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Architecture and Emotion: The Plight of the Archi-Dorphin

Dr David Leifer

Dr David Leifer from the University of Sydney is a man of many talents; Engineer,
Architect, Facilities Manager and Senior Lecturer, thereʼs little doubt in my mind thereʼs
time for additional pursuits than those related to his field. Step into his office and you will
find he is hardly uninspiring when asked to converse about his work.

A moment passes before several books were placed at my disposal. Thumb-sized post it
notes litter the pages where Dr Leifer has made notes concerning our area of study. A
large dusty black board covers the wall to my left in which our interviewer progresses back
into the role of student, Dr Leifer; chalk in hand, diagrams flowing.

It is always relieving to witness good humour towards those situations in life which present
you with little more than a bar of soap; Exhibit A; Wilkinson Building, home to the Faculty
of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney campus. Discussing the
collaborative effect of engineering with design in architecture, there is always room for
good and bad examples. “Youʼre sitting in one very ugly one now. We had somewhere in
the library a list of the Ten Ugliest Buildings in Sydney and this was number nine.”

Any commuter in the Sydney Central region would agree with the abominable appearance
of the UTS Tower Building, or for that matter Harry Seidlerʼs Blues Point Tower where
Seidlerʼs architectural firm houses itself. Itʼs hard to believe in situations like these there
were numerous commissions planned, however wisely never acted upon. “They think they
can make it less worse by building something similar next to it, ʻdilute the crapʼ i think is the
expression.”

Its rather conflicting when you think of the initial process of planning to build buildings,
“people build them because there is a problem they think a building can solve”. So when
Grosvenor Place was originally constructed, what problems was it there to solve? It might
seem reasonably forgettable now, however 1996 brought the age of the IBM desktop
computer which revolutionised the way we built offices in order to hold huge capacities of
electrical equipment; such as Grosvenor Place was designed when first constructed. The
situation boils down to what was called the ʻBig Bangʼ (the de-regulation of the London
stock market) which saw a surge in the need for office spaces large and capable enough
to run copious computer systems, and the heating, cooling and lighting requirements.

However as Dr Leifer is heavily aware, technology consistently supersedes its


requirements as it advances; “I call it business infrastructure management”. Assumptions
made by engineers twelve years ago that office workers turned off their computers at night
was far from correct. In the situation of Grosvenor Place, two or three years after the initial
construction modifications needed to be made to the transformer stations beneath the
building in order to boost the electrical capacity of the building. Seventeen million dollars
and four years later, desktop computers are being replaced by laptops; Grosvenor Place
suddenly finds itself with more capacity than required.

“Who knows what the next technological revolution will bring. What we do know is that
every three years or so the organisation reshapes itself and has to fit itself again back in
the building, its a very strange business. Change is endemic.”

Now you might ask, ʻWhere does one begin when designing a building?ʼ In this day and
age there are numerous regulations and statutory limitations that define what you can and
cant do, “as always there are musts, shoulds and coulds. There are some things you must
do, some things you should do and exciting things that you could do; you have to work
between the gaps that leaves you.” Everyone prioritises limitations in design differently,
and this is how you are left with more than one solution to the problem posed.

I posed Dr Leifer the task of deciphering the difference between the process of an
engineer to an architect; “process and product” he said. Engineering is very much a
process, plans can be made precise to the decimal point. In opposition, architectural
design rotates around aesthetics, however “neither party must neglect all the other social
issues that make the difference between great architecture and a mere bicycle shed.”

What I found most enlightening about Dr Leifer was his theory of Archi-Dorphins; things
that are stimulated when you move into a space and have an emotive response towards
the architecture, whether it be positive or negative. “I have this theory about - Do you know
endorphins? Endorphins are what make you happy. Well I think there are these things
called Archi-Dorphins, you go into a space and you think ʻwow this is niceʼ. I call those
Archi-Dorphins. There must be something that stimulates these Archi-Dorphins which
there are no rules about as I can see. Sometimes you go into a space and think this is
really nice, other spaces you go into and think ʻthis is pretty grimʼ.”

“the difference between great architecture and a mere bicycle shed.”

“Sometimes you go into a space and think this is really nice, other spaces you go into and
think ʻthis is pretty grimʼ. I call those Archi-Dorphins”

Designing to improve the human condition and responding through design to aspirations of
society is a social service taken somewhat for granted these days. Thirty years ago
aspiring to connect with people and address societyʼs wishes was simply what you did.
Contemporary society has sadly seen the demise of the architect as the ʻlone geniusʼ. Dr
Leifer comments on his loathing for this change in architectural education “a lot of people
who come to study architecture now should have been at art school”. It seems in schools
of architecture the ability to harness and design for this social purpose had become a pure
art.

“We still subscribe to the Frank Gehrysʼ and the Richard Myersʼ and the Harry Seidlersʼ
who are these amazing architects who produce landmark or signature buildings whether
people like them or not “

Now Harry Seidler was a very arrogant man. It seemed for much of the time his philosophy
involved the phrase ʻyou get one of my building's or you don't have anyʼ, he was certainly
not a modest man. He came through the 1960s after the war where there was this great
belief in social engineering huge blocks of flats and tower buildings which supposedly,
were meant to act as ideal living places for the masses. Of course, the majority turned out
to be slums. Fifteen or so years after these housing ghettos were built it was adamant that
this style of housing was the pinnacle failure of modern architecture. Seidler was at the tail
end of this urban mess. He did not involve himself in much housing, aside from those for
the very wealthy. Blues Point indeed housed apartments, however this housing wasnʼt
exactly cheap either.

Harry Seidler quoted in a magazine in 1953 ʻthe art of living is being lost in this crowded
hotch-potch that we call a cityʼ. “How true. The art of living has been lost”; Dr Leifer recalls
his personal experience from living on a island off Brisbane with a population of about
8,000. The city used to be very heterogeneous, with bits scattered everywhere however
now we will go out, take our car to shopping mall; our city is comprised of entertainment
sectors and ʻapartment villesʼ if you could call it such. Living on a island, Dr Leifer finds
himself in a community you donʼt find in cities; both wealthy and poor share the same
piece of ground; it is starkly different comparing community-based living to living in a city
where it is an exercise to get to know your neighbours.

“So Iʼm sensitive to the fact that we have lost community, and if you ask people ʻWhat do
you consider your community?ʼ they canʼt actually map it. Itʼs more the local shopping
centre that determines the boundary as oppose to community groups.” Grosvenor Place is
barely differing in terms of all financial business institutions comprise of multiple offices
inclosed within a structural space. Once you get inside, the outlook is mostly the same for
every office building. This is an issue that Kong Design team are tackling in their design
proposal; the forecourt of Grosvenor Place is being transformed to re-invigorate user
experiences and the lost connection with community.

Seidlerʼs architectural style can be perceived as withholding quality; his buildings will stand
the test of time. There are vast examples of cheap office towers, narrowly placed around
the city that simply do not measure up to that of Harry Seidlerʼs; “they still look pretty smart
even though theyʼre thirty years on, thereʼs a generation thatʼs gone.” Architect and critic
Neville Gruzman labelled Seidlerʼs work as urban destruction, this statement seems a little
far-fetched having witnessed the impact of numerous Sydney buildings that just couldnʼt
take the cake in terms of design, once again noting the Ten Ugliest Sydney Buildings,
bringing UTSʼ Tower building off the scale.

So where could we place Harry Seidler? “He was seen at the forefront of his time.”
Seidlerʼs buildings are modernist, locked into his palette of achievements, and indeed this
does parallel his style to that of such housing disasters as Le Corbusierʼs Unite dʼ
habitation. However this does not concur to him being a creator of urban destruction. What
you notice about Seidlerʼs work is the intensely geometric and perpendicular towers,
however when these towers hit the ground they are sculpted in such a way to melt into the
natural landscape as it curves. Drawing visual links with Kong Designʼs proposal of
Grosvenor Place, the transition of a very geometrical, man-made and unforgiving style of
aesthetic folding into the natural environment could be argued that kong Design have kept
within that philosophy that Seidler would have adopted himself.