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.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Postcards from "Somewhere in France" - Part Two

Following on from my post of 17 August 2016, Bert (who was born in Cairns in 1896) was working in Townsville as a clerk when he enlisted with the AIF on the 5th April, 1915, at the age of 18 years, 9 months. 

The troop transport Ascanius (A11), at Fremantle, Western Australia, November 1914.
Source: Australian War Memorial    
On the 3rd May 1915, “A” Section of the 7th Field Ambulance arrived at Enoggera, Brisbane and mobilised to a camp at Vidgen’s Paddock, under the command of Lt. Col. R.B. Huxtable. Two days later they were joined by “C” Section, from Hobart. On 24th May they sailed from Pinkenba on the transport Ascanius, arriving in Sydney on the 26th.  They encamped at the show grounds for five days before re-embarking the Ascanius on the 1st June. A week later they arrived in Fremantle, docking at 7am on the 8th July. They set sail for Egypt later that day. On 2nd July they disembarked at Suez. From there they marched to Abbassia, Egypt, arriving at Polygon Camp at 2.30am on the 3rd.

Bert’s first postcard to Jean
There is no date on Bert’s first postcard to Jean, however it must have been sent somewhere between 3rd July and 4th September 1915, as this ties in with the dates the 7th Field Ambulance were at Polygon Camp, near Cairo, in Egypt, which was only about a mile away from Heliopolis Palace Hotel.

Postcard depicting Heliopolis Palace Hotel, Egypt, 1915. Note Bert’s notation that the complex was being used as a hospital.
Source: Private Collection of Trisha and Murray Fielding.
Dear Miss Dearness,
Excuse my taking the liberty of writing but I think I said I take cheeky liberties sometimes and write to young ladies even if they had young fellows looking after them. Ask Ernie Price if he knows the writing & you will know the writer. An early reply will give encouragement so don’t forget. We like getting letters away over here. Hope to be in the firing line soon. Kindest regards to all. From a soldier who wishes to be a friend. B.R.

You can read more about Heliopolis Palace Hotel during the war here:

Bert’s postcard only gives a hint as to the grandeur of Heliopolis Palace Hotel. This image from Museum Victoria gives some idea of the true scale of the building. On the ground floor you can see hospital beds lined up.
World War I, Hospital at Heliopolis Palace Hotel, Egypt, 1915-1917
Creator: Sister Selina Lily Mackenzie
Source: Museum Victoria
Bert was soon to get his wish – to be in the firing line. On the 4th September, the unit sailed from Alexandria aboard the transport ship  Knight Templar, bound for Gallipoli. They arrived on the 13th September after a short stopover at Lemnos. The following day they marched to Walden’s Point and here “A” Section took over from the 4th Field Ambulance. “B” and “C” Sections took over from New Zealand Field Ambulances at Chalk Hill and Chailak Dere, respectively.

Some insight into the difficulties faced by the unit can be gleaned from entries in the Unit Diary of the 7th Field Ambulance*:

2 October 1915, WALDENS POINT

B. Sec was shelled at CHALK HILL – one shell through hospital but – no one injured. Endeavouring to select safer site, as this sec. is surrounded by batteries. A rumour has been current since we arrived that Turks had threatened to shell Field Ambs. if they were not removed from vicinity of batteries but we are so cramped for room that this position was considered as safe as we could expect to be and all Field Ambs. are in much the same plight. Continually under fire as they are in the area covered by rifle and gun fire.

3 October 1915, WALDENS POINT
B. Sec advise shelled again, one going through a bearer’s dugout. No one hurt. Decided to move if safer site can be found.

4 October 1915, WALDENS POINT
Pte. J. ONEIL killed by shrapnel at ANZAC BEACH, when on duty with a party sent for stores.

8 October 1915, WALDENS POINT, 8pm
Thunderstorm blowing all our tents down. They are old operating tents received from 4th A. F. Amb. Another man of B. Sec. wounded when lying in their bivouac.

10 October 1915, WALDENS POINT
Turks said to have used gas at HILL 60.
A section of the camp of “C” Section of the 7th Australian Field Ambulance at Chailak Dere, Gallipoli, October 1915.
Source: Australian War Memorial.
As well as wounds caused by combat, soldiers (including members of the ambulance unit) were treated for a variety of illnesses & ailments, including: influenza, dysentery, typhoid, paratyphoid, jaundice, unidentified fevers, acute bronchitis, trench foot and frost bite.

No other correspondence from Bert to Jean while he was stationed at Gallipoli, has survived, if in fact there was any. The next postcard to Jean (still in existence) was sent from France. After almost four months at Gallipoli, the 7th Field Ambulance were evacuated in December 1915 and disembarked at Alexandria on the 10th January 1916. The following day Bert was transferred to the 21st General Hospital, Alexandria, suffering from mumps.

After eight weeks in hospital, Bert rejoined his unit on 6th March, in time to sail for France on the 15th. They disembarked at Marseilles on 19th March. He soon wrote to Jean with news of his new location.
Embossed postcard sent from “Somewhere in France” in 1916, showing embroidered detail of flags, along with the word Amities, meaning friendship and peaceful harmony between nations. The top section lifts to reveal a small card inside, with the words: “With Loving Wishes” printed in gold lettering.
Source: Private Collection of Trisha and Murray Fielding.
Somewhere in France

Dear Jean,
By the above address you will see Egypt and Gallipoli is a thing of the past and beautiful France is now our home. It is very cold here now but spring is coming in. Not near so cold as the weeks of snow we had on the peninsular. We are billeted in houses. Not likely to see W. Brooks for a long time. Long letter following at an early date. Hoping you are enjoying the best of health as I am at present. Best wishes and remembrance to all and best love to self.
Yours affectionately,

It is interesting to note here that Bert says he is in the “best of health” at present, with no mention of having recently spent almost two months in hospital with mumps. No doubt it was the least of his concerns. He was about to experience the horrors of evacuating injured men who’d been battered and maimed by trench warfare in the muddy fields of France, the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the entire war.

Stay tuned for Part Three!

* Unit Diaries are held by the Australian War Memorial