134 Currie - Maroochy Shire Chambers

late 20th century, architect James Birrell, built 1978, Nambour

Photos Roger Todd 2006

Throughout his career of over fifty years in public and private practice, James Birrell has made a spirited and distinguished contribution to the discipline of architecture through his built work, through his publications and through his service to the profession and the wider community.

He is best known for the buildings that came early in his career, following his appointment in 1955 as the City Architect for the Brisbane City Council and later, in 1961, as the Staff Architect for the University of Queensland. His education and early practice in Melbourne fostered an enthusiasm for abstraction, expression and inventive construction, all of which register in his major projects of the period. These include the Centenary Swimming Pools, the Wickham Terrace Carpark and the Toowong Library for the Brisbane City Council; Union College, the J.D. Story Administration Building, and the Agriculture and Entomology Building for the University of Queensland; and the library for James Cook University in Townsville.

Each of these buildings is shaped by a separate exploration of the significance of form, yet they share an aesthetic governed by tectonics, material and structure. Looking back, it is hard to appreciate how few precedents there were to draw on as Brisbane emerged from the material and fiscal shortages of the postwar era. Birrell’s architecture catalysed a fresh appreciation of the possibilities for designing public and institutional buildings in ways that embraced both innovation in construction and the pragmatic constraints of budget, site and climate. Over time, his office provided the training ground for a bevy of highly regarded architects including Rex Addison, Bruce Goodsir, Russell Hall, Helen Josephson, John Railton and Don Watson. The potency of Birrell’s architecture is such that these early buildings continue to provide inspiration for many of Queensland’s younger practices that, in turn, are gaining national and international recognition.

Following this period of public practice, Birrell established his own practice in 1967 with projects in Papua New Guinea and regional Queensland. His later work included large-scale planning schemes for the Government of Indonesia and the World Bank, among others. His most significant publication is the biography of Walter Burley Griffin, which resulted from his award of the 1961 Sisalkraft Travelling Scholarship. Fittingly, he currently serves on the committee for the Griffin Legacy in Canberra.

He was the co-founder of Architecture and Arts in 1951 and has written at length about architecture and planning. He co-edited the book Building Queensland for the Queensland Chapter of the RAIA, published in 1959, which remains one of the few inclusive records of the architecture of the day. Recently, he spent four years as a member of the National Capital Authority and chaired the Parliamentary Precinct review.

As an architect whose work has made a significant contribution to the quality of the built environment in Australia and continues to inspire, James Birrell has had a formative and enduring influence on the architectural profession and is a fitting recipient of the 2005 RAIA Gold Medal.


The 2005 jury comprised Warren Kerr, David Parken, Greg Burgess, Louise Cox and Michael Keniger.


2017 Sunshine Cast Daily Maroochy Shire Chambers in Open House