Vale James Birrell, architect

James Birrell, one of Queensland’s preeminent architects, recently passed away. Birrell was responsible for some of Queensland’s best known buildings from the 1950s onward. His work includes the innovative car park on Wickham Terrace in Brisbane’s CBD, the former Toowong Library, the J.D. Story Administration Building and the Union College Building at the University of Queensland, the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library and
University Hall of Residence at James Cook University and the Centenary Pool Complex at Spring Hill.

James Peter Birrell (1928-2019), architect. Image from 28588 James Birrell Oral History 2012. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Born in Victoria in 1928, James Birrell attended Essendon High School and later graduated from Melbourne University with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1951. At the age of 27 he was appointed Brisbane City Council Architect in 1955. Over the next six years, Birrell oversaw an extensive range of public building projects, including libraries, car parks, even public toilet blocks. The majority of his buildings from this period have since been altered or demolished.

Model of the Toowong Municipal Library, Queensland, 1961. From 28199 James Peter Birrell Photographs. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 28199-0004-0001

Between 1961 and 1966 he was responsible, among other buildings, for Union College, the J.D. Story Administration Building and the Agriculture and Entomology Building at the University of Queensland. In 1964, he wrote a biography on Walter Burley Griffin, the America architect best known for designing Australia’s capital city, Canberra.

Birrell later went into private practice in Queensland and New Guinea and became a planning consultant to the Indonesian Government.

Centenary Pool, Spring Hill, Brisbane, 1960. Designed by James Birrell. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image lbp0021
View of the outside of the Annerley Municipal Library, Queensland, ca. 1957. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 28199-0009-0001
View inside the University College of Townsville Library, Queensland, 1969. Later renamed as the James Cook University of North Queensland. James Birrell was the architect. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 6523-0001-0407
Architectural drawing of the J.D. Storey Building, University of Queensland., ca. 1965. From 27313 James Peter Birrell Papers. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

In 2005, James Birrell received the RAIA Gold Medal, the highest award of the Australian Institute of Architects, in honour of his distinguished service as an architect.

In 2014, Birrell was prominently featured in State Library’s exhibition, Hot Modernism, which focused on Queensland’s mid-20th century architecture. In this short video produced for Hot Modernism, architect Russell Hall discusses the Brisbane City Council Carpark on Wickham Terrace, Spring Hill, designed by James Birrell during his time as City Architect for the Brisbane City Council. It was constructed between 1959 and 1960 and was the first parking station constructed by the Council. The structure was eventually added to the Queensland Heritage Register in January 1995.

Digital story on the Wickham Terrace Carpark designed by James Birrell

State Library of Queensland is fortunate to hold several collections highlighting James Birrell’s extensive career as an architect. These include:

  • James Peter Birrell Papers 1952-1985 – Photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence and personal records relating to the life and career of James Birrell.
  • James Peter Birrell Photographs 1957-1961 – Four albums containing photographs of architectural projects.
  • James Birrell Oral History 2012 – In this two part interview Birrell discusses aspects of his life including his architectural training, work in Queensland as the Brisbane City Council and University of Queensland staff architect.
  • James Birrell Architectural Plans 1970-1990 – The architectural plans in this collection represent the works undertaken in the years he was in private practice, working on projects in North Queensland, New Guinea and later, in the Maroochydore district. They include various commercial projects; Great Keppel Island Tourist Resort; James Cook University; Maroochy Shire Chambers; Private Hospitals; Town plans (Livingstone Shire). He also undertook many projects in Papua New Guinea, and even as far afield as New Hebrides.

2019 Brisbane Open House

Two of James Birrell’s designs, the Wickham Terrace Carpark and the Centenary Pool Complex, will be featured as part of 2019’s Brisbane Open House on 12 and 13 October. State Library of Queensland will also be hosting a White Gloves Experience allowing you to browse the collections of papers, photographs and architectural plans of James Peter Birrell. Details for these events will be on the Brisbane Open House website.

Jame Birrell oral history, 2012.