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50 Treasures: James Birrell Archive University Library Photographs

Our twenty-third treasure shows the creation and early life of an architectural masterpiece that has been listed in the top 10 of Australia's best public concrete buildings. From the Library Archives comes the James Birrell Archive University Library Photographs.

Trisha Fielding answers the question "why is this significant?"

The Eddie Koiki Mabo Library, on James Cook University’s Douglas campus in Townsville, is arguably one of north Queensland’s most architecturally significant buildings. Designed by Melbourne-born architect James Birrell, the first stage of the Library was in use by late 1968.

Birrell designed a three-storey, rectangular, off-form concrete building, with an oversized steel-framed copper roof. Described as having a sculptural form with sloping exterior walls, the Library is an outstanding example of 1960s brutalist architecture. Descended from the modernist architectural movement, brutalism (which was in vogue in Australia from the 1950s to the 1970s) has been described as one of the most polarising architectural movements of the twentieth century.

Roof supports being delivered. James Birrell Archive, BIR/6/1/16.
Considered by many to be aesthetically displeasing, even ugly, because of its exaggerated scale and unrelieved use of raw, undressed concrete, brutalist buildings are common on university campuses built throughout Australia during the post-war years. The name brutalism itself does the movement no favours - evoking as it does images of something savage, harsh, or unpleasant - but the term is in fact derived from the French ‘b├ęton brut’, meaning raw concrete.

Brutalist architects in Australia were influenced by a wide range of international designers, and Birrell was no exception. Influences included the Hungarian-born architect Marcel Bruer, who designed the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; English architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry; and Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier, who designed and planned the city of Chandigarh in northern India. Le Corbusier’s 1950s brutalist Capitol Complex in Chandigarh comprises three buildings - the Secretariat, the Legislative Assembly, and the High Court - that are now collectively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The two latter buildings inspired JCU Library’s monumental roof.

Creating internal concrete stairs. Australian OHS legislation as we recognise it today would be passed in the 1970s, after the University Library was constructed. James Birrell Archive, BIR/6/1/6
Birrell was also influenced by his lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Roy Grounds, a leading Victorian architect of the modernist movement. Grounds’ National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne (the first stage of which was completed in 1968) shares similar features to Birrell’s JCU Library. Both buildings employ the use of reinforced concrete (though Grounds’ gallery is clad in bluestone), and both have a ‘floating roof’ with oriental design influences, and similar arched entrances. The NGV is surrounded by a water-filled moat, while dry, stone-filled drains, designed to carry away storm water runoff from the roof, originally surrounded Birrell’s JCU Library.

Constructing the floating roof of the University Library. James Birrell Archive, BIR/6/1/19
Although the ground level of the JCU Library has since been enclosed, Birrell recalled that he designed it so that, ‘the lowest level was mostly open as a great undercroft where the University population could meet and relax.’

‘The concrete walls of the exterior slope slightly as they rise and at the level of the meeting place were pierced with circular openings, random in size and location,’ he said.

‘I felt this important to the atmosphere of relaxation and a counterpoint to the intensity of study. We wanted [the library] to be a central focus, and a powerful architectural statement.’

Birrell was also responsible for the design of University Hall and the Humanities II building (now called the Ken Back Chancellery building) and, together with Gordon Stephenson, was involved in the design of the master plan of James Cook University’s Douglas campus layout. Birrell drew some of his inspiration for the master plan from Walter Burley Griffin’s design for the city of Canberra, particularly in relation to integrating the architecture into the landscape. Buildings were sited along broad axial lines that referenced Mount Stuart and Magnetic Island.
The University Library was designed to integrate into the surrounding landscape. The lines of the building echo the hills in the background. James Birrell Archive, BIR/6/1/13.
Townsville in the 1960s was still suffering from post-war shortages, so the choice of materials used in the design of campus buildings was made partly in response to the limited availability of some materials. In a 1995 interview, Birrell recalled some of the challenges that went with designing buildings for the new campus.

‘To commence construction of this scale in Townsville was a very, very major step,’ he said.

‘They had hardly built any significant buildings for quite some time. We looked into the various capacities that they had, and if we had built in brick, we’d have run out of bricks in the first fortnight. That is why for the University Hall the dormitory wings were in brick and the central building was in concrete, to try and balance out supplies.’

Completing the University Library interior. James Birrell Archive, BIR/6/1/38
The James Birrell Archive includes a series of photographs that document the construction of Stage I of the Library. These photographs provide a fascinating insight into the early evolution of this now iconic building. The photographs which show the Library with no roof, only its sloping, concrete walls, provide the best illustrative example of Birrell’s careful placement of the library within the landscape. Without its monumental roof, the photos reveal how the curves of the tops of the library’s walls perfectly mirror the gentle lower slopes of Mt Stuart in the background.

The University Library was officially named the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library on May 21, 2008. Photograph by Rob Parsons, Through the Looking Glass Photography, February 2020.
James Birrell (1928–2019) was an influential, award-winning architect of the post-war era. He designed a number of significant buildings and public amenities in Brisbane, but a substantial portion of his career was spent in the tropics: in Darwin, Townsville, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. James Cook University is just one of the beneficiaries of his immense talent.

Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biography
Trisha Fielding is an historian and writer whose published works include the books 'Neither Mischievous nor Meddlesome: the remarkable lives of North Queensland's independent midwives 1890-1940', 'Queen City of the North: a history of Townsville', and the history blogs 'North Queensland History' and 'Women of the North'. She holds a Master of History degree from the University of New England and a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction from the University of Southern Queensland. Trisha also works part time in JCU Library's Special Collections.

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