He’s been called ‘an awe-inspiring figure in the world of commercial development’ and his legacy has been compared to that of Sir Christopher Wren. Yet Colonel Richard Seifert, the architect behind Centre Point, has never exactly been a household name.
Even among architects, his reputation only seriously grew after his retirement in 1984. There was something about his professional, hardnosed manner that put him on the side of the businessmen rather than the creative architects. His office in Holborn felt more like an accountant’s office than a creative practice – an attitude summed up in the motto on the wall: ‘Prestige without vulgarity’.
Seifert had entered architecture by a happy accident. Born in Switzerland in 1910, he went to the Central Foundation School in London and had his sights set on studying painting at the Slade. The story goes that he wandered into the wrong department and signed up at the Bartlett School of Architecture by mistake – an uncharacteristic move by a man who would become renowned for his attention to detail.
Seifert opened his first practice in 1934, initially working on a few small housing jobs and conversions. But work was hard to come by and it was a relief when the war intervened and he became a lieutenant colonel with the Royal Engineers. After the war, he returned to his architectural practice with renewed confidence, and was well placed to take advantage of the boom period of building that kicked off in the fifties.
Seifert’s main skill was extracting the maximum lettable space from any given site – not least at Centre Point. It was a talent that made him extremely popular with developers, including Harry Hyams, with whom he developed a lasting partnership.
It also made him very rich. Seifert was reputedly the first architect millionaire. He was said to be the only architect in London to travel in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and the first to own a car phone. Such stories didn’t exactly endear him to his peers – part of the reason why an air of suspicion surrounded his work throughout his professional life.
Fortunately, Seifert lived long enough to see that change. By 1993, Seifert’s former detractors at the Royal Fine Art Commission were calling for the listing of Centre Point and praising its ‘elegance worthy of a Wren steeple’. It must have been a satisfying moment.