Photo of Orjala against a white backdrop dotted with black
Jim Orjala. Credit: Melita Schaum

From the Oakland Hills to San Pablo Avenue, the Bay Area is graced with the bold, unique designs of Berkeley architect Jim Orjala. His award-winning firm engaged in projects as far afield as New Zealand, and his commitment to livable, environmentally thoughtful design created forward-looking single and multi-family residences locally and abroad. A prolific photographer and painter as well, Jim had a rich career in the arts. Loved by many for his warmth, his generosity and originality, his passion for architecture and his fierce respect for the environment, Jim Orjala passed away on March 2 after a long battle with Lewy body disease. He was 75.

Jim was born in Sacramento and grew up in the small lumber town of Roseburg, Oregon.  He received his B.A. In Architecture from the University of Oregon in 1971 and went on to pursue graduate studies in Architecture at UC Berkeley. Drawn to visual arts from an early age, Jim complemented his architecture with fine arts. In 1974 he began a three-year photographic odyssey through Latin America which resulted in his photographic series and book La Gente: Portraits of Mexico, Central and South America, featuring film and digital photography of farmers, laborers, miners, and the indigenous peoples of remote villages in Bolivia and Peru.

Back in the United States, Jim turned his attention to the environment and sustainable design. He developed projects incorporating passive and active solar technologies and investigated the potential of bamboo in the Pacific Northwest for its ecological role in riparian zones affected by forest clear-cuts, and as a low cost, durable material for building. During this period he worked with the Aprovecho Institute, a research center in Cottage Grove, Oregon, dedicated to the global exchange of appropriate and sustainable technologies. 

Many angled house with wide windows set high in the trees
Aves House, Grizzly Peak Boulevard, Oakland. Credit: Jim Orjala

Jim moved to the Bay Area in 1983 and launched Orjala Architecture, a full service architectural firm in Berkeley that quickly gained a reputation for innovative design. Jim’s Finnish ancestry continued a long tradition of excellence in craftsmanship. His architecture won numerous awards, including an AIA Honor Award for Exceptional Residential Design, AIA Firestorm Design and Custom Home Merit Awards, and his homes were featured in magazines and on television for their exceptional, dramatic aesthetic.  

Four isosceles triangles make up the house
Glowski-Marinucci Residence, Asilomar Drive, Oakland. Credit: Jim Orjala
A very geometric stairway
Stairwell, Glowski-Marinucci Residence. Credit: Jim Orjala
Six-story asymmetric condo building with top half that's silvery and horizontally paneled and a bottom that's vertically paneled and reddish
TriCities Condominiums, San Pablo Avenue, Oakland. Credit: Jim Orjala

Jim augmented this work with civic involvement in local land use and transportation issues, serving on the Board of Directors of the Livable Berkeley Coalition, as Transportation Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and Chair of its Transit Subcommittee, member of the Berkeley Bike Plan Advisory Committee and the Berkeley Planning Department Committee on Transitional Housing, and as a member of the AIA Housing Committee in the Bay Area.  

Rooted in a respect for ecology and natural systems, the rich scope of Jim Orjala’s work itself reflected a fundamental tenet of conservation: the greater the diversity within a system, the richer and more sustainable that system becomes. A visionary architect, an artist of remarkable talent, a generous member of the community and an unforgettable friend and partner, he will be missed by many in Berkeley and beyond.

An exhibit of Jim Orjala’s artwork and architecture will be on display at the Shoh Gallery of Art, at 700 Gilman St. in Berkeley, on July 13 and 14.

Jim Orjala’s books are available at Builders Booksource, 1817 Fourth St.:

  • La Gente:  Portraits of Mexico, Central and South America (2019)
  • Manipulated Landscapes:  Photographs by Jim Orjala (2020)
  • Jim Orjala:  Architecture, Painting, Photography (2022)

His fine art can be viewed on his website.