Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lewis, Brian Bannatyne (1906–1991)

by Neil Clerehan

This article was published online in 2016

Brian Lewis, c.1962 (detail)

Brian Lewis, c.1962 (detail)

State Library of Victoria, 49348039

Brian Bannatyne Lewis (1906-1991), professor of architecture, was born on 20 September 1906 at Lottah, Tasmania, ninth child and eighth son of James Bannatyne Lewis, civil engineer, and his wife Edith Augusta, née Haynes, both Victorian-born. James was manager at the Anchor tin mine. In 1909 Edith and the children moved to Victoria; James followed after production at the mine declined. The family settled in Kooyong Road, Armadale, in reduced but still comfortable circumstances. Brian attended the local State school and then Wesley College (1916-24) where two of his brothers had been dux. He was an adequate but undistinguished scholar, unimpressed with his alma mater. His early years, and perhaps his entire life, were overshadowed by World War I. Four of his brothers served on the Western Front; three returned.

At seventeen Lewis enrolled in architecture at the University of Melbourne (DipArch, 1928; BArch, 1944). Demonstrating talent in his chosen profession, he financed his studies with a series of scholarships. After working briefly in British Malaya, he travelled to London late in 1928. The design component of his university course had been spent at the Architectural Atelier. Under the direction of Leighton Irwin, the atelier had paid little heed to the new architecture that students were seeing in books, magazines, and newsreels. Lewis, aware of overseas trends and the shortcomings of his training, continued his education at the University of Liverpool. He again excelled, winning a Honan scholarship (1929) that paid for a trip to Scandinavia, and Victory scholarships (1930 and 1931) that enabled him to visit Spain and Germany. Although he did not graduate, he was later awarded a master's degree in 1944.

On 2 August 1932 at St Oswald’s Church of England, Grasmere, Lewis married Hilary Archer, who had been a fellow architectural student at Liverpool. Moving to London, he gained employment with the Great Western Railway Company (GWRC) and lectured part time at a local polytechnic, while his wife worked in a large commercial office. At home they conducted a ‘moonlight’ practice, handling mainly residential commissions. For GWRC he designed hotels and stations, including Perivale and West Acton underground stations. During those years examples of his superb measured drawings of historic buildings and of their own projects were exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 4 July 1940 in London, Lewis was allocated the official number UKX8, a source of pride thereafter, and made acting staff sergeant. From March 1941 he performed administrative and engineering duties in the Middle East. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in February 1942 and posted to the 2/2nd Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, with which he sailed to Australia, arriving in March. In October he was released to return to Britain as chief architect with GWRC and on 19 January 1943 was transferred to the Reserve of Officers. Later he worked for the British Ministry of War Transport on duties connected with the invasion of Europe.

In 1946 the David Syme Trust endowed the Age chair of architecture at the University of Melbourne. Lewis was appointed to the position and arrived with his family in Victoria early in 1947. By the end of that year he was also consulting architect for the fledgling Australian National University in Canberra. Despite falling out with senior academics over his vision for the campus, he produced an imaginative site plan inspired by Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for the city (but later discarded for discrete precincts), and designed University House for which he would be awarded (1954) the Sulman medal. At his own university, in 1948 Lewis arranged for a dozen army huts to be assembled on the south lawn of the campus to form the ‘new’ school of architecture. From this base he established a progressive five-year, full-time degree—one of only three international courses recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Another of his innovations was to recruit leading Modernist practitioners as instructors. These included Roy Grounds, Robin Boyd, Frederick Romberg, Fritz Janeba, and Zdenko Strizic. In 1954, while on sabbatical in Britain, Lewis completed a thesis at the University of London (PhD, 1954) on the architectural aspects of railway planning in England.

A solidly built man of medium height, Lewis rarely smiled but regularly delivered—often at inappropriate times—humorous quips and irreverent comments. Over the years his ‘frequent disregard for red tape’ (Lewis 1991, 4) resulted in several confrontations with the university’s management, which he appeared to relish. He drew on his early experience in Malaya to embrace the Colombo Plan, helping to make his school a popular choice for students from South-East Asia. An advocate of planned development, he had introduced degree courses in town and regional planning by the early 1960s. He also established a fund to construct a new multi-storey building to house the school. The project caused friction because of the connections and cooperation he was able to call on in the building industry to augment university funding. Opened in 1968, the building provided teaching spaces with natural light and ventilation, wide corridors, and generous studios.

In his off-campus life Lewis had been president of the influential Town and Country Planning Association (1948-53), the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects (1950-52), and the Victorian chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (1959-61). Although he had a poor opinion of Melbourne’s Victorian architectural heritage, he had been a founding member of the Victorian branch of the National Trust of Australia, serving as its chairman (1958-61) and later president (1962-65). His architectural work encompassed domestic buildings; Her Majesty’s Prison, Risdon; and an office building for Oxford University Press, South Melbourne. After retiring in 1971 he painted watercolours and wrote two well-received memoirs, Sunday at Kooyong Road (1976) and Our War (1980). Survived by his wife, their four sons and a daughter, he died on 23 August 1991 at Parkville and was cremated. A crescent at the Australian National University and the atrium at the University of Melbourne’s school of design were named after him.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘“The Age” Chair of Architecture, Brilliant Australian Appointed.’ 3 September 1946, 3
  • Foster, S. G., and Margaret M. Varghese. The Making of the Australian National University, 1946-1996. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1996
  • Lewis, Miles. ‘Obituary: Brian Bannatyne Lewis.’ Architect, October 1991, 3-4
  • Lewis, Miles. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, UKX8
  • O’Neill, Hugh. Personal communication
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • State Library of Victoria. MS 9244, Brian Bannatyne Lewis, Papers, 1941-1970

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Neil Clerehan, 'Lewis, Brian Bannatyne (1906–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lewis-brian-bannatyne-21872/text31932, published online 2016, accessed online 18 June 2018.

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