Alumni profile - Julian Robinson
Most of the newer buildings on campus were completed whilst I was here either as Project Manager or Project Director... My first project was the Student Residences by the canal and the last thing was the big Student Village and the Medical College in Whitechapel. I am very proud of most of the projects I was involved with. The buildings I commissioned and oversaw were really quite significant and they won awards, thus lifting the whole kudos of Queen Mary.
What sparked your interest to study a joint degree of Geography and Politics at Queen Mary? Geography was the subject I liked best at school; I started off liking Physical Geography, but then my interests grew to Human Geography and I opted to do a joint degree in Geography and Politics as both subjects were of interest to me. I chose Queen Mary in particular as it offered this combination and also, (this is an age old thing), because Queen Mary was part of London University. A mate of mine at school in the year above also went to Queen Mary and he encouraged me to do the same. At the time, I actually had Queen Mary ranked 5th in my UCAS application but when I came up for an interview, (I didn’t wear a suit or anything like that), it just felt right, it wasn’t too grand. It also helped that my said mate took me to the Students’ Union bar and to halls for dinner! I think I got the last train home…
I understand that you were the former Estates Project Director here at Queen Mary and that you contributed to the shape of our campus today. Can you describe the path that led you to this role after you graduated and what made you apply for a job at your former university? I did a year sabbatical as President of the Students’ Union and one of my manifesto commitments, I went from the grand to the more prosaic, was to enlarge the Students’ Union bar which was very overcrowded at the time. I found money within the Students’ Union reserves and went to the College and the Drapers Company, the benefactors of the college, to amalgamate the money that I needed. Following this, it was my role to brief the architects and quantity surveyors and I realised that I really enjoyed doing this. It was so rewarding to take an idea on paper and make it a reality. After this year, I had a summer temp job in the Accommodation Office at Queen Mary whilst I was applying for other jobs. I then went on to work as an Assistant Town Planner for Tower Hamlet’s Council for two and a half years. However, I always kept an eye on Queen Mary as I was also a Student Governor for two years before my Presidency and I always found it interesting sitting on the Estates and Development committees and looking at the plans for how the campus was going to develop and grow. Especially as there were only 3000 students during my studies!
The Geography aspect of my degree meant that I was well equipped to go into Town Planning, which I pursued in more detail through my postgraduate studies which I started at Tower Hamlets and completed at Queen Mary when I came back to work as Assistant Project Manager on January 1 1988. In those days there wasn’t a Director of Estates, there was an Estates Bursar instead and the Bursar at the time was a very posh guy who used to chomp away on a big cigar like Winston Churchill! We used to go into his office to have meetings and you could cut the air with a knife due to the smoke! It was an entirely different set up to how it is now.
I applied for this role because there was lots of project work to do, lots of buildings that needed attention and lots of investments; we merged with Westfield College and that brought in capital money and we also got capital funding from Central Government in those days. After about eight years in this role I became Head of Projects and established the Projects Office as it currently is. I also set up a Design Office, employing my own architects and engineers as we did a lot of the remodelling and refurbishing work ourselves. This set up grew until we eventually expanded and worked with The Barts and the London Medical School in Whitechapel, Charterhouse Square and West Smithfield. I then left Queen Mary in April 2005.
You touched on there being a huge period of growth whilst you were here, is there anything in particular that you contributed to that you are really proud of? Seeing as I was here for over 17 years (1988-2005), most of the newer buildings were completed whilst I was here either as Project Manager or Project Director. I can look round the whole campus and say “I did that!” My first project was the Student Residences by the canal and the last thing was the big Student Village and the Medical College in Whitechapel. I am very proud of most of the projects I was involved with. The buildings I commissioned and oversaw were really quite significant and they won awards, thus lifting the whole kudos of Queen Mary.
Queen Mary is unique for being one of the few London Universities with a proper campus. The University formerly ended just behind the Physics building and when I came here the Library was in its final stages. We progressively purchased slivers of land until we reached the canal, you wouldn’t even begin to imagine what it looked like before - when I first visited Queen Mary I got off the tube and thought “oh God what an absolute dive”; it was really edgy and there were lots of boarded up shops in the surrounding area. Mile End Park also didn’t exist.
But enough about me, so many people can take pride in their input in shaping the way that the campus looks today. It’s important to not just consider the buildings, but to also consider things like landscaping and tree planting. I am really proud to have planted a willow tree by the residences near the canal, it is so huge now that its leaves actually dip into the water!
Did you have a particular vision for both the Mile End and Whitechapel campuses? For the Mile End campus, a former professor of mine/the former Senior Vice Principal Prof. Philip Ogden, was instrumental in helping me procure high quality architecture and create a little oasis away from the bustle of the Mile End Road. You feel this instantly as you step onto campus; things like the greenery, landscaping and all of the seats positioned to trap certain light and views, all contribute to this vision.
The vision with Whitechapel was very different. Whitechapel itself was formerly a very depressed area and it still has its challenges now. I didn’t want the bog standard medical type buildings there which typically have few windows and a lack of natural daylight filtering through. We came up with a concept of vibrant glazed windows where you could see in and out. One of the professors had this idea to do something along the lines of the public education centre and as a result we included the Centre of the Cell in the brief seeing as we didn’t have the funding at the time for it to materialise. But it is there now and Barts is the only medical school to have a building and concept like it! I am very proud on a personal level, but this wouldn’t have been possible without the passionate and socially committed professors who also got involved.
How did you find the transition from former student to member of staff? I think it felt fairly natural as I already felt quite a lot of ownership after being a Student Governor and then President. At one point though I did wonder whether I was going to ever actually leave Queen Mary because in one sense I was only out for two and a half years! Queen Mary also funded me to complete my second postgrad qualification in Property Management & Development.
What do you do now? I am now Director of Estates at The London School of Economics (LSE). This role encompasses capital development, property acquisitions and management and then there is all of the facilities management as well, like cleaning, maintenance and security. There’s a lot of expenditure on the estate because essentially universities are massive businesses costing millions of pounds to run every year, with additional investment for growth and enhancement. Universities must keep renewing their facilities in order to market themselves and to maintain a positive and exceptional student experience. There are distinct differences between Queen Mary and LSE as both have their own unique dynamic.
Seeing as you've done Geography as a degree, would you ever consider working elsewhere in the country or in the world? I will never move away from London, I came here at the age of 18 and have never looked back! If it was commutable then yes. However, it would have to be something really good to lure me away from my current role. I wouldn’t go to a campus University either, I love working in universities based in the city – I love the hustle and bustle of it all.
Do you have any special moments from your time here? I met my wife here through a bit of matchmaking from a former girlfriend of mine! She did History here at Queen Mary and I remember inviting her to the fireworks at the South Woodford Halls of Residence and we ended up going out! We now have three children together… The friendships I made at University are some of the most enduring ever. I came here when it was quite privileged to come to University and my friends initially regarded me as a posh boy as I had been to grammar school! I thought I was reasonably bright but then I came across my friends who were from all different backgrounds and they were all so smart and had got here on merit. Queen Mary has a knack for attracting normal and very down to earth yet exceptionally bright and gifted people. I have very fond memories from my time here and I could go on talking forever.
I was also very fortunate to have been taught by some brilliant professors who were and still are real leaders in their field. It was only when I left that I realised how lucky I was. I still have a letter in my attic from the Head of Geography congratulating me when I got elected as SU President. I will never forget this gesture, I was so touched by the constant support I received from everyone at Queen Mary.
Are you still in touch with your fellow alumni and the University as a whole? I have tried to get my mates back for a Geography reunion but this is still yet to happen. However, I do want to do it. I am still friends with most of them after 35 years which is great! I come back for the odd lecture like the DM Smith Geography lectures. I may also come back if there is something to do with Estates.
Do you have a favourite spot on campus? If so, where is it and why? Did this change from when you were a student compared to when you were an employee? When I was a student it was the Octagon, which was the former library. It was the place where I would go if I wanted to see people, we’d all go off for tea in the basement of People’s Palace. If I wanted some quiet time to study I would go to the basement of the Queens’ Building as it exists today and if I wanted some downtime I would go to the Students’ Union to play table football with my mates.
When I was working here, it was the Senior Common Room as we used to go as a team to get out of the office and have a coffee; we were also responsible for refurbishing the SCR so that it is how it is today! I also loved the gardens in between the two residences – the individual ones by the canal – I spent a lot of time working on that area with architects. It is a very magical spot.
Given the nature of your work, do you find yourself unconsciously projecting onto buildings and landscapes when you are not working? All of the time. I will always take the top floor of a double decker bus so that I can get a different perspective on things. I have to be careful when driving abroad as I am constantly looking round and my missus is constantly telling me to keep my eyes on the road! My phone is full of pictures of buildings, interiors and landscapes…
What inspires you in your work, your visions? I suppose I am a modernist in terms of architecture and tradition, in particular I think form, depth and light are very important. Quality architecture is so important in general, as everyone - students, staff and visitors will experience a building for hundreds of years to come. As John Betjeman said, “Architecture is an Art Gallery that is never closed.” It is a privilege to be part of creating such legacies.