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Profession pays tribute to ‘irrepressible’ Irvine Sellar

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Shard architect Renzo Piano has led tributes to legendary fashion retailer-turned-property developer Irvine Sellar, who died at the weekend

Renzo Piano, founder Renzo Piano Building Workshop
‘I met Irvine 17 years ago in Berlin, just after the birth of my youngest son. Immediately I felt an affinity with him. Sometimes you meet people you understand – with the same desires and the same curiosity. We found ourselves in synchronicity. 

‘He was a very brave client on the Shard. As an architect he gave you trust and affection. Architects need that trust from a client. Sometimes as an architect you cannot be 100 per cent sure [about your designs] but Irvine gave you that trust with a bit of love and that is essential.

‘Irvine was unusual as a businessman because he had passion and imagination. He had a special capacity to understand city politics – in the good sense of the word. He was never neutral, never indifferent. It was always either yes or no.  He was also obstinate – which is a quality. 

‘On the Shard we had lots of ups and downs. But he gave a great sense of security to those around him – he was a great teamleader. He never told me on that project that we could not [succeed].

He was never neutral, never indifferent

‘When we first started on the Shard we wanted it to be much taller – more than 400m. But then it became clear we couldn’t do that because of the aviation rules [It is 309m tall]. So we came up with breaking up the top, making it fragmented. But if you continue the lines with a pencil you would still get to that beginning point [at 400m-plus].

‘As a client he didn’t come up with the answers, he came up with the right questions. Although he could be pragmatic – for instance when we came to the conclusion we could build the Paddington Pole – he was very inventive and had enough fantasy to understand change.  He was about adrenaline and had a great sense of humour. We were always joking. 

‘He was unique.’

Shard Renzo sketch and model_Irvine Sellar

Shard Renzo sketch and model_Irvine Sellar

Paul Finch, World Architecture Festival programme director
‘Irvine was an irrepressible force as a developer – he managed to achieve the apparently impossible through pure will-power and a trust in his own judgement. He was a rag trade-to-riches entrepreneur who made a fortune with a 60s boutique chain, went into agency and development, lost a fortune then made a comeback with financial help from Gerald Ronson.

‘His contribution to London is, of course, the Shard, that extraordinary piece of architecture and urbanism that was an instant hit with the public, even if snooty critics disliked its bravura presence on the skyline. Working with Renzo Piano opened Irvine’s eyes to the possibilities that architecture offered to prosaic developments, and I hope that the Paddington Cube will be a monument to a developer who helped to redefine the capital.’

William Matthews, William Matthews Associates founder and former project architect on the Shard at Renzo Piano Building Workshop

‘When I first met Irvine in 2001, little did I realise what an impact he would have on my life. Like all motivated and successful people he could be extremely stubborn, demanding and difficult. But he had to be; that’s how he got things done. To be Irvined became part of the lexicon: you had 20 minutes to get to his office in Park Street to explain something which wasn’t really your problem, but Irvine clearly thought was, and in any case soon would be. If I was at the office in Paris I’d be given 2 hours and 20 minutes to get there, and more of an earful with a few more expletives to compensate for taking so much time.

‘He was also very loyal, full of humour and ultimately very kind; his sheer character, charm and charisma made all meetings unforgettable and often great fun. Successful projects need good clients as much as good architects and there is no doubt the Shard could not have happened without him. He was irreplaceable: his determination and imagination were fundamental. His legacy stands, but I will still miss him immensely.’

Major Building Project of the Year winner: The Shard

Major Building Project of the Year winner: The Shard

Major Building Project of the Year winner: The Shard

Peter Rees, former City of London planning officer and professor of places and city planning at The Bartlett
‘While the Shard was under construction I found myself sitting next to Irvine at a MIPIM dinner. Always affable company, he extended an invitation to join him on a guided tour of the construction site. Naturally I accepted and we agreed a suitable date and time. Shortly before the appointment, I was informed that there was a car waiting downstairs. On descending, I found a large, pale blue Rolls Royce parked in the middle of Guildhall Yard, with Irvine ensconced in the back and his chauffeur holding open the door. The only other vehicle present was the somewhat ancient black Roller used by the Lord Mayor. I’m not sure which passenger was more embarrassed.’

‘While showing particularly prestigious potential office tenants around the Shard, Irvine would drift away towards one of the south-facing windows. An expression of surprise would draw the visitor to his side, where he would intimate that it was good fortune to have come when the visibility was so outstanding. This, he would say, is one of those days when you can see all the way to Paris – as he gestured toward the Crystal Palace transmitter.

‘He sold me flares in Carnaby Street in the early 70s and over four decades later he was still offering me challenging designs.’

Peter Murray, chair of New London Architecture
‘Architects should mourn the passing of Irvine Sellar. He was a developer who was a champion of design. He understood its benefits and, in the face of great scepticism of his peers, fought tooth and nail to build The Shard – one of the best tall buildings anywhere and a significant addition to London’s skyline. He put his business and his reputation on the line to realise Renzo Piano’s mixed-use tower which after unnerving delays, has fulfilled its commercial promise.

He put his business and his reputation on the line to realise Renzo Piano’s tower

‘He won the award for New Londoner of the Year in 2012 as someone who reflected the chutzpah of the city, from his time as a prominent figure in Carnaby Street and the Swinging Sixties to his key role in London’s current ascendancy.’

Irvine Sellar CN Summit 16 3

Ian Sharratt, co-founder, Pringle Richards Sharratt
‘On the basis that a reasonable man is likely to deliver a “reasonable” building, we should be grateful for the fact that Irvine was often a very unreasonable man. He wasn’t prepared to settle for reasonable but insisted on exceptional – and his achievement in delivering the iconic Shard against all the odds demonstrates a unique vision, tenacity and ability to make it happen that leaves his peers in his wake. He leaves behind a stunning and enduring legacy and a rare example of the developer as a force for the good. He was a one-off and his presence will be missed.

Sellar was a rare example of the developer as a force for the good

‘As a student, and down from Manchester for the weekend, I bought a suit from Irvine and he explained his strategy of taking up property leases on Carnaby Street to stop the competition from moving in on his emerging fashion empire – little knowing that it would be property, not flared trousers, that would make his name. That said, he retained his interest in clothing. He wore a suit exceptionally well, rendering the rest of us not a little shabby when he entered the room.’ 

Joost Moolhuijzen of Renzo Piano Building Workshop
’The Shard was quite a journey and Irvine was an incredible character. He never let go - despite all the odds. When he started the project nobody in the development world, at that time, took him seriously - we were outsiders too to the London scene. But that was a driver to him.

’He was a great admirer of Churchill - Irvine had a little bit of Churchill about him - and he used quite a lot of his quotes. I remember him saying in a meeting in 2004 ”In an English bacon-and-egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. I want this team to be commited.”

’We had our roles to play and it was not always easy. But there was always a relationship of trust.’

 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I always liked Irvine Sellar. His energy and enthusiasm were refreshing and he pulled off something amazing with the Shard. Infinitely preferable to some of the more mealy-mouthed people in the business. He was so full of vitality it seemed he would go on forever. It is hard to imagine that he has gone.

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  • Chris Roche

    Like a character from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Irvine Sellar, personified the vision, drive, and ambition required to redefine London's skyline for the 21st century. His legacy is truly monumental, and hopefully his contribution to the culture of London will continue to inspire future generations.

    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04 Architects.

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