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Irwin, Leighton Major Francis (1892–1962)

by Graeme Butler

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Leighton Major Francis Irwin (1892-1962), architect, was born on 9 November 1892 at Eastwood, Adelaide, son of Edward Henry Irwin, stock and station agent, of Hagley, Tasmania, and his wife Helen Mary, daughter of Major Francis Downes. He moved to Melbourne with his family when he was 8. After education at Haileybury College he undertook the diploma of architecture course within the University of Melbourne's engineering faculty.

Irwin was articled to F. L. Klingender in 1910-14; during this time R. H. Alsop had joined the partnership. Irwin then spent some months with Bates, Peebles & Smart. In November 1916 he joined the Australian Imperial Force and on 1 December in Sydney married Freda Gwendolyn James. A few days later he embarked with reinforcements for the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. He was promoted lieutenant in August 1917. At the war's end, from January to July 1919 he attended the Architectural Association's school in London.

Irwin returned to Melbourne in February 1920 and became assistant director under Alsop of the newly opened Melbourne University Architectural Atelier. In 1925 he became director, retaining the position for nearly twenty years, and served also on the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects' board of architectural education. The books of photographs acquired by the atelier form the basis of a library which now bears his name at the school of architecture and building.

By 1931 he was vice-president of the Working Men's College council and was president in 1936-38. Irwin contributed many articles to journals on architectural subjects, notably to the R.V.I.A.'s Journal, The Australian Hospital and Australian Home Beautiful. He was elected to the R.V.I.A. council by 1922, becoming assistant secretary and in 1931 president. Bitterly opposed to the federal body of the institute, Irwin launched an unexpected attack on its viability at the annual conference of 1931. That year he chaired the first Victorian Building Industry Congress. J. M. Freeland describes him as 'unvaryingly intense, fiercely serious and humourless … but with … intelligence, drive, capacity for work and ability beyond most men'.

In 1922 Irwin had formed a partnership with Roy Kenneth Stevenson. Their varied commissions included war memorials and ecclesiastical and domestic work: Irwin's own Spanish-flavoured, double-fronted villa at 3 Holmwood Avenue, Brighton (1927), won repute for the firm. However their success in the Melbourne Public Library competition of 1925 meant most to their immediate future and eventually established them as the library trustees' official architects.

In 1930 the firm undertook its first medical commissions. Mildura Base Hospital was an application of the northern European approach to hospital design, with its streamlined form, multi-storeyed construction, and continuous, north-facing sun balconies: a theme which was frequently repeated in hospital design. Before they dissolved their partnership in September 1934, Irwin and Stevenson designed the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons building and a factory complex for British Xylonite.

After 1934 Irwin's clients consisted almost entirely of hospital boards. His speciality was the reversal of the former clinical hospital atmosphere, and to this end he created an interior design section within his firm. He added a mechanical and electrical engineering section, and by 1946 had introduced structural engineers to his team. He also started a model-making shop, so convinced was he of the value of architectural models to explain the many facets of his schemes. In 1945 the firm became a limited proprietary company.

Irwin designed hospitals and hospital extensions in Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart and Launceston, as well as in country towns in New South Wales and Victoria. Perhaps his greatest triumph was Prince Henry's Hospital and Nurses Home in St Kilda Road: its tall central block with its 'glass by the acre' was completed in 1940. Among the largest of his commissions was the Heidelberg Military (Repatriation) Hospital. His later hospitals included those at Box Hill, Caulfield, Portland and, in New South Wales, Marrickville and Blacktown, all designed in the mid-1950s.

Leighton Irwin died of hypertensive heart disease on 4 August 1962 at Epworth Private Hospital, Richmond. He was survived by his wife and daughter, and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £101,547.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Boyd, Victorian Modern (Melb, 1947)
  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Apr, 18 Aug 1956, 12 Apr 1957, 6 Aug 1962
  • Box Hill Reporter, 27 Apr 1956
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Aug 1962.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graeme Butler, 'Irwin, Leighton Major Francis (1892–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/irwin-leighton-major-francis-6804/text11771, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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