Sunday 30 March 2014


The news report arrived suddenly on the evening news of 28 March 2014: Robin Gibson had died. Such news always comes unannounced; such is life. Memories welled up: Gibbo gone. He was known as ‘Gibbo’ colloquially, never to his face. He called me ‘Spen’ - always wrong, but one could never correct Rob. One addressed him as ‘Rob;’ more formally and less frequently as ‘Robin.’

His early work was astonishing. While John Dalton was making his name in housing, Robin Gibson worked in parallel, close to and with his benefactors, his work growing both in stature, confidence and scale. His commercial work transformed Brisbane's Queen Street, now the mall, with beautifully designed commercial premises: Mathers shoe shop; Milano coffee shop/restrauant. I had my first cappuccino there. The work extended into other memorable commercial projects. (see: For years they were icons of their time. His own home too was remarkable but less ‘sharp’ than Dalton’s slick designs; yet still impressive.

Robin Gibson (right) with Sir David Muir at the Lyric Theatre construction site 1983

In Brisbane, Rob spent some time as a student working for Hayes and Scott. He developed a practice in Brisbane with a dedicated staff after returning from England where he worked with James Cubitt; Sir Hugh Casson; and Neville Conder. His staff would work for the master whenever he asked, day, night, weekends. Equally he was there in anytime of need for all of his staff. Each Friday afternoon had the staff collection for beer. The cartons were matched by Gibson’s pizzas. In the office one could observe closely how the myth made magic. It was laborious, trying at times. Striding through the office, the familiar authoritative, inquisitorial voice would ask: “What are you doing?” The response on one occasion was heard to be: “I'm looking for a grid.” Such was the rigour of Gibbo’s design work. Loved and hated, he came through with quality outcomes.

His work grew in stature. The Gibson scheme was the chosen design for the new Queensland Art Gallery, a project that grew into the Queensland Museum, the Performing Arts Centre and the State Library complex on the south bank of the Brisbane River, sadly to be renovated and extended by others. His love was architecture. One can recall the beginnings of this grand inner-city development. The queen was coming to Brisbane. Something had to be done to allow her to open the gallery before it had started: some scheme, anything. The riverfront was chosen: a fountain was needed. She could switch it on with all her regal drama. So the sketches started. Ideas were developed. Rob carefully observed and guided until he demanded: then it was done - a beautiful fountain like that in the lake at Canberrra. But this was tidal water. Sadly the years have seen it and its pump house gone; the ramp and pontoon modified. The landscape remains, more mature but with fewer paths.

The stories could go on and on. Gibbo always knew someone. He had a unique self-confidence that allowed him to survive every challenge with humour. We will miss him: that open face; the sparkling eyes; the chirpy voice: “How are you Spen?” - his confident, clever retorts to testing questions. His runs were clearly on the wall, the walls that he had built. His later works and reworkings seemed to try just too hard. They lacked the spirit of the inspired beginnings. Mathers concrete and glass and the pre-cast precision of his high-rise structures on the corners of George and Queen Streets would make any architect proud if built today.

‘Rob’ to his face; ‘Gibbo’ to his back - one might have been critical, but this man made some of Brisbane’s most enduring and significant architecture. Just the other day when wandering through the Art Gallery precincts and perusing the design, one could review details. It was indeed well considered: six risers to the metre; precise, square concrete joints arrayed to suit diagrams and patterns; quality concrete formed with the required precision; the use of water to mark old street alignments and unite interiors and exteriors. It was an impressive display, made more evident to the appreciative eye only after enduring years of effort in the profession and knowing how hard it is to achieve outcomes like this. While some might remain critical of the building and his later works, the status of the profession in this state, its state, is such that men like Robin Gibson will be greatly missed. He fought for quality and for his visions: his reshaping of Brisbane set the example for civic possibilities in what was then a modest country town. Robin Gibson was one of the few architects who could hold the respect of his profession, his clients and the public.

His story of Brisbane, his home, was always impressive. It included the boyhood image of the polar bear licking the ice cream in bright, flickering neon that he held in his vision for South Brisbane, along with the distant hills of Mount Coot-tha. This bear became the iconic inspiration for his bridge link over Melbourne Street with its puffy ice-cream top. Like it or loathe it, it held to its ideal and achieved an outcome. Such was Gibbo’s stamina. It will be missed. His energy was an anchor for quality outcomes and spirited critiques. Architecture needs both. He generated both.

I can recall driving to a project meeting with Rob one morning many years ago. The canons of the 1812 Overture were blazing away on the car radio: the boom, boom, boom, boom of the finale. Rob said, “That's Benjamin Britten.” One was always reluctant, but I had to correct him. “No, that's Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.” There was silence. Gibbo was never wrong. The music stopped. The crisp BBC voice announced after the completion: “That was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by . . . Gibbo’s voice interrupted without any hesitation: “There. I told you it was British.” One can only admire the certainty; the quick mind; the skill; the cheek; the indefatigable spirit that changed Brisbane. Lest we forget.

15 May 1930 - 28 March 2014

Eminent architect Robin Gibson, designer of the Queensland Cultural Centre, has died
MARCH 29, 2014 12:00AM

Architect Robin Gibson at the Queensland Art Gallery, one of the many Brisbane landmakrs he designed. Picture: Glenn Barnes Source: News Limited
THE architect who broke new ground and turned Brisbane into a world-class city when he came up with the concept for a cultural precinct, has died aged 84.
Hailed as one of the most significant contributors to architectural excellence in Queensland in recent history, Robin Gibson was the mastermind behind converting Queen St into a pedestrian mall as well as creation of the Queensland Cultural Centre.
He first had to convince government of the value of a Queensland cultural precinct before designing buildings that were different to, and yet complementary of, each other.
“Robin won a competition to design the new Queensland art gallery in 1971. It took another three years for him to convince the government to do the whole project,” director of the Queensland Cultural Centre Trust and architect Russell Kerrison, a close associate of Mr Gibson, said.
“At the time, there was no theatre in Brisbane, no opera facility, the state library was inadequate and there was a separate project for a new museum on the drawing board.
“Robin recognised this as an opportunity to combine all those facilities in one location and persuaded the government that an integrated cultural centre would be better than individual institutions dotted around town.”
Mr Kerrison said there was no similar combination of integrated cultural facilities anywhere else in the world at the time and possibly since.
“The Lincoln Centre in New York is wonderful but it is only performing arts, whereas Brisbane has the performing arts complex plus a science and natural history museum, a library and a fine art gallery all in the one place,” Mr Kerrison said.
“Robin was one of the few architects who stood above the crowd and fought for what he believed in. The job was also to persuade the authorities to do things out of the ordinary and Robin could do that.”
Mr Gibson graduated from the University of Queensland in 1954 and moved to London, where he worked with a number of leading architectural firms for three years before returning to Brisbane to establish his own architectural practice.
While he worked on a number of projects that changed the face of Brisbane, including Wintergarden, Anzac Square, St Stephen’s Cathedral restoration and extension, Brisbane Arcade and various university buildings, the Queensland Cultural Centre was his crowning achievement.
“It was very innovative for its time as no other combination of cultural facilities had been designed and built in such an integrated manner,” Mr Kerrison said.
“Most architects would consider designing the state art gallery or an opera house or a science museum as a great achievement, but Robin did them all.
“Each of them is a complex building design and he got across the lot.”
His philosophy was that a good building respected its users and accommodated the needs of those outside its walls.
Robin Gibson won the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for public buildings in 1982 for the Queensland art gallery design, the same year he was named Queenslander of the Year.
He was awarded the Order of Australia in 1983 and the Advance Australia Award in 1988.
Funeral arrangements are yet to be announced.

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