Modernist architect Graham Downes, who died Sunday as the result of injuries sustained in an assault in San Diego, collaborated on a number of residential and hospitality projects in Las Vegas and was reportedly set to work on a makeover of the Riviera.
“He had one of the best hands I’ve ever seen,” says Las Vegas architect Eric Strain, founder of AssemblageStudio, referring to Downes’ artistic skills. “I’ve never seen such impeccable sketches and drawings.”
According to San Diego police, officers were called to Downes’ San Diego home early in the morning of April 19 with reports of two men fighting in the front yard. When officers arrived, Downes was unconscious. The second man, a work associate of Downes’, has been arrested.
Downes arrived in San Diego in 1986 from his native South Africa, and launched Graham Downes Architecture in 1994, financing it with a credit card. He became known for his modernist and conceptual designs in Southern California and the Southwest, opening a Las Vegas office in the mid-2000s, when he acquired Harry Campbell Architects on East Tropicana Avenue.
“He wanted to do more hospitality projects,” says Strain. “That’s why he came here.”
Strain, who at one time rented office space from Downes, worked with him on several conceptual residential projects in 2005 and 2006, including ArtHaus, an 82-unit, affordable residential project for the downtown Arts District; as well as Spa Lofts and L5, luxury condo developments. The economy, says Strain, stalled all three projects.
Despite the economic downturn, Downes completed scores of retail, hospitality, residential and other projects in Las Vegas and throughout the Southwest, including Henderson’s City Center Plaza, Hard Rock Hotel San Diego, Bakersfield’s Padre Hotel, Blue Hound Kitchen at Hotel Palomar in Phoenix and Nico’s restaurant and bar in San Diego. According to the Las Vegas Sun, Downes was asked last year to redesign the Riviera, an estimated $18 million project.
No matter what the project, Downes was an unwavering modernist, preferring minimal lines and simple, strong materials such as metal, glass and stone to create an international–even glamorous–look for everything from hotel lobbies and nightclubs to gyms and fashion shops.
“Graham Downes was first and foremost a designer’s designer,” says Gregoria Moran, who partnered with him in MoranDownes Architecture in Phoenix from 2009 to 2010. “He made bold statements with his modern designs.”
Strain says Downes, a former elite rugby player, was gregarious and collaborative. “He was just a great guy, the kind you just want to have a few beers with. He had a big impact on the people he met, especially young architects. He mentored quite a few of them in Las Vegas.”
“He could make people laugh at a moment’s notice and was incredibly generous,” says Moran. “Though we all may know the meaning of ‘right action,’ Graham put it into a phrase we could recognize as his because he lived it.”