Office of the Government Architect


From its inception, the role of the architect responsible for government buildings was closely allied to public works. 'Public works' refers to projects undertaken by the government to facilitate the settlement and development of communities: it encompasses bridges, drainage, port and harbour facilities, water reticulation and power supplies. It also includes the buildings which provide services to the public, such as customs houses, court houses, post offices, railway stations, asylums, hospitals and schools, as well as buildings which house the legislative bodies, and government offices for public servants.

Because the early governors of New South Wales had complete power, subject only to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies and the British parliament, they took responsibility for public works. These began as very basic facilities such as convict and military barracks, stores, granaries, and mills to grind the grain. The work was undertaken using convict labour and the expertise of military offices with engineering and surveying skills. With the arrival of Governor Macquarie in 1810, the pace and scale of public works increased dramatically. He increased the duties of the Engineer and Artillery Officer under the title Inspector of Public Works and appointed Captain John Gill as the first incumbent. John Watts, Macquarie's Aide de camp from 1814 to 1818 assumed architectural and building responsibilities for several major projects. Macquarie appointed Francis Greenway as Civil Architect and Assistant Engineer in 1816.

In 1828 the Civil Engineer's Office became the Office of Public Works with Captain Charles Wilson as its Director and Ambrose Hallan as Architect and Town Surveyor. The structure of this organisation laid the framework for future arrangements in New South Wales and the other colonies. In times of prosperity the office of Colonial Architect was often important enough to be a separate entity, but in times of restrictions it was usually placed under the control of the engineer or surveyor in charge of public works. In 1832 Governor Bourke proposed a separate Colonial Architect's department, which would have the sole responsibility for public buildings and their furniture, the preparation of plans, and supervision of construction; but the Secretary of State insisted that it be a branch of the Surveyor General's Office. Bourke persevered, and in 1835 achieved his goal. Changes continued however: by 1844 the Colonial Architect's department had taken over the responsibilities of the Colonial Engineer's department; and in 1856 the Colonial Architect's Office was placed under the control of the Secretary for Lands and Public Works.

In 1860 Public Works and the Government Architect's Office became separate departments. From that date until 1890, the Government Architect's department was prolific and influential under the leadership of James Barnet, who eventually resigned because of an investigation into expenditure and the trivial nature of many of the department's duties. It was thought that the organisation could be pruned and designs opened to competition, but when Liberty Vernon assumed office there were only three competitions. Apart from the transfer of the offices from the stone building adjoining the Hyde Park Barracks into new extensions of the Public Works building, the existing organisation continued. The depression of the 1890s inevitably curtailed projects and probably contributed to a new simplicity in the design of public buildings after that time.

South Australia, where the surveyor was among the first settlers to arrive, provides useful comparisons. In 1839 G.S. Kingston, who was the Assistant Surveyor, was appointed as Colonial Engineer and Inspector of Public Works responsible to the Assistant Commissioner in the Lands Office. By 1841 he was referring to himself in government documents as 'Government Architect'. In the same year, however, he was advised that the government could not afford his services. His duties were given to Captain Edward Charles Frome, the Surveyor General, who assumed the title of Surveyor General and Colonial Engineer. Further changes were made in 1852 when W.B. Hayes was appointed as head of a newly styled Colonial Architect's Department, which became known as the Public Works Department, two years later.

From the commencement of constitutional government in South Australia in 1857, each government department was responsible to a Commissioner. The title of Colonial Architect's department was restored, and the department placed under the responsibility of the Commissioner for Public Works. In 1860 the title was changed to Engineer's and Architect's Department. William Hanson, an engineer and architect, was placed in charge, but in 1867 the roles were divided again, and Hanson was confined to the position of architect. During cutbacks from the beginning of 1871 to the end of 1873, services were provided by an Assistant Architect working from the Engineer-in-Chief's Department. In 1874 George Thomas Light headed a newly restored department, which became the Works and Buildings Department in 1886, and remained as such until 1921. Private architects were given opportunities to contribute their designs for many public buildings by way of open competition; however the implementation of their designs, and supervision of construction were usually undertaken by the government department.

Structures within the Office

Initially the head of the department responsible for buildings was assisted by one or more Clerks of Works who supervised construction work. In remote areas this duty was sometimes undertaken by the local magistrate or other responsible public official. As settlement spread and the workload increased, the position of Clerk of Works became more onerous, especially when it involved responsibility for a district such as the newly settled districts of Port Phillip and Moreton Bay. Local supervisory work became the responsibility of Foremen of Works.

As settlements grew into towns, and prosperity followed development or mineral discoveries, the work of the Colonial Architect grew, requiring more staff. An office might expand to include several grades of Clerks of Works and design draftsmen, with delineators producing the drawings, often as beautiful watercolours or prints on linen. Because several staff in the office might be involved in the designs and drawings for a building, it is sometimes difficult today to attribute a particular building to one person from two or three signatures which might appear on the final plans. Very often the Government Architect received recognition for designs which were the work of one of the staff. The work of the office extended beyond designs and drawings to responsibilities for costing and the letting of contracts, not only for new buildings but also for repairs and renovations to existing ones.

The office of Government Architect was very powerful, as is evidenced by the claims of private architects that they should be able to contribute to public buildings. The accessibility to government work varied between colonies. Within each colony it depended on the policy of the time, but even when designs were accepted from private architects, the government body usually supervised the construction. The great wealth of fascinating public architecture located over such a large continent is the best tribute to the Government Architects whose labours have gone largely unrecognised.


It is interesting that in 1900 the colonies were completing or in the process of building expensive and imposing custom houses and post offices, which were transferred to the Commonwealth on Federation. On 1 January 1901, seven Commonwealth departments came into existence one of these being the Department of Home Affairs, with a Public Works Branch whose most immediate task was the transfer of relevant state properties to the Commonwealth. Over the next fifteen years, this branch was responsible for works required by the departments of Trade and Customs, the Post Master General, Defence and the Navy as well as the Commonwealth offices of the Prime Minister, Treasury and Attorney-General. Of course there was no national capital and the new parliament and public service were located temporarily in Melbourne.

Commonwealth officers were appointed to the central office and to regional offices in the states, the first being Horace Mckennal as Draftsman of the Public Works Branch in Victoria and George Oakshott as Public Works Superintendent in New South Wales. In 1904 Percy Thomas Owen was appointed to central office as Director of the Public Works Branch and John Smith Murdoch moved from the Public Works Department in Queensland to become Senior Clerk. Under the Public Works Regulations of 1905, there were to be Works Directors appointed to New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, and Works Registrars in the other states. In 1904 there were two appointments to central office, four in Victoria, and New South Wales, and two in Tasmania; by 1916 this had increased to 31 in central office, 28 in New South Wales, 25 in Victoria, four in Queensland and one in the Federal Capital Territory. The work could not have been successful without the co-operation of the state works departments, which undertook many of the projects for the Commonwealth, often with a remarkable degree of independence.

By 1916 problems had emerged, owing to the lack of co-ordination of Commonwealth public works. In addition, the operations of the branch were expanding rapidly, and in response to this its status was changed to that of a separate department. In November 1916 the Department of Works and Railways was established, allowing greater accountability through the minister to parliament; until 1924 it was responsible for all building in the Federal Capital Territory. In 1924 the Federal Capital Commission was formed to construct public works and residences. Although it was associated with the Department of Works, it functioned independently.

The inaugural period of Commonwealth public works leading to the foundation of Canberra will always be associated with the name of John Smith Murdoch. After his appointment he remained the sole architect until 1910, and in 1919 became the Chief Architect. He retired in 1929 as Director General of Works and Chief Architect, after a distinguished career. He is best remembered for his design for Provisional Parliament House in Canberra and impressive customs houses in Queensland. The style of architecture which emerged during his period of office has been known as 'Commonwealth' or 'Federal Capital' style. It is distinguished by the use of brick contrasting with white stucco. His buildings display symmetrical lines and simplified classical balance, often complemented by Beaux-Arts influences. Some of the most significant buildings by Murdoch are the Provisional Parliament House (1927); East and West Blocks; the Hotels Canberra (1926), Kurrajong (1926), and Acton (1928), in Canberra; and the Commonwealth Offices in Melbourne (1913). He contributed to the Commonwealth offices in Adelaide (1925); Sydney, (1927); and Brisbane (1928). The Commonwealth Bank building in Brisbane (1930) and the General Post Office in Perth (1930-33) were also projects to which he contributed. Defence establishments accounted for much of the remainder of his work.