Richard Seifert: British Brutalist Architect is OUT TODAY! Author Dominic Bradbury talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the inspirations and research process for this book, the definition of 'Seifertian' architecture, the particularities of Seifert's practice, and the legacy that 'the Colonel' left behind...
MRG: What was the spark that led to you writing this book?
DB: I have long admired Centre Point and a few of Seifert’s best known buildings, but didn’t know that much about him until I started looking into his work more closely. When I realised that there was no monograph and very little written about him at all, I started to wonder why and began thinking that someone should do something about it. When I mentioned this to my editor, Val Rose, at Lund Humphries she agreed and we began to explore the idea of a book.
MRG: How much of your research involved visiting the buildings and sites?
DB: Yes, there were visits to many of the buildings, especially Centre Point, Space House, the Euston Square Development and others. I also realised that I had worked for years in one of Seifert’s buildings without even knowing it. I spent two or three years working for IPC Magazines in King’s Reach Tower on the South Bank. When I finally realised that Seifert had designed it many things fell into place and I was able to draw on my own memories of spending every working day in that building.
MRG: Were there any difficulties in the research process?
DB: The greatest challenges were the loss of some key buildings, such as Wembley Conference Centre, the International Press Centre and Drapers’ Gardens. But the demolition of the latter was a real wake call for admirers of Brutalism and Seifert in particular. I think attitudes to demolition and replacement have now changed and there is much more in the way of repurposing and adapting existing buildings, as is the case with Centre Point and King’s Reach Tower.
Centre Point, Tottenham Court Road, London. 1966.
© Cristian Bortes/Wikicommons, CC BY 2.0
MRG: How much of your writing process involved interviews/use of archives?
DB: There were interviews with some of those who worked with Seifert, such as the structural engineer Dr Wilem Frischmann, and also architects working on the adaptation and updating of Seifert’s buildings, such as Conran + Partners and Squire. There’s also an extensive recorded interview with Seifert himself lodged with the British Library, which was a vital source for the book. But unfortunately the Seifert archive was lost, as far as we know, when his practice closed so there was an extensive research process looking at period interviews, building studies and commentaries, particularly in the architectural press.
MRG: In the book you remark upon Seifert’s particular ability to make projects of ambitious scale simultaneously expressive, sculptural, and characterful. What architectural elements particularly allow for this?
DB: It was partly to do with the imaginative use of concrete combined with innovative engineering. Two examples of this are the massive piloti that Seifert and his colleagues used to lift their buildings above the streetscape and the expressive, pre-cast concrete facades and building systems used at Centre Point, Space House and elsewhere. These elements, combined with height, volume, scale and unusual compositions and forms, gave Seifert & Partners’ buildings a lot of drama and presence.
MRG: Which building do you consider to be most ‘Seifertian’?
DB: The obvious answer is Centre Point, as it encapsulates so many characteristics that we think of as ‘Seifertian’: height, scale, piloti, an expressive concrete façade, central service cores and fine detailing, such as mosaic tile. But my own personal favourite is probably Space House, which combines these elements with a playful, expressive cylindrical form.
Pages of 'Richard Seifert: British Brutalist Architect' by Dominic Bradbury.
MRG: You stress the collaborative approach of Richard Seifert’s practice – including the cooperation with structural engineers and consultants. Do you think this set a new precedent for modern architectural practices?
DB: Yes, I do. There has been a lot of comment about authorship in relation to Seifert and key partners at the practice, such as George Marsh. It’s really important to stress the creative contribution of Marsh and others, but without neglecting the fact that the practice was Seifert’s invention and it was very much his name over the door. Contemporary accounts suggest that Seifert was a workaholic and constantly on top of things, signing off on every project. In this respect, along with the level of his success, Seifert was one of the key figures in the evolution of the modern super practice.
Park Tower Hotel, Knightsbridge, London. 1973.
© John Seifert collection
MRG: Charles Knevitt claimed that Richard Seifert represented the ‘Spirit of the Age’… do his designs stand the test of time?
DB: Personally, yes, I think they do for the most part. There are some elements that have dated over the years, which is inevitable, but if you look at Centre Point and Space House it seems amazing how well they have stood the test of time. These were really well designed and well built structures, which I think shows in the way that they have been updated and adapted to new and contemporary uses. Centre Point is the great example of this and is now an apartment building right at the heart of the city. King’s Reach Tower, similarly, has been successfully converted from offices into residential.
MRG: And has History been 'kinder to the Colonel’s architecture than his contemporaries' as Knevitt said it would be?
DB: Jonathan Meades called Seifert ‘the most wrongly reviled architect of the half century’ and I would agree with that. There was a lot of negative press around Seifert and his work even when he was at the height of his powers and success. It’s taken time, or history, to see a very gradual reassessment of the work, the architect and his practice. The key buildings are gradually being listed and many are finding a new lease of life. It’s really interesting that other architects tend to be the most positive about Seifert’s work, while other commentators get too caught up with who commissioned a particular building and how it was used. In America, commercial buildings have long been seen in a different and much more positive way than is the case in the UK. It has taken us time to realise that commercial does not have to translate into something negative and that commercial projects, like Centre Point or Space House, can become iconic in their own way.
Hardback • 176 Pages • Size: 290 × 210 mm
10 colour illustrations and 100 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848223509 • Publication: September 25, 2020
View the full list of Autumn books in our catalogue HERE.