James Birrell

James Birrell (1928-2019) was an architect responsible for the design of significant buildings in Queensland, Australia. James Birrell practiced from 1951 to 1986.

James Peter Birrell
Born24 October 1928[1]
Melbourne, Australia
Died20 September 2019
Awards2005 RAIA Gold Medal[2]
BuildingsUnion College, University of Queensland James Purnell Building – University of Queensland, JD Story Administration Building – University of Queensland, Agriculture and Entomology Building (Hartley Teakle Building) – University of Queensland
ProjectsBrisbane Centenary Pool Centre

Personal life

James Peter Birrell was born in Melbourne on the 24 October 1928, the eldest child of Harry and Elizabeth Birrell. Growing up in North Essendon, Birrell attended North Essendon Primary School from 1934–40 and Essendon State High School from 1940–44.

In 1945 at the age of 17 James Birrell was accepted into the Melbourne Technical College as an architecture student. To help finance his studies Birrell worked part-time as a builder's labourer. In 1947 Birrell began work as a draughtsman for the Victorian State Works Department and continued his studies Part-time. The same year he also became involved in the Contemporary Arts Society, through the Society he gained many new friends, notably Peter Burns.

In 1950 Birrell was accepted into Fourth Year Architecture at The University of Melbourne. In 1951 he graduated and designed his first houses, in Frankston and Warrandyte, Birrell also worked briefly as the resident Architect at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories.

In 1952 Birrell co-founded the magazine Architecture and Arts with his contemporaries, Peter Burns, Helen O'Donnell and Norman Lehey. In 1954 Birrell contributed to the Contemporary Arts Society's exhibition 'Space Modulators' along with artists including Sidney Nolan, Ian Fairweather, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval.

Working for the Commonwealth Works Department, Birrell was transferred to Canberra, before going on to Darwin and finally Brisbane. In Brisbane James Birrell went on to become Brisbane City Council Architect and University of Queensland Staff Architect. It was during this period that Birrell designed his most significant buildings.

Throughout his life Birrell admired the works of Walter Burley Griffin and in 1964 he wrote a biography on Griffin.

In March 1985 James Birrell was elected as a councillor for the Shire of Maroochy in Queensland.

Birrell's archive is held at the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland and the State Library of Queensland.[3][4]

Birrell died 20 September 2019.[5]

Notable projects

Brisbane City Council Architect

In 1956 as Brisbane City Council Architect Birrell designed the Chermside and Annerley Libraries, Centenary Pool Complex at Spring Hill as well as numerous public amenities. In 1957 his design proposal for the Centenary Pool complex was successful with construction finishing in 1959. Architecture and Arts magazine named the building as one of the top ten buildings within Australia.

Birrell also designed the former Toowong Municipal Library Building, which was completed in 1961. Located on Coronation Drive, it was directly opposite to Birrell's Toowong Pool (which has since been demolished). The library is heritage listed although is now used for commercial purposes (medical imaging-MRI).[6]

University of Queensland Staff Architect

From 1961–66 James Birrell practiced as The University of Queensland Staff Architect. In this position he designed and documented Union College, which was constructed in five stages from 1964 and 1972. Union College was highly commended after its construction. It was visually pleasing while also being innovative in terms of the structure and its response to pre-existing site conditions. Union College received a High Commendation award from Arts and Architecture journal as one of the best ten new buildings in Australia at the time.

During his tenure as staff architect James Birrell was also responsible for the JD Story Administration Building (1965) the Agriculture and Entomology Building, now known as the Hartley Teakle Building (1966). Birrell was also responsible for the design of the campus plan at James Cook University in Townsville, and several of its early buildings 1964–1970. In 1965 Birrell became President of the Australian Planning Institute.

Private Practice

In 1966 he moved into private practice. Much of Birrell's work in this period came from overseas. He worked for the University of Papua New Guinea, where he designed the Halls of Residence, Arts/Law and Arts II Buildings and Indonesia as a government planning consultant.



  • Union College, University of Queensland, RAIA High Commendation (1966)
  • JD Story Administration Building, University of Queensland, RAIA Commendation
  • Agriculture and Entomology Building (Hartley Teakle Building), University of Queensland, RAIA Citation (1970)[10]

In 2005 Birrell was awarded the RAIA Gold Medal. Royal Australian Institute of Architects national president Warren Kerr said the Melbourne-born Brisbane-based architect had made a "spirited and distinguished contribution to the discipline of architecture".[11]


  • The University of Queensland Staff and Graduates Club have a room named the "James Birrell Room".[12]
  • Architecture students in the University of Queensland's Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology's Scholars program are known as Birrell Scholars. The program provides the Faculty's top students with enhanced academic, industry and cultural experiences.[13]


  1. James Birrell Collection
  2. RAIA Official Award Site
  3. "James Birrell Papers - Fryer Manuscripts". University of Queensland. Archived from the original on 16 August 2019. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  4. "New acquisition: James Birrell Papers". State Library of Queensland. 11 February 2013. Archived from the original on 16 August 2019. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  5. "'Architectural champion' James Birrell dies at 90". ArchitectureAU. 2 October 2019. Archived from the original on 10 October 2019. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
  6. "xradiology Australia". www.xradiology.com.au. Retrieved 24 October 2015.
  7. "Union College, University of Queensland (entry 602504)". Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
  8. "Annerley Library and Community Centre". Brisbane Heritage Register. Brisbane City Council. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  9. Keniger, Michael. "View of University of Queensland Staff and Graduates Club from Zelman Cowen Building, St. Lucia Campus, Brisbane". UQ eSpace. Archived from the original on 10 October 2019. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
  10. Gold Medal Winner 2005 – Australian Institute of Architects
  11. The Age News Report – Award of RAIA Gold Medal
  12. James Birrell Room – UQ Staff Club Archived 3 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  13. "Birrell Scholars". School of Architecture. University of Queensland. Retrieved 15 August 2019.

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