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Victor Robinson (1933-2024), Northern Irish practitioner who challenged big London firms

Gavin Robinson

Co-founder of prolific Belfast practice Robinson & McIlwaine, OBE recipient and RSUA president who twice served on the RIBA Council

Victor Robinson outside the Waterfront Hall. Credit: George Brooks
Victor Robinson outside the Waterfront Hall. Credit: George Brooks

Victor Robinson, who has died aged 90, co-founded one of the most prolific practices based in Northern Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s.

Born in Belfast in 1933, he moved with his family to the north coast after an incendiary device landed in their back garden during the Belfast Blitz of 1941. In Portstewart he met some of his friends for life, including Derek McIlwaine, with whom he established Robinson & McIlwaine (now RMI Architects) some 22 years later. 

On his first trip to London in 1951 to receive his Kings Scout badge, he made sure to visit the Festival of Britain exhibition on the South Bank. The Skylon and Dome of Discovery made a lasting impression, and inspired him to take up architecture at the Technical College in Belfast. Gaining a scholarship, he completed his studies at the Royal West of England Academy established by the AA in Bristol. After qualification in 1956 he headed to London, working first for Tripe & Wakeham on Pinewood Studios and Chelsea Barracks, and later for the British Rail architectural department on Oxford Street station in Manchester and the rebuilding of Euston Station in London.

On an Easter trip home, he met Joan at the Arcadia Ballroom in Portrush in 1957 and they were together from then on. Soon after, Victor accepted a job at Belfast City Architects’ Department. The Council was just starting slum clearance, and he was appointed project design lead for two 13-storey residential towers at the Victoria Barracks site, under JH Swann.

In 1963, he was offered a couple of residential projects which enabled him and Derek to set up in practice. They joined an emerging group of homegrown firms who had the confidence and ability to challenge the London practices which were usually awarded the larger commissions. Over the next three decades the office delivered projects that spanned all typologies in both the public and private sectors, winning a number of RIBA awards.

Robinson & McIlwaine’s appointment by Belfast City Council in 1979 for a new Arts and Congress Centre eventually led to the Waterfront Hall, completed in 1997. Throughout that time Victor was a tireless ambassador for the project, seeing its potential to change the face of Belfast by forging new links between the city and the River Lagan.

Victor retired the following year in 1998 and was recognised for his achievements with an OBE for services to architecture and an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in 2001. He fully embraced all aspects of the profession throughout his career, being very supportive and encouraging to young architects. This included a long association with QUB, as a tutor, an external examiner, and as a board member of the Architects' Registration Council of the UK, helping to maintain RIBA regulation of the school in the early 1980s. He became the youngest president of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects in 1979, and enjoyed two spells on the RIBA Council – the second at the invitation of RIBA President Larry Rolland – and one on the RIAI Council in Dublin.

Outside family and work, Victor loved to be on the water and Strangford Lough gave him and Joan a real escape. Sailing adventures included trips up the west coast of Scotland, and he was never happier than when the sails were filled and the engine cut. He enjoyed a well-designed car, a fine malt, travel and was a devout follower of both Ulster and Ireland rugby.

Although his health deteriorated in the last couple of years, he maintained his humour and optimism right to the end. He died peacefully at home, supported by his family. He was a devoted husband, a proud and loving father and an adoring grandfather. He is greatly missed by my mother, my brother Simon, sister Nicola and I, and our wider family.

Gavin Robinson is an architect based in Belfast