Robertson, Manning Durdin (1887–1945), urban planner and architect, was born 29 May 1887 in London, eldest of three sons and two daughters of Herbert Robertson, barrister and later MP for South Hackney (1896–1906) and his wife Helen Alexandra Melian, daughter of Alexander Durdin, LLD, JP, of Huntington Castle, Clonegal, Co. Carlow. His father's family was originally from Scotland.
Robertson is often regarded as Ireland's first serious critic and commentator on twentieth-century architecture and town planning; he was also the founder and first president of the Royal Town Planning Institute (Irish Section). He was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. His first major employment was at the architectural offices of George & Peto, one of the more influential practices associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Robertson worked for a while as deputy chief architect to the housing department in the ministry of health in London, before embarking on private practice in Ireland in 1925.
Robertson published two influential books on architecture in the 1920s, Everyday architecture (1924), and the more famous Layman and the new architecture (1925). Both books are largely a compilation of previously published articles and periodicals. Everyday architecture advocated a simple style of architecture; these ideals were further elaborated on in the latter book, which embraced many of the ideas associated with ‘new or modern architecture’ which was becoming popular in mainland Europe. He warned against imitating the more traditional styles associated with mainstream contemporary English architecture, and suggested that a simple native Irish style could be developed. Four subsequent books were written by Robertson: Foundations of architecture (1929), written with his wife Nora as co-author; A cautionary guide to Dublin (1933); Dun Laoghaire: the history, scenery and development of a district (1936); and his final book, published posthumously, Approach to architecture (1948).
Robertson's interest in town planning came to the forefront soon after his arrival in Ireland, and this, coupled with his prodigious writing, meant that his physical architectural legacy is modest. Perhaps his most notable work is the housing scheme at Temple Hill, Blackrock, Co. Dublin (1938). Suprisingly many of the themes and elements used in the scheme lend themselves more to the Arts and Crafts movement than the simple modern expressions associated with the new architecture.
Robertson's arrival in Ireland coincided with a period of great interest in town planning throughout the country. Two civic surveys had recently been undertaken for the cities of Dublin and Cork under the auspices of H. T. O'Rourke (qv), and these, along with other initiatives in town planning from Britain and mainland Europe, formed part of a major exhibition which was largely due to the initiative of Robertson. Robertson also became the driving force behind the Town and Regional Planning Act, 1934. He constantly argued the need for such legislation from 1929 onwards despite a lukewarm reception from dáil deputies in the oireachtas. When enacted, the 1934 act was the first piece of comprehensive planning legislation in the Irish Free State. He also argued convincingly for the need for a town planning course and the formation of a professional institute of planners, if the act was to be implemented and the cause of Irish planning was to be furthered. A small number of planning professionals in Ireland formed the Irish branch of the Royal Town Planning Institute in 1941. Manning Robertson was to become its first president.
Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s Robertson acted as consultant to Limerick and Cork corporations as well as advising Dún Laoghaire borough council on matters relating to planning. Perhaps his last great contribution to Irish planning came with his involvement with Patrick Abercrombie (qv) and Sydney Kelly in the preparation of Dublin: a sketch plan, prepared for Dublin corporation and published in 1941. His sudden and untimely death on 17 March 1945 deprived Ireland of one of its greatest exponents of the importance of town planning as a recognised professional discipline.
He married (15 October 1912) Nora (d. 1965), daughter of Lt.-gen. Sir Lawrence Worthington Parsons (qv), and author of Crowned harp (1960). They had two sons, Lawrence Alexander Durdin-Robertson (qv), clergyman and subsequently priest of Isis, and Esmonde Manning Robertson, historian; and two daughters, Barbara (Mrs Pryor) and Olivia Melian Robertson, writer on Irish subjects and the cult of Isis.