James Birrell has had a long and remarkable career in architecture and design, both in private practise and with government agencies. James won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study architecture and as a consequence was bonded to the commonwealth when he graduated.
Jim first studied architecture at Melbourne Technical College while employed as a cadet of the Commonwealth Department of Works, transferring in 1950 to fourth year at the University of Melbourne. Upon graduation in 1952, he went to Canberra and became the man who discovered the long lost Canberra drawings of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin lying on the floor of an old army hut in the Canberra suburb of Riverside.
Jim remembers with some humour how a member of Parliament at the time had referred to Griffin as “Bailey Griffith” on the floor of the house. Jim was offended at the depth of ignorance about WBG at the time in the nation’s capital. Jim retains huge admiration for Walter Burley Griffin and nothing but scorn for the public servants who “did everything they could to destroy his vision”. In 1964 he published the first book, Walter Burley Griffin, on the life and work of this significant character in Australian design history.
Jim’s successful career was primarily as chief architect for a range of Government agencies. Following his days in Canberra, Jim moved with his family to take up the role of supervising architect with the Commonwealth Works Department in Darwin, where both white and black communities were severely lacking in resources and decent infrastructure. Jim enjoys reminiscing about those early post war days in Darwin: “We did the hospitals … everything was in bits and pieces as there’d been a bloody great war up there that most of Australia didn’t even know about. They were built out of the remnants of army camps and junk left behind by the Americans after the war - you found out what was there and then you decided what to build based on what was available.”
Jim relocated to Queensland to take up a job offer to become Chief Architect at Brisbane City Council, where he designed such notable buildings as Wickham Terrace Car Park, Towong, Annerley and Chermside Libraries and Centenary Pools. After leaving the Council he becomes university architect for the University of Queensland.
A group of significant university experts from around Australia had been formed to establish universities in Papua New Guinea. Sir John Gunther, a member of this group, encouraged Jim to establish a practice in PNG to assist with the programme. Jim ran the PNG arm of his practice from Port Moresby, as well as Australia, visiting frequently. His buildings in University settings are some of his most memorable and already the subject of a book, Birrell: work from the office of James Birrell, edited by Andrew Wilson and John MacArthur, to be followed by another A Life in Architecture, Beyond The Ugliness published by the University of Queensland Press for release in November. Through this book, Jim hopes to promote the philosophies of Roy Grounds, who he sees as the “true father of Australian design”.