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Sir John Buchan (1909–1998)

by Philip Goad

This article was published online in 2023

John Buchan, c.1935

John Buchan, c.1935

Page, An Architectural Apex (1990)

Sir John Buchan (1909–1998), architect and civic leader, was born Thomas Johnston Buchan on 3 June 1909 at Geelong, Victoria, elder child and only son of Thomas Johnston (Tom) Buchan, architect, and his wife Ida Florence, née McCormack, both Victorian born. John was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School (1922–26) and the Gordon Institute of Technology (1927–29), where he studied architecture under George R. King. From 1930 he was articled to his father’s firm, Laird & Buchan, which had been founded in Geelong in 1890 by John Angus Laird. Studying and working alongside Buchan was Laird’s son Ewen.

In November 1930 Buchan, Laird, and their office colleague Langham Proud convened the first meeting of the Geelong Young Business Men’s Club. The next year they changed the name to Apex, and branches were soon established across Victoria. Buchan later recalled their motivation during the Depression: ‘We felt we had jobs, albeit minor ones, and here was an opportunity to do something for young men by bringing them together in some form of fellowship and service’ (Aust. Senate 1998, 688). In 1935 he was elected inaugural national president of Apex Clubs of Australia.

Buchan was also a prominent member of the Corio branch of the Nationalist Party (from 1931 the United Australia Party). As a Young Nationalist he campaigned for (Baron) Richard Casey’s election to Federal parliament in 1931 and began a lifelong friendship with the future prime minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. In 1932 he travelled to the United States of America on a six-month goodwill mission of the Young Australia League, a trip which sparked his long-term passion for Australian-American cooperation.

From April to November 1935 Buchan undertook a study tour of Britain and Europe, and the next year he followed Laird in becoming a partner in their fathers’ practice. After Laird senior’s death in 1937, the firm was renamed Buchan, Laird & Buchan (BLB). Through various commissions it became associated with modern architecture, notably the flat-roofed functionalist Pilkington Glass Factory (1936) in Geelong, for which Buchan was lead architect.

Following the outbreak of World War II, on 14 November 1940 Buchan was commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force as a lieutenant, Royal Australian Engineers. While serving in the Middle East (March 1941–March 1942), he saw action in the Syrian campaign (June-July 1941) with the 2/9th Field Company and the 2/5th Field Company. His subsequent service was in Australia, mainly with the 2/15th Field Company, and included eight months in the Northern Territory (1942–43). He was promoted to temporary captain in June 1942 (substantive 1943) and was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 28 April 1945.

In 1946 Buchan established a Melbourne base for BLB, which expanded rapidly in the postwar decades. Important early work included the design and construction of more than two thousand houses for Victoria’s soldier-settlement scheme by 1955. Major industrial commissions came after Buchan’s second trip to the United States in 1947. He visited many leading architects and practices, notably Nathaniel Owings, senior partner in the corporate architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, with whom he formed a lasting association. Influenced by Owings, he reorganised the Geelong and Melbourne offices of BLB, with sections dedicated to structural and mechanical engineering, landscaping, and interior design. By the end of the 1950s the practice had emerged as one of the nation’s specialists in industrial architecture.

In 1957 BLB partnered with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design the new head office of the Shell Company of Australia, a nineteen-storey glazed office tower in Bourke Street, Melbourne, completed in 1960. Another collaboration was the Russell Defence Complex in Canberra (1960–66), which featured a pair of marble-clad office buildings flanking the Australian-American Memorial. BLB completed several large-scale projects for American-owned companies, including extensions to the International Harvester Plant, North Corio (1955–59), the Caterpillar Tractor Co. offices and plant at Tullamarine (1955–62), and Ford Australia’s head office building at Broadmeadows (1961–64). Other important high-rise buildings in Melbourne with which Buchan was closely associated included the new Stock Exchange (1968) on Collins Street and ACI House (1968) in Bourke Street, both faced with curtain walls of pre-cast concrete panels.

Buchan’s connection with the United States was also personal. On 22 December 1948 he had married the New York-born interior decorator Virginia Mallory Anderson in the Geelong Grammar School chapel. The pair became active in the newly formed Australian-American Association, of which Casey was president. Buchan organised the association’s exhibition of architecture and interior design, America Today, which toured Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney in 1948. He later served as its State president (1964–68), Federal president (1968–71), and Federal vice-president (1971–84). Continuing his involvement in conservative politics, he was president (1958–62) and treasurer (1962–67) of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party of Australia, and a friend and confidant of the Liberal premiers (Sir) Henry Bolte and (Sir) Rupert Hamer. He was appointed CMG in 1961 for services to the Liberal Party and knighted in 1971 for services to international relations.

Buchan had served (1954–59) on the Melbourne City Council and from 1972 he lobbied for the development of the south bank of Melbourne’s Yarra River. BLB later designed Southgate (1988–91), the first part of a riverside precinct that revitalised a neglected part of the city. He was a member (1968–78) of the committee of management of the Royal Melbourne Hospital and served (1966–72) on the council of La Trobe University. He retired from practice in 1982. The firm had become Buchan, Laird & Bawden in 1980 and continued as the Buchan Group from 1990.

In retirement Buchan continued his lifelong commitment to furthering the interests of young people. In 1984 he founded the National Committee for Development of Youth Employment, a think tank of business, union, and community leaders. Another initiative was JANA (Jobs, A New Approach), a network of service clubs which provided mentoring for youth employment in rural Victoria. Tall, genial, outgoing, and generous, Sir John was well-connected and respected across the political and professional spectrum. His significance to Australian architecture was his promotion of links with American business and manufacturing interests, which also served the purpose of fostering Australian relations with the United States during the Cold War. The establishment of Apex Clubs of Australia was one of his greatest achievements. Survived by his wife, son, and two daughters, he died at Prahran on 25 October 1998.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. Senate. Parliamentary Debates, 25 November 1998, 688–89
  • Boyd, Robin. Victorian Modern: One Hundred and Eleven Years of Modern Architecture in Victoria, Australia. Melbourne: Victorian Architectural Students Society, 1947
  • Cole, David. ‘Pragmatic Powerbroker.’ Australian, 29 0ctober 1998, 14
  • Goad, Philip. ‘Constructing Pedigree: Robin Boyd’s “California-Victoria-New Empiricism” Axis.’ Fabrications 22, no. 1 (2012): 5–29
  • Goad, Philip. ‘Importing Expertise: Australian-US Architects and the Large-Scale, 1945–1990.’ Fabrications 26, no. 3 (2016): 357–91
  • Love, R. S., and V. M. Branson. Apex: The First 25 Years. 2nd edition. Sydney: Association of Apex Clubs, 1980
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX39026
  • Page, Michael. An Architectural Apex. South Yarra, Vic.: Buchan Laird International, 1990
  • Wraith, Ken. ‘Obituary: Sir John Buchan.’ Age (Melbourne), 2 November 1998, 22

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Citation details

Philip Goad, 'Buchan, Sir John (1909–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Buchan, c.1935

John Buchan, c.1935

Page, An Architectural Apex (1990)