Sonya Voumard reflects on her writing life in a corporate cathedral designed by renowned architect Harry Seidler.
I remember this from life before the virus. The corporate cathedral is 4.3 kilometres from my Sydney home, by Google Maps’ reckoning. My apartment and the office building where I work, were each designed by the Austrian-born modernist architect Harry Seidler. His brutalism is fashionable. I live on the fifth floor of a Seidler apartment block that’s alternately celebrated and loathed by architecture and design snobs. Of which I’m neither. Seidler’s airflow and light get me in. He understood wellbeing before it became a capitalised corporate cliché.
“You didn’t tell me you lived in a Harry,” a visiting friend, who’s an architect, once said. Nor had I thought to mention the Harry I work in – on the eleventh of the 44-floor Grosvenor Place, which opened in 1988 and won an Engineering Excellence Award from the Institution of Engineers.
If the corporate cathedral’s fancy views on the working floors encouraged a sense of self-importance, this was most obvious on the client floor where you looked past corporate hospitality’s plates of French pastries, wraps, sandwiches or hors d’oeuvres laid out on white tablecloths between jugs of water and buckets of canned drinks on ice, across and down at the city’s most souvenired icons. A place set up to induce a mood so that people might tell themselves they’d made it.
It’s here where I had my final job interview with the high heeled, lip-sticked senior executive who green-lit my appointment in 2014. A tall American with bangs of thick blonde hair, she chugged Diet Coke and drew lines on some paper as we spoke. They made no sense to me, but I acted like they did. Fake it till you make it. My hand tremor’s always worse under stress, so I learned long ago to say no to drinks offered during job interviews. I made a quick grab for a ready-filled water glass, when my mouth was dry and the moment allowed, drinking when my interviewer’s eyes were elsewhere. But mostly, while others take soft or hot drinks, I keep my hands on my lap or under the tops of my legs. Out of trouble. Hands that shake don’t instil confidence in a job interviewer. I’ve always thought that. Best to try and impress them with my verbal skills, work history and tertiary qualifications. By the time they see I can’t hold a cup with one hand without the risk of spilling what’s in it, I’ll be in the door with a few runs on the board. Which is what’s usually happened. And this was no exception. As we left the room, me still thirsty and the half-drunk Diet Coke left on the table, I was reasonably sure I had a new job – and I did. I grabbed a water somewhere.
A few weeks after I started, my team held a morning tea for a charity organisation. I was to host it, say a few words. There were guest name tags to assemble, small rectangles of white cardboard to go into plastic sleeves, safety pins into small metal clips. Minutes before the event was due to start, all hands, including mine, were needed to help. But my hands and fingers failed me. I left the room. Killed a few minutes in the toilets until the event finally started. Worried my new colleagues would think me arrogant and unwilling to perform such a menial task. I couldn’t admit, in the pressure of that moment, that I was physically incapable of placing small pieces of cardboard into plastic sleeves. I didn’t know then that my shaking, inaccurate hands were part of a condition called Dystonia. It would be six years before that diagnosis came across a neurologist’s desk, a casual, breezy answer to an obvious and worsening problem.
Office space reshuffles happen a lot. So, I’ve also worked on floors three, four, seven and eleven of Grosvenor Place in the six years I’ve been employed at the corporate cathedral as a corporate writer at a professional services firm. My then employer was the second by revenue of The Big Four professional services firms. They’d all been in the media lately over concerns they had too much power. This was one of several such places I’ve worked, either fulltime or freelance, since the 2001 Dot.Com crash forced me out of jeans and designer joggers and Microsoft millionaires into the world of suits and shiny buildings.
A journalist by training, I observed daily this world in which I found myself. I was in it, but not of it. Part flaneur, part veteran news reporter, I looked on it with a professional narrator’s habit, although I lay no claim to objectivity in telling you what I saw.
The corporate world was always a difficult concept for those of my ilk. It had connotations of greed, conformity, wheeling and dealing. At journalism school they taught us to be sceptical about institutional power. When journalists left media organisations – whose own institutional power and complicity in institutional power’s prevalence we somehow overlooked – for employment in the corporate world, former colleagues saw us as selling out. So, I sold out. But I remained a journalist. It’s just that I became embedded in the top end of town. My storytelling might be compromised by my salary. It may also be biting the hand that’s fed me well. But causing offence and exposure are not my purpose. Workplaces, in general, fascinate me.
There were many different points of entry to the corporate cathedral. Mostly, I entered through the revolving doors off George Street. There was a barely perceptible whoosh when you arrived inside the cavernous entry lobby, the movement of air as well as people. Dug up George Street’s endless construction clatter and bang gave way to something muted, a sense that you’d entered a hallowed space. There was no shortage of people going about their business in this tower, a cliché of nods to views of Sydney Harbour, The Bridge, the Opera House, the ferries going by. So much so that in 2009, Grosvenor Place won an award for the best use of glass. On the ground floor, at least, the place never felt crowded. Even when the workers lined up single file with their disposable or keep-cup coffees to catch one of the seven lifts, it was streamlined. You could play a game of ball in the back part of the entrance foyer without disrupting the human traffic. Fridays especially. There were flowers in the lobby and a concierge desk that doubled as a drop off point for laundered business wear, shirts mainly. At the end of each week the concierge desk sold the lobby flowers to the highest bidder. Proceeds went to charity. When people met downstairs for coffee or hot chocolate or chai, they arranged to do so on the red carpet. This was an actual reference to the lobby’s big red circular rug, a décor touch that may have been meant to be ironic but was somehow suggestive of social climbing in a place trying so hard to seem otherwise.
All that’s changed now that we are working from home at a time when Ugg boots and other soft, indoor footwear have replaced the crippling high heels worn by power suited corporate women in what feels like a distant past. Working from home makes it easier to manage my hands’ rebellious extremities. COVID-19 has put an end to people shaking hands with each other. Mine continue the practice on their own.
Sonya Voumard is a non-fiction writer and former newspaper journalist with three published book-length works, including a novel and two creative non-fiction books. The Media and the Massacre (2016, Transit Lounge) was long listed for a 2017 Stella Award and a 2018 Nita B Kibble Literary Award. Skin in the Game: The Pleasure and Pain of Telling True Stories was published by Transit Lounge in March 2018. Her essays and stories have been published in Griffith Review, Meanjin, Island and Neighbourhood, among other publications. This is an excerpt from her new memoir in progress, titled Tremor.