The unknown architect who built Australia's capital city Canberra

He's one of the most prolific architects of Australian landmark buildings and you've probably never heard of him.

John Smith Murdoch, the son of a farmer from Scotland, rose to become the Chief Architect of the Commonwealth of Australia. In a remarkable career spanning 45 years, he designed hundreds of the most important public buildings in the nation, including what is now known as the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.

"He's probably the most underrated and unknown architect in this country," says Dr David Rowe from Authentic Heritage Services, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the architecture of Murdoch. "He's been a bit forgotten in history, slowly but surely disappearing off the radar, because the focus has always been on the avant-garde, but his buildings have stood the test of time and formed the face of Canberra - and the nation."

If you've ever stayed at Hyatt Hotel Canberra or Hotel Kurrajong, bought a stamp at the GPO in Perth or taken care of business at the Commonwealth Offices in Treasury Place, Melbourne, you have stepped foot into a building designed by Murdoch. If you've visited Old Parliament House - his greatest achievement - you might even have felt his ghostly presence.

A renewed interest in the buildings he created and an increasing appreciation for their heritage value may finally shine the spotlight on Murdoch's legacy. When the Hotel Kurrajong reopened earlier this year, the persistent theme was "everything old is beloved again". Bellhops at the Hyatt are dressed in period gear, right down to the paper-boy caps. J.S. Murdoch Walks offered in the past two years as part of Design Canberra festival have sold out. Murdoch's drawing tools are on permanent display at the National Museum of Australia.

"There's a renewed interest in the people who made Canberra - who they were and what did they think about when they were designing this city - and Murdoch was certainly one of them," says Edwina Jans, Head of Heritage, Exhibitions and Engagement at Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House (MOADOPH). "The buildings he designed are such unique places and worth a visit. Where else but Hotel Kurrajong can you sleep in the room where Prime Minister Ben Chifley lived?"

But first, let's go back to the beginning.

In search of new opportunities in a new land, then 22-year-old Murdoch emigrated to Melbourne in 1884. Trained and qualified as an architect in Scotland, he was soon enticed to join the ranks of the public service as a draftsman with the Queensland Department of Public Works. He made his mark in the Sunshine State over the next 20 years, designing everything from post offices to courts to landmark hotels (the latter during a stint in private practice).

A fastidious, frugal man, Murdoch lived to work tirelessly, by all accounts. Here was a man of simple tastes, a dedicated public servant, who would have been appalled by the hoopla surrounding modern-day "star-chitects", their multi-million dollar commissions and the slavish devotion afforded them by devoted fans.

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"He was a consummate public servant - a workaholic, really - who even used Christmas Day to travel interstate so that he wouldn't waste time," says Dr Rowe. "He was highly respected in his day, and devoted himself to public service."

In 1904, Murdoch left Queensland and joined the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs. In this new role of federal scope and influence, Murdoch was instrumental in the design of a nation still in its infancy. Promoted in 1919 to Commonwealth Chief Architect, Murdoch was to play an essential role in the planning of Canberra, the newly-designated Australian federal capital.

Then a dusty landscape dotted with sheep stations, Canberra had been chosen as the capital site, mainly because feuding political powerbrokers in Melbourne and Sydney refused to let each other claim centre stage. But Parliament couldn't convene in a sheep paddock, could it? (The jury's still out on that one). Where would the hundreds of public servants relocating from Melbourne live? Murdoch and his team got to work.

Undoubtedly his greatest challenge - and ultimately greatest legacy - was creating what is now known as Old Parliament House.

In 1922 it was decided a provisional Parliament House was to be constructed in Canberra. Five years later, on May 9, 1927, the Duke and Duchess of York (who would later be known as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother) unlocked the front doors with a golden key as Dame Nellie Melba sang God Save the King.

Was it easy? Of course not, there were dozens of politicians involved. The hoopla and controversy leading up to opening day would rival any modern-day political scandal. A big-talking American senator (the Hon. King O'Malley, who claimed to be Canadian in order to be eligible, as a British subject, to run for Parliament) was accused of nepotism when American Walter Burley Griffin was announced as the winner of an international competition to design Canberra.

Murdoch and Griffin, initially friends and mutually respectful colleagues, ended up as enemies. Murdoch and his team represented precedent, tradition, duty and a get-on-with-the-job pragmatism. Griffin was the free-thinking American outsider who claimed the establishment was thwarting his plans to design an ideal city. A Royal Commission was held. The two men never spoke again.

"Every Australian school child has heard of Walter Burley Griffin, but they haven't heard of Murdoch," says Dr Rowe. "Those early buildings and the built environment of Canberra are Murdoch's doing, not Burley Griffin's. Murdoch just wanted to get on with it in a very practical way, whereas Griffin was still the visionary."

Ninety years later, Old Parliament House is still standing, the familiar wedding-cake white structure that was never meant to be permanent, now housing the Museum of Australian Democracy. In this building, wars have been declared, laws debated, budgets decided and even a Prime Minister dismissed (Gough Whitlam on November 11, 1975). It is quite simply an iconic national landmark of priceless importance to the Australian story.

"Old Parliament House is Murdoch's greatest achievement," Dr Rowe says. "They wanted a shed for a conference, it progressed to a temporary provisional Parliament House and 90 years later it's still there. It's been reported the architects of New Parliament House used Old Parliament House as a reference and anchor."

"What is really special apart from the building itself - the first building to symbolise our nationhood - is the fact that Murdoch also designed the gardens and furniture, everything down to the wastepaper baskets and hatstands, so there's this uniformity and continuous aesthetic throughout and within the building," says Jans. "It was a huge job and he took it on with this incredible work ethic to the point of making himself ill. He was a true public servant, this was his job and he got on with it."

Visitors to the MOADOPH - and I would urge all Australians to visit if they can - are able to enjoy and appreciate Murdoch's work up close and personal.

"Everything from the wooden wastepaper bins in the chambers to the exquisite easy chairs in the Opposition party room, it's all still the Murdoch collection," says Jans. "These items were in continual use for more than 60 years [New Parliament House opened in 1988], a testament to the quality of design and craftmanship."

Favouring a streamlined, classical modern Renaissance style, Murdoch created what has become known as "the Canberra line". Wander the hallways of the original buildings at Hyatt Hotel Canberra and Hotel Kurrajong (originally built as hostels to accommodate public servants during Parliamentary sittings) and the key architectural elements are as evident as they were 90 years ago. You'll still find climate-responsive garden courtyards and spacious open brick balconies to bring in plenty of fresh air and sunshine; white rendered brick walls with red-brick wall bases and an emphasis on proportions and lines, rather than ornate details; and the ever-present "H"-shaped plan on which structures were built to deliver proportional harmony.

"His work has been maligned and seen as old-fashioned," says Dr Rowe. "For most architects, the focus of training is on progressing and moving forward with new ideas. I believe Murdoch did that, but remember, his architecture had to symbolise what the people and pollies of the time could accept and understand. That's why he focused on a strict classical style. I would argue his work has been enduring and continues to define the look of Canberra."

After retiring in 1929, Murdoch, who never married, lived at the Commercial Travellers Club in Flinders Street Melbourne until his death in 1945.

Back in the early '90s, when I was a student at the Australian National University, I worked in the catering department at Old Parliament House. Frothing cappuccinos in the cafe, or serving dinner to wedding guests, the waiters all agreed on one thing: there was a ghostly presence in the corridors and chambers of The House. I put it to Jans that perhaps Murdoch, ever the faithful public servant, continues to oversee the building.

"Many people who have worked here have their own stories about unusual things that happen at night, of creaks and groans and windows being left open even though you swear you just closed them," she says. "To me it's just the nature of an old building, but it's a lovely story isn't it, to think he's still here, making sure everything is done just right."

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia and Qantas fly frequently to Canberra. See www.virginaustralia.com or www.qantas.com.au.

STAYING THERE

Hyatt Hotel Canberra (rooms from $335), Peppers Gallery Hotel (rooms from $225) and Hotel Kurrajong (rooms from $155)  are all on sites designed by JS Murdoch and retain many original design features. Request heritage rooms when booking. See www.hyatt.com, www.tfehotels.com and www.peppers.com.au.

TOURING THERE

Visit the Museum of Australian Democracy at  the "wedding cake" style Old Parliament House where you can wander  the chambers, corridors and offices where nation-shaping decisions were made. Stand in the spot on the front steps where Gough Whitlam, upon being dismissed as the Prime Minister, uttered his famous line: "Well may we say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General." See www.moadoph.gov.au.

John Smith Murdoch's drawing instruments are on show in the National Museum of Australia's Landmarks Gallery. See www.nma.gov.au

Kristie Kellahan was a guest of Hotel Kurrajong.

FIVE MORE LANDMARK JS MURDOCH BUILDINGS

GENERAL POST OFFICE, PERTH

This heritage landmark building was once the largest structure in Perth. Designed by Murdoch in conjunction with the-then Principal Architect of WA, the GPO was officially opened in 1923, six years behind schedule.

FORMER QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT OFFICES (ANZAC SQUARE), BRISBANE

Murdoch designed a number of state and federal government office buildings around a memorial square in the centre of Brisbane. Bordered by Ann, Edward and Adelaide Streets, the site has been used continuously as government offices and shops since construction in 1931.

HMAS CRESWELL, JERVIS BAY

Located on the shores of Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast, construction on the Royal Australian Naval College at HMAS Creswell was completed by 1915. Murdoch designed the senior staff bungalows.

COMMONWEALTH OFFICES, 4 TREASURY PLACE, MELBOURNE

This was the first building designed to house Commonwealth public servants and the Prime Minister, and is classified by the National Trust as an historic landmark. Overlooking Treasury and Fitzroy Gardens, the building is a six-storey Edwardian Baroque structure built between 1911 and 1913.

GORMAN HOUSE, CANBERRA

Designed in 1924 primarily to accommodate public servants (and known then as Hostel No. 3), Gorman House is today a popular arts centre and the location for Saturday markets.

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