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Robert Smith (Robin) Dods (1868–1920)

by R. J. Riddel

This article was published:

Robert Smith (Robin) Dods (1868-1920), architect, was born on 9 June 1868 at Dunedin, New Zealand, eldest of three sons of Robert Smith Dods, wholesale grocer, and his wife Elizabeth Gray, née Stodart, both Edinburgh Scots. He came to be known as Robin. The family returned to Britain in the early 1870s and the father died in Edinburgh in 1876. Elizabeth and her children left Scotland for Brisbane to join her mother and in 1879 she married the ship's surgeon, Charles F. Marks, whom she had met on the voyage; they had four children. He eventually settled into a practice in Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.

Robin was educated at the Brisbane Boys' Grammar School and in 1886 was sent to Edinburgh to serve articles with Hay & Henderson, architects. He also attended evening classes at the Edinburgh Architectural Association until 1890 and formed there a lasting friendship with (Sir) Robert Lorimer (1864-1929). In 1890 Dods moved to London, where he worked with the fortifications branch of the War Office and in the office of (Sir) Aston Webb. In 1891 he was admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects and travelled in Italy. There he first met Mary Marian King, daughter of an American clergyman, whom he married at Woollahra, Sydney, on 21 March 1899.

In London Dods contributed measured drawings to the Architectural Association's A.A. Sketchbook and in 1893 won a special award in the Tite prize competition. Next year he was runner-up for the more valuable Soane medallion, and was employed by Webb to prepare the drawings for his successful entry in a competition for Christ's Hospital schools at Horsham, Sussex.

Dods visited his mother in Brisbane in 1894 and while there completed designs which subsequently won a competition for a nurses' home at Brisbane Hospital. He was offered a partnership with John Hall & Son and, returning to Brisbane in 1896, started practice with Hall's son Francis as Hall & Dods. The hospital proved a valuable client over the next decade.

By 1900 Dods had designed a handful of houses, including his own at New Farm (demolished), and several small commercial buildings in the city. His domestic work adopted many local techniques in wood but had a sophisticated discipline and a common-sense response to climate which were radically new. Influenced by C. F. A. Voysey, and like contemporaries in Britain including Lorimer and Lutyens, his early work was full of the romance of an arts and crafts philosophy which he never completely lost. Dods entered another competition for the new Brisbane Post Office in 1900. After inspecting the main southern post offices, he produced a design in the style of freely interpreted 'William and Mary' which won second place and a premium but failed to secure the commission.

The turning-point came in 1904 when, as architect for the Brisbane diocese of the Church of England, he accepted responsibility for building the last and possibly the finest design of the English architect J. L. Pearson. When the ambitious cathedral church of St John was opened in 1910, the east end, transepts and two bays of the nave had been completed under Dods's direction. He designed other buildings in the cathedral group, including the schools in 1904 and the church offices in 1910.

After twelve years in practice, Hall & Dods had secured some substantial clients. The Catholic Church had commissioned a new hospital, the Mater Misericordiae in South Brisbane. They had worked also for the New Zealand Insurance Co., the Australian Mutual Provident Society and the Bank of New South Wales. Although the partnership inherited the reputation of Hall senior, its success was due more to Dods's ability and to the influence of his family. To his mother's financial acumen was added the standing, as members of parliament, of both his stepfather and his uncle James Stodart.

Dods himself combined immense charm, wit, and natural ability with discriminating and impeccable taste. He was passionate about his work and derived great pleasure from it, seeking, in both his buildings and writing, an appropriate Australian architecture. He contributed several times to the premier English journal the Builder. He was interested in politics, literature and the arts generally; he read essays and especially Robert Louis Stevenson. He encouraged then unknown figures, such as Dorothea Mackellar, Jesse Hilder and Hardy Wilson.

His mother's death in 1908 devastated Dods; soon after, the firm was supplanted as architects for the Brisbane Town Hall, and the pressure affected his health. In 1909 he ceased practice for almost a year and travelled in North America and Europe, calling on professional associates and examining architectural treasures. With Lorimer he travelled in Italy, until influenza brought him down. The damaging effect of the northern winters on his health probably dissuaded him from staying permanently in Britain.

Back in Brisbane Dods entered competitions for the completion of St Stephen's Catholic Cathedral, and for the Geelong Church of England Grammar School, but neither yielded a commission. Late in 1913 he moved to Sydney but not before completing some of his best work, including the chapel for the archbishop of Brisbane at Milton, the Australian Mercantile Land & Finance Co.'s offices and, perhaps his finest work, St Brigid's Catholic Church at Red Hill.

The move to Sydney was prompted by an invitation from the Bank of New South Wales to design its Royal Exchange branch, and he was able to secure a partnership in Spain & Cosh, for whom he had prepared a design for the Daily Telegraph building in Castlereagh Street in 1912. With the outbreak of war, investment was curtailed, building of the bank was abandoned, and the practice was fortunate in having a small continuity of work. Dods devoted himself to the affairs of the local institute of architects, the Arts and Crafts Society and writing. With a kidney disease which affected his eye-sight, he knew that he had not long to live.

Confidence returned with the armistice and Dods was engaged on the South British Insurance Co. building in Hunter Street (demolished) and the Newcastle Club; he did not live to see either completed. In 1919, collaborating with other prominent architects in writing Domestic architecture in Australia, he confirmed a national debt to Francis Greenway and looked hopefully toward America, not to Frank Lloyd Wright or Walter Burley Griffin but to a more conservative movement based on the European tradition. He moved into a new home at Edgecliff and died there soon after of 'subacute nephritis' on 23 July 1920. He was buried in the Church of England section of South Head cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £10,752, was left to his wife and two children. His son, (Sir) Lorimer Fenton, became prominent in medical research.

Dods drew from many sources, fully exploiting what he saw as the regional tradition and sensible climatic controls. Within a confident vocabulary of style he emphasized certain elements to achieve proportions of rare quality and an architecture of distinction.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Boyd, Australia's Home (Melb, 1952)
  • P. Cox and H. Tanner (eds), Twelve Australian Architects (Syd, 1979)
  • JRHSQ, 8 (1968-69), no 4, p 649
  • J. S. Egan, The Work of Robin Dods, A.R.I.B.A (B. Arch thesis, University of Sydney, 1932)
  • R. J. Riddel, R. S. Dods in Sydney, 1913-20 (conference paper, Art Assn of Australia, 1979)
  • R. S. Lorimer, letters to R. S. Dods, 1896-1920 (University of Edinburgh)
  • R. S. Dods diary, 1909 (privately held)
  • J. Hall & Son, tender book, vol 2 (1859-1912) (copy in State Library of Queensland)
  • correspondence, Hall & Dods and Spain, Cosh & Dods (Bank of New South Wales Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

R. J. Riddel, 'Dods, Robert Smith (Robin) (1868–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 June, 1868
Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand


23 July, 1920 (aged 52)
Edgecliff, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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