Commonwealth Government Architect


John Smith Murdoch was born in Scotland in 1864. After serving his articles with a firm of architects, he worked in architects’ offices and for the Glasgow railways. In 1842 he emigrated to Melbourne, where he worked for a firm of architects for two years. In 1885 he moved to Brisbane and was employed as a draftsman in the Building Branch of the Department of Mines and Works. Retrenched in 1887, he returned to employment with private architects but rejoined the Public Works Department in 1893, rising through the ranks from temporary draftsman to District Architect for the Central and Northern Division in 1901. He is remembered for his legacy of buildings which includes the Sandgate Post Office, court houses at Gympie and Charleville, and customs houses at Maryborough, Bundaberg, Mackay and Townsville.

He was seconded to the federal Department of Home Affairs in May 1904, and two months later joined the Commonwealth service permanently. Details of his career are given in the section on the Government Architect. The Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, called an international competition for the design of the federal capital city in 1911. When the winning design of Walter Burley Griffin, Chicago landscape architect, was announced, there was opposition from many quarters because of the expense which it would entail. Murdoch served on the Departmental Board which the Minister set up to review the plans. By November, 1912, revised plans had been drawn up and work was to proceed as money became available.

On 12 March 1913, The Governor-General, Lord Denman, the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, and the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, laid the foundation stone of the Commencement Column, the work of Murdoch. Lady Denman announced the name of the capital, ‘Canberra’.

Work did proceed, but war disrupted plans in 1914. When construction resumed Canberra was little more than an array of workmen’s huts. Hostel accommodation for workers has been a major feature of Canberra’s development as a public service and university city. In 1925 the population was nearing 3000, of whom almost 1500 were tradesmen employed by the Commonwealth. By 1926 the population approached 5000 and the following year 646 public servants transferred from Melbourne. Suburban housing was the responsibility of the Federal Capital Commission, but there was a big demand for hotel as well as hostel accommodation. Murdoch designed Gorman House (1924); and the hotels Canberra, and Kurrajong (1926), and Acton (1928). He also designed Canberra’s first government school at Telopea Park, (1923). In the states he had input into post and telegraph buildings which were now the responsibility of the Commonwealth, as well as defence facilities and Commonwealth Bank buildings.

Murdoch designed the offices occupied by public servants in Canberra - the East Block and West Block, named for their position in relation to Parliament House. Parliament House was his major achievement; it was extended subsequently with wings on either side. Its simple dignified style is probably appreciated more now than it was while used by parliament, and original features, such as the verandahs, which had been enclosed for offices, have been restored. It was constructed of bricks brought by light rail from the local Yarralumla brick works. The brick footings remained exposed but the main area of the walls was rendered. The basement was used for kitchens and offices; the ground floor for the two parliamentary chambers, party rooms, offices and recreational areas which included a dining room and bar; and the upper floor was devoted to the press. It was intended that the parliament would use it for 50 years and then it would serve as offices. It was 61 years, however, before the new Parliament House was opened.

In 1914 Murdoch was elected a Fellow of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and was elected to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1926. He was a founding member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. In 1927 he was recognised for his contribution to the building of Canberra with the honour of Commander of St. Michael and St. George. He retired in 1929 and died in 1945.


Australia’s Heritage, the making of a nation, vol. 13, Hamlyn House, Sydney, 1971.

Brennan, Frank, Canberra in Crisis, Dalton Publishing Company, Garema Place, Canberra City, 1971.

Dean, Jenny, J. S. Murdoch, First Commonwealth Architect, Research for the Australian Construction Services, April 1987, held by the Australian Heritage Commission.

Hoyle, A.R., King O’Malley ‘The American Bounder’, Macmillan, 1981. Watson, David, McKay, Judith, Queensland Architects of the 19th Century, QueenslandMuseum, Brisbane, 1994.

Old Parliament House, information for visitors, National Museum of Australia.