesn’t date,” once said Harry Seidler, and the MLC Centre, in all its concrete timelessness, is the perfect example of good design.