“I have suffered the pain and anguish of architectural personal criticism – quite undeserved – and I have also enjoyed the euphoria of praise.”

Colonel Richard Seifert, ‘Architects Approach to Architecture’ talk,
RIBA, London, 11 November 1984

 

Unexecuted design for Centre Point, 101 New Oxford Street, London, 1963. Designer: Richard Seifert & Partners (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

Unexecuted design for Centre Point, 101 New Oxford Street, London, 1963. Designer: Richard Seifert & Partners (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

A copy of Richard Seifert’s talk resides as part of the RIBA’s collections which also holds many decades of journal articles recording his output (and different reactions to it) and photographs and drawings of completed and alternative designs, but oddly few books. What made this “kindly, family-minded man” (1) such a controversial figure to some?

An architect reaching their 75th birthday and 50 years in architectural practice, during which they had built up a firm with 300 employees, should have much to celebrate. Despite being described as having “done more than any other architect since Wren to change the face of the City of London” (2) with the construction of buildings such as the NatWest Tower (now Tower 42), in 1984 Seifert was still having to defend the work of his firm Richard Seifert & Partners when an exhibition was opened at the RIBA Heinz Gallery in Portman Square, London. ‘Seifert Architecture’ was an opportunity to see the influence the firm was having on British cities like London and Birmingham at the time when buildings of such size and height had not been seen before or in such numbers. In keeping with his iconoclastic approach, the exhibition was a record of recent achievements and a showcase of the firm’s bold proposals for the future, including designs for a new London Bridge and a 150-storey skyscraper in Liverpool (3), rather than as a record of Seifert’s development as a designer.

Alpha Tower, Birmingham. Designer: Richard Seifert & Partners (Photograph by Wilson Yau)

Alpha Tower, Birmingham. Designer: Richard Seifert & Partners (Photograph by Wilson Yau)

Accompanying the exhibition was the talk at the RIBA about his personal approach to architecture and the design process; beginning with the early years of hardship in practice alone during the 1930s when he was paid just £2 for a set of working drawings, through to the practicalities of designing and collaborating with other building professionals in the 1980s. Despite the mixed feelings of the press and public to modern – especially commercial – architecture of which he was a successful practitioner, he made no apologies for the previous forty years of building that had appeared in Britain and stressed it as an experimental era that brought new ideas, materials and methods of construction, against previous centuries of evolution.

Competition design for an extension to the National Gallery, later known as the Sainsbury Wing, Trafalgar Square, London, 1982. Designer: Richard Seifert & Partners (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

Competition design for an extension to the National Gallery, later known as the Sainsbury Wing, Trafalgar Square, London, 1982. Designer: Richard Seifert & Partners (© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections)

The enormous commercial success he had by 1984 brought with it a certain disdain and possibly envy from some in the architectural world and the press. Not a bitter man, he pleaded for “unity and harmony amongst fellow architects”. Concluding the talk, he summarised the recipe for a successful architectural practice, which many professionals today will probably agree with:

  • hard work
  • recognition of opportunity
  • supreme confidence in your own ability
  • client satisfaction
  • delegation to experienced and enthusiastic partners, associates and staff
  • good communication with other participants of the professional team and in particular the clients

Though Seifert died in 2001, he was able to see towards the end some revaluation of his work. In 1995, Centre Point was listed as Grade II.

Talk

In partnership with the Twentieth Century Society, the RIBA will once again be the venue for a talk about the public image and private life of the man. ‘City Maker: Colonel Seifert Speaks’ takes place on 30 October 2012.

References

  1. House and Garden, July 1984, vol. 39, no. 7 (399) pp. 114-117.
  2. Building, 2 November 1984, vol. 247, no. 7367 (44), pp. 24-25.
  3. Architects’ Journal, 21 November 1984, vol. 180, no. 47, pp. 34-35.

 

About Wilson Yau
I work for the British Architectural Library at the RIBA as part of a team to share news, images and information online about the activities of the Library and the fascinating items we have in our architectural collections – it contains over four million items, so there's plenty to see! If you’re curious about what we do at the Library and with the collections, or want to discover the latest about our education programmes, public events and exhibitions at the RIBA, please visit www.architecture.com

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1 Comment
  1. Jeremy Dickman-Wilkes

    October 29, 2012

    I have always felt that Richard Seifert was better known for the volume and scale of his commercial projects, rather than the quality of his design work (in the way that successors Richard Rogers and Norman Foster have been regarded as regarded as hugely influential architectural designers since the 1980′s). For me the quality of Seifert’s best known project, the Nat West tower (now Tower 42) stands head and shoulders above his other less memorable schemes.

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