James Campbell Irwin was born on 23 June 1906 at North Adelaide to stockbroker Francis James Irwin and Annabella Margaret Campbell (nee Mann). He had three brothers, Robert, Thomas and Henry. His older cousin who lived in Melbourne was architect Leighton Irwin, founder of the Architectural Atelier at the University of Melbourne, and inspiration to the young James. James Irwin married Kathleen Agnes Orr in 1933 and they had two children, James Campbell and Georgina Helen Margaret. Irwin enjoyed golf, swimming, tennis, cricket and lacrosse and travelled widely throughout this life, he was a member of the Church of England and was actively involved in his local community.
Irwin was educated at Queen’s School and St Peter’s College. Following this he studied architecture at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries, graduating in 1926 with an Architectural Draftsman’s Certificate. In 1924 he was articled to George K. Soward of English and Soward architects who were principally engaged on ‘large solid homes for prosperous people’ (Irwin 1980: 3).
Following the completion of his articles Irwin approached Louis Laybourne Smith, who had taught him at the School of Mines, for a position in his office and in 1928 joined Woods, Bagot, Jory and Laybourne Smith. Irwin recalled that he ‘realised … that the firm … was by far the leading firm in South Australia. They were building the most interesting buildings, doing twice as much work as anyone else and their methods were way ahead of other people’ (Irwin 1980: 9). In 1930, at the age of 24, Irwin became a partner, with the practice renamed Woods, Bagot, Laybourne Smith and Irwin. Irwin remained a senior partner in that firm from 1965 until his retirement in 1974.
Irwin became an Associate member of the South Australian Institute of Architects (SAIA) in 1930 and a Fellow in 1941. He was President of the South Australian Institute of Architects from 1956 to 1958. At a national level he became President of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) from 1962 to 1963 and was honoured with Life Fellowship of the RAIA in 1970. The RAIA SA Chapter named its President’s Medal in his honour. Irwin was made a Fellow of both the Royal Australian Planning Institute and the Royal Society of Arts, London. From 1938 to 1940 and again from 1947 to 1953 Irwin served as Aide de Chief to the Governor of South Australia.
During World War Two Irwin rose to become a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army. His was a distinguished army career in the A.I.F. with active service abroad for three and a half years including postings in the Middle East, New Guinea, Morotai and the Philippine Islands. Whilst on service in the Middle-East he was able to see ‘Crusader castles, the magnificent Roman architecture at Baalbek, the buildings of ancient Egypt and the modern Jewish architecture of Jerusalem’ (Page 1986: 196). He graduated from the Staff College at Haifa, in 1942, and became an instructor, Senior Wing at the Australian Staff College from 1944 to 1945. Irwin was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, Military Division in 1944 for services in New Guinea. He later received the Efficiency Decoration. He was a Colonel Commandant, Royal Australian Artillery from 1966 to 1971.
Irwin was actively involved in the community, serving on many committees. For six years Irwin served as a member of the National Capital Planning Committee for Canberra. Following his retirement he was made an honorary member of the Master Builders Association of South Australia. He was Chairman of the Adelaide Festival of Arts between 1969 and 1973, President of the Home for Incurables, and served on committees for the Pioneers’ Association of South Australia, and the South Australian School of Art. He was presented with a Rotary Club of Adelaide Service Award in 1969 and was made an Honorary Fellow of St Mark’s College in 1973.
Irwin served on the Adelaide City Council solidly from 1936 to 1972, apart from the time he was on military duty during the war. Between 1963 and 1966 Irwin was elected Lord Mayor of Adelaide. In recognition of his services to Government and the community Irwin was made a Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 1971.
Yet at the beginning of his career it was for his architectural work that he was being noticed. In 1933 Irwin, together with Reg Steele and Gordon Laybourne Smith, all employed at Woods, Bagot, Jory and Laybourne Smith, entered and won competition for the Gilbert Wing of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital. The competition was judged by Stephenson, Meldrum and Turner, architects from Melbourne. The wing was opened in 1936 and the firm of Woods, Bagot, Laybourne Smith and Irwin subsequently received many commissions form the Adelaide Children’s Hospital (Page 1986: 167).
James Irwin was the designer of Carrick Hill, a large English manor-style house, set on a 43 hectare site at Carrick Hill Drive, Springfield, (1937-9) for Sir Edward and Lady Ursula Hayward. The house is a ‘two storey, asymmetric design on a large scale with a typically Elizabethan combination of chimney stacks, gabled and hipped roof forms with dormers dominating the skyline’ constructed of Basket Range Sandstone (AHPI). ‘Much of the English and Jacobean furniture, oak panelling, doors, the fireplace and leadlight windows were purchased through auction from sixteenth century Beau Desert Castle, Staffordshire’ (AHPI) and imported to South Australia.
From 1947 to 1974 Irwin continued the firm’s connection with the Anglican Church when he replaced Bagot as architect for St Peter’s Cathedral, North Adelaide (Page 1986: 172). Woods, Bagot, Laybourne Smith and Irwin designed numerous religious, educational and medical buildings including Scotch College Chapel, Seymour College, St Mark’s College, Calvary Hospital and the Julia Farr Centre.
Central Business District office buildings worked on by Irwin included the Da Costa Building, Grenfell Street, Adelaide, Bennett and Fisher, Currie Street, Adelaide, Dalgety building, Currie St, City Mutual Building, King William St, CBC Bank, King William St, ANZ bank, King William St, Prudential, North Terrace, and Bagot’s Trustee, North Terrace.
During 1957 Sir James Irwin received sponsorship from the Advertiser newspaper and other Adelaide businesses to visit the USA. He was to inspect various newspaper office buildings and children’s hospitals to ascertain the latest developments in the field for Woods, Bagot, Laybourne Smith and Irwin who had gained the commissions for the rebuilding of the Advertiser newspaper offices and the Children’s Hospital in Adelaide. It was also on this trip that he met Frank Lloyd Wright. The Advertiser Building on King William Street utilised a new construction method for pouring concrete floors on lost formwork in multi-storey buildings.
The Master Builders’ Association commissioned Woods, Bagot, Laybourne Smith and Irwin to design their Building Centre at 47 South Terrace, Adelaide in 1958. As did General Motors Holden, at Elizabeth (Stropin and Marsden 2001: 28-9) and at Woodville.
Sir James Irwin’s contribution to South Australia was not just architectural but significantly through his services to local government and the wider community.
Collins, Julie, ‘Irwin, James Campbell', Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=67]