Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Bold and The Brutal

Hundreds of students pass by, and through, the Library building at James Cook University’s Douglas campus every day during semester, but many would have little idea of the building’s significance, other than for its obvious function as a library and central meeting place. Designed by architect James Birrell, and opened in 1968, it is arguably one of Townsville’s most architecturally significant buildings.

Stage 1 of James Cook University Library, c. 1970. Designed by architect James Birrell.
Source: James Cook University Library Special Collections.
The undisputed focal point of the campus, 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”, Birrell’s 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. People either love Brutalist buildings, or they hate them. There’s no middle ground.

James Cook University Library under construction, June 1968. Note the "floating" copper roof.
James Cook University Library Special Collections. 
Considered by many to be aesthetically displeasing, even ugly, because of the style’s use of 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 - although the term is in fact derived from the French “b├ęton brut”, and means “raw concrete”.

Brutalist architecture in Australia had wide-ranging international influences and Birrell’s library design was a beneficiary of these. Those 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 - which were recently collectively listed as a World Heritage site. The two latter buildings inspired JCU Library’s monumental roof.

Legislative Assembly, Chandigarh, India, designed by Le Corbusier
By duncid (KIF_4646_Pano) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
High Court Building, Chandigarh, India, designed by Le Corbusier.
By Paul Lechevallier [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Not unsurprisingly, Birrell was also influenced by his lecturer at Melbourne University, Roy Grounds, a leading Victorian architect of the Modern movement. Grounds’ National Gallery of Victoria 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. Grounds’ gallery is surrounded by a water-filled moat, while dry, stone-filled drains, designed to carry away storm water runoff from the roof, surround Birrell’s JCU Library.

National Gallery of Victoria, designed by Roy Grounds.
By Robert Merkel at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Although the ground level of the JCU Library has since been enclosed, Birrell 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.”

Together with Gordon Stephenson, Birrell also designed the overall master plan of the university’s layout. In his design, Birrell was influenced by 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, with academic services to be situated inside the “ring road”, and other facilities, including residential colleges, to be located outside the ring.

Architect James Birrell sited JCU's library in such a way that it would have "an affinity with the mountain backdrop".
Photo: James Cook University Library Special Collections
Although it has been added to and altered considerably since the first stage was built, Birrell’s JCU Library is perhaps one of the most unique buildings in Townsville, and the only one that can truly be described as “Brutalist”.

However, there are two buildings in Townsville’s CBD that could be described as “Brutalist-inspired”. The Supreme Court complex in Walker Street was designed by the Queensland Public Works Department in the mid 1970s. Of masonry construction, with a raw patterned concrete finish to the exterior, the design employs heavily over-scaled features, with each floor extending over the one below. The Townsville City Council’s Civic Centre, also in Walker Street, designed by the Brisbane architectural firm of Lund, Hutton, Newell and Paulsen in 1973, is another example.
The "Brutalist-inspired" Townsville City Council Civic Centre.
Source: City Libraries Townsville Local History Collection.
This is the seventh in the JCU Library Special Collections’ series of eight articles written by Trisha Fielding which utilise the Collections’ varied resources to explore the historical themes for its “Townsville Past & Present” T150 project.