Happy 150th birthday to our dour but magnificent architect who did a ‘rush job’
This month we are celebrating the 150th birthday of John Smith Murdoch, the chief architect for the Commonwealth of Australia who designed Provisional Parliament House, the magnificent building that houses our museum. When Murdoch was given the task of designing Provisional Parliament House the Federal Capital Advisory Committee dictated that ‘the external architecture would be simple, but decorous’. From the first the building was only ever expected to last for 50 to 100 years and there was a stated wish that the building not turn into an architectural jewel that might preclude later demolition.
Costs needed to be kept down and Murdoch, known for being dour, frugal and committed to conserving public funds, described the design as characterised by ‘plainness’ and referred to it rather apologetically as a ‘rush job’. Colonel Percy Owen, Murdoch’s superior, was somewhat more positive saying that his design aimed ‘to obtain effect with simple lines, and without expensive architectural embellishment’ and that it did not ‘provide any features purely for the gaining of effect.’
Murdoch produced a design in the Inter-war Stripped Classical architectural style. The easiest way to understand this style is to imagine a classical or neo-classical building like the Parthenon or the British Library and then strip away all the ornate detail and embellishments. John Smith Murdoch didn’t stop at designing the exterior of the building. He also designed the interiors, which skilfully integrated all the spaces required of a parliament including the chambers, King’s Hall, a library, party rooms, offices, the members’ dining rooms and kitchens. He also designed a beautiful and equally distinctive set of furniture that share the design language of the architecture.
Reflecting on the original desire for the building not to become an architectural jewel, well, John Smith Murdoch completely failed in this endeavour. Instead he designed what is now considered a significant, nationally-listed heritage building containing a precious furniture collection and every day we are indebted to his fine sense of classical simplicity, hierarchical order and spatial unity and proportion.