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Richard Seifert (1910-2001)

Both a broad commercial success and a persistent critical failure, Seifert defined the high-capital foil to the more welfare-focused architectural culture of post-war London

Richard seifert reputations isabel albertos

Richard seifert reputations isabel albertos

Illustration by Isabel Albertos

Few post-war architects suffered the levels of criticism levelled at Richard Seifert. Seifert, who built one of the largest practices in post-war Britain on the back of close relationships with property developers, seemed to stand at odds with the welfare-state focused architecture of the period. That many of the leading architects of the post-war years also designed flagrantly commercial work (the numerous shopping centres designed by Frederick Gibberd or Basil Spence’s work for Land Securities) didn’t seem to matter to his critics. Seifert’s ‘commercial’ reputation was justification enough for him to serve as a shorthand for all the ills of property development and its architecture. Yet his practice, which was one of the largest and likely the most profitable in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, was responsible for the design of hundreds of buildings across the world. Richard Seifert was both an abject critical failure and a resounding commercial success. 

He had struggled to establish himself following his graduation from the Bartlett in 1933. The immediate post-war period also seems to have been something of a struggle. But London’s commercial office boom of the 1950s entirely changed the fortunes of his practice. In order to channel reconstruction efforts into housing and industry, the earliest post-war governments had tightly restricted access to building materials through a complex system of licences and a 100 per cent tax on the profits of property development. The repeal of these, in 1953 and 1954, unleashed the pent-up energy of the market. Developers rushed to build speculative office developments all over the City and West End, entirely changing the face of central London in a few short years. 

Richard seifert reputations architectural review 02

Richard seifert reputations architectural review 02

Source: Anthony Weller / view

Biography

Key works:

Factory for Rival Lamps, Brighton, 1947

Woolworth’s, London, 1956

Space House, London, 1962

Centre Point, London, 1966

Royal Garden Hotel, London, 1966

Sussex Heights, Brighton, 1968

Tolworth Tower, Kingston-upon-Thames, 1968

Concourse House, Liverpool, 1969

NLA Tower, Croydon, 1970

Sobell Sports Centre, London, 1973

Euston Station offices, London, 1978

Natwest Tower, London, 1981

Quote:

‘If people think you are a millionaire, it is so much easier to borrow money’

Seifert initially obtained these types of speculative office commissions from the developer Felix Fenston, who he may have known through familial connections. Fenston, a rakish chap with a tin-leg and a fondness for Old Masters, introduced Seifert to a younger developer, Harry Hyams, who was a transformative figure in the Seifert story. In 1958 Hyams secured the site of what would become the practice’s most famous building, Centre Point. In that same year R Seifert & Partners was formed, with Richard Seifert owning 80 per cent of the business and two of his former associates, Tony Henderson and George Marsh, owning 10 per cent each. Seifert seems to have become less involved in the aesthetic design of his practice’s work at this date: in Marsh he had engaged a talented designer who could blend the influences of Marcel Breuer, Oscar Niemeyer and Gio Ponti into arresting visual schemas, such as the Tolworth Tower in Kingston-upon-Thames. Seifert continued to take the lead on client liaison and planning negotiations for his practice’s buildings, however. One commentator, writing in 1967, noted of the practice that ‘the boss deals with all the clients, sees all the vital correspondence and knows everything that goes on’.

‘It may also be true that Seifert’s poor reputation among his fellow architects was in fact due to his success’

During the 1950s and early 1960s, most of the Seifert practice’s output, such as the corncob-like Space House in London’s Kemble Street, failed to register with the architectural press. Centre Point’s completion in 1966 changed this. The building attracted positive reviews in several architectural publications, and a warily respectful tone crept into coverage of the practice’s work for a time thereafter. The Architects’ Journal’s Astragal wrote in 1970 that ‘for some the very name of Seifert is a symbol of the capitalist system and its concomitant social ills. To others it suggests the truly professional entrepreneur […] like it or not, the work of Richard Seifert & Partners is stamped with an individual panache’.

The gathering storm around Centre Point’s management, however, meant that Seifert’s honeymoon with the architectural press was all too brief. By the early 1970s it was clear that Hyams was purposely keeping Centre Point empty. In 1965 the Labour government had introduced a moratorium on the construction of speculative office buildings in London and several other cities. This cut the supply of office space in London while demand remained high; as a result, office rents rose exponentially. As the capital value of a completed speculative office block was extrapolated from its rent, or in the case of empty offices, potential rental income, in periods of rising rents a developer could sit back and watch the capital value of empty office buildings increase. Centre Point, standing vacant on one of the country’s most famous shopping streets, became a target for activists and inequality campaigners. In November 1972, Camden’s Labour Council called for the compulsory purchase of the housing at Centre Point. The following summer the Labour MP for Camden, Lena Jeger, stated in the House of Commons that: ‘Centre Point is a symbol of a society in which those who make money are more blessed than those who earn money’. In 1974 Centre Point was squatted by a group of protesters: they hung satirical banners from the building’s many windows, including one that simply read ‘We love you Harry’. 

Centre point richard seifert reputations architectural review 01

Centre point richard seifert reputations architectural review 01

Centre point richard seifert reputations architectural review 02

Centre point richard seifert reputations architectural review 02

Source: R Wesley / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1974, Centre Point was occupied by squatters showing ironic support for developer Harry Hyams. At 33 storeys, it was one of the tallest buildings in the UK at the time of its completion in 1966

The Seifert practice’s reputation suffered apace. A 1972 entry in the AJ’s Astragal column encapsulates this changed perception of the practice: ‘If society takes a property developer’s architect as the epitome of the profession, then it has its values all wrong. Apart from anything else, it is hard not to dislike his buildings – and indeed, regret their existence’. The AR was no less forthright in its condemnation: a 1975 editorial dismissed Centre Point as ‘a symbol of hatefulness, a topographic cyst’. 

Seifert was regularly lampooned in Private Eye. One particularly venomous article was accompanied by caricatures of developers and their architects. Seifert was shown as a kind of wasp, with exaggerated facial features, an image captioned with the phrase: ‘The Seifert, this ugly-looking little fellow … is especially clever at worming his way out of loopholes. Very nasty’. There is more than a hint of Der Stürmer to this depiction of Seifert and the criticisms of him and his practice were often tinged with anti-Semitism. Private Eye, for example, affected to find something shady in the fact that Seifert, whose given name was Reuben, had adopted an anglicised first name, a common practice among the British Jewish community at this time. The architectural press wasn’t above this sort of thing either. A 1972 Astragal column, which reported the rumour that the Seifert practice could be included in the competition to design Robinson College, Cambridge, appeared under the heading ‘St Rubin’s College?’ 

Richard seifert reputations architectural review cartoon

Richard seifert reputations architectural review cartoon

Source: Brian Morris

Seifert was a regular target for sometimes quite venomous caricature – in a Sunday Times article he is shown in a Centre Point suit, rampaging over London.

Nla building croydon 50p richard seifert architectural review

Nla building croydon 50p richard seifert architectural review

The NLA Tower, also known as the 50p Building, next to East Croydon station, signified the Manhattanisation of Croydon during the 1960s.

Against this hostile background, how had Seifert prospered? He maintained that his success was down to simply satisfying his clients. Given the RIBA’s proscription of advertising, the Seifert practice had largely relied on word of mouth to establish their reputation. As Seifert himself said, ‘A satisfied client briefs another client … up to now, that’s the only kind of promotion we’ve used. I’ve never chased after work or “sold” the practice’. Of course by the early 1970s, the practice was so frequently mentioned in the press due to the Centre Point scandal, that it was arguably being advertised for free. It is striking to note that Seifert’s busiest period, when the practice supported 300 architects spread across seven London and regional offices, coincides with the lowest ebb of its reputation amongst the architectural profession. It is said that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and while the Centre Point scandal led to disparaging comment in the architectural press, it likely also raised Seifert’s profile among potential clients, as an architect able to secure them the largest possible development envelope. Perhaps, then, Seifert succeeded not despite of his poor reputation among the architectural establishment, but, at least in part, because of it.

At risk of advancing a slightly circular argument, it may also be true that Seifert’s poor reputation among his fellow architects was in fact due to his success. Judy Hillman noted in 1965, ‘While the architectural knights and lords become more or less known for the occasional prestige project, men like Mr Seifert quietly and efficiently impress their ideas on vast acres of the urban scene … Some of the criticism may stem from envy for his business-like methods. Art and commerce are not always the happiest of stable mates.’ A former employee told me that when Seifert heard he had been mentioned in Private Eye, his laughter could be heard echoing through the office. 

London euston richard seifert architectural review

London euston richard seifert architectural review

Source: Crispin Boyle / RIBA collections

Sleekly Miesian offices at London’s Euston Station, are due to be demolished as part of the HS2 development.

London international press centre richard seifert architectural review 91

London international press centre richard seifert architectural review 91

The London International Press Centre was proposed in 1967

A major factor in Seifert’s success with his client base was certainly his rigorous knowledge and nuanced understanding of planning legalisation. A contemporary planner remembered ‘The trouble with Seifert was that he knew some of the regulations far better than the [planners]. Every now and then we had to bring in clauses to stop up the loopholes exposed by Seifert. We called them “Seifert clauses”’. A less well-known element of his success was the manner in which he communicated. His description of the pilotis at Centre Point as having ‘an added modern pleasantness’, for example, was mocked by Reyner Banham as ‘not the kind of language that architects use’.  It must, however, have been the kind of language that a money-man-client was comfortable with. 

Similarly, the way in which he presented himself and his practice seems designed to appeal to his developer client-base: interviewers were often struck by the quiet sobriety of the practice offices, ‘there are no mini-skirted secretaries or bunny girls in evidence’, noted Martin Pawley in 1970. Seifert’s private rooms in the practice’s head office at Shaftesbury Avenue boasted ponderous wood panelling, a pedimented door-casing and repro Georgian furniture, perhaps a conscious aping of City board rooms. Seifert’s pinstripe suits and regimental ties wouldn’t have been out of place in the Square Mile either. Much was made in the contemporary press about his chauffer-driven Rolls-Royce, furnished with one of the first car-phones in Britain, and his Mill Hill mansion, complete with swimming pool, but Seifert seems, if anything, to have played down his plutocratic reputation, and instead projected a persona of quiet good sense. As one interviewer noted: ‘If he has a personal style it is vaguely establishment … There is none of the hint of bohemia that most architects, even the elderly and the eminent, trail behind them.’ 

Park tower hotel knightsbridge richard seifert architectural review

Park tower hotel knightsbridge richard seifert architectural review

Source: Architectural Press archive / RIBA collections

Park Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge was a Seifert signature ‘corncob’ building

Concourse house liverpool lime street richard seifert architectural review 01

Concourse house liverpool lime street richard seifert architectural review 01

 

Penta hotel gloucester road richard seifert london architectural review

Penta hotel gloucester road richard seifert london architectural review

The 1968 proposal for the Penta Hotel in London’s Gloucester Road. It would have been the world’s largest hotel with 2,000 rooms

Above all else, Seifert seems to have kept uppermost in his mind that the work his practice produced was to serve his clients’ requirements for profitability. In an interview given in the early-1980s Seifert stated firmly that he was resistant to buildings as ‘ideological statements’ and felt that this chimed with his clients’ own expectations, ‘What people want is a building that is worth the money they paid for it’. An architect who kept programme and profit in mind throughout the design process and wasn’t afraid to talk about architecture in those terms, was an obvious asset to a property developer. That the completed buildings often looked good, as in the examples of the NatWest Tower and Euston Station offices, can only have helped.

The route of Seifert’s success with his clients, then, was cost-effective, and often striking, architecture produced efficiently to programme by architects working in a soberly appointed office led by a quietly business-like principal. But none of this would have combined to form one of the most profitable, prolific architecture practices of the 20th century, were it not for Seifert’s incredibly strong work ethic. Seifert described a typical working day to an interviewer in 1979, when he was 69 years old, as starting at 7am and finishing around 8pm – except on Thursdays when he attended the opera at Covent Garden, and Sundays, which he spent at home. Even his holidays were spent visiting his firm’s international jobs. Writing in 1967, Mary Haddock found that ‘Mr Seifert has very direct views about how you conduct a successful architectural practice. You work. You work hard, and you work all the time.’

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today