Brian Mahon FRAIA recalls Ronald Swan Purssey FRAIA (1929-2022)
First I have to tell you the story about how I started working for Ron. Lacking Brisbane contacts I rang through the yellow pages to get an interview. As always, it never rains it shines. I got several interviews and two job offers. Being young and “smart” I played them off and got a higher price from the other company. I had already verbally accepted the job with Ronald Purssey & Associates, but decided I wanted more money and was going to renege on the deal and take the higher paying job.
I rang Ron to tell him. He tore strips of me for not honouring my word, blasted me with a barrage of finely crafted words and the call ended on bad terms. I slept on it and being from the country – where everything is done on a handshake – decided to reject the higher paying job. I cancelled the higher paying job and rang Ron to take his job. Ron was taken aback that I would even ring after the “robust” conversation. I told him “I agree with you that you have to honour your word.” I think this impressed Ron and we got on famously after this first meeting. His wife Brenda told me later she had a go at Ron for speaking to me so harshly – the truth was I need the harsh talking to.
Ron would put on classical music to work by. Initially as a young person I found it distracting but over the year I found it enjoyable company – especially when I was in the office alone (back of the house). Occasionally today I will work to classical music – brings back good memories. Ron would say – if you need to go for a walk just do it. He offered very flexible conditions. Ironically it made me work to more rigid hours. I wanted to prove I was trustworthy. Our first conversation held in good stead for a year. A real gentleman with very traditional values, Ron was animated, strong willed, passionate, refined, articulate and great company. A passionate architect, he was the reason I went back and finished architecture.
Ron and Brenda were extremely happy running a small practice, making it work around raising a family. Brenda would make us morning and afternoon tea with a slice of cake. He was patient. We were working on the drawing boards and I had terrible handwriting. “Mister Purssey” I called him until halfway through the year when he said, “Call me Ron now!” I think Brenda might have had a word to Ron again as I called “Mrs Purssey” – “Brenda” after that. Brenda was a big part of the practice, as well as keeping house, feeding two growing boys, getting them to school. Ron’s sons attended St Peters College – Simon went on to run restaurants and Ben ended up in architecture. Ron’s eldest child, Georgia was busy with married life west of Condamine as 2nd generation graziers. Brenda was administrator of the practices – typing specifications and letters hand written by Ron – and sending out bills but when Ron was away for several weeks at a time Brenda by default ran the practice (because I had no idea really). She was a lovely lady and smart – knew about architecture having worked as Cyril Mardall’s secretary in Yorke Rosenberg Mardall, the famous London practice where Ron worked when he was in England 1956-59 and where they met.
Ron had life in correct perspective. I cherish his clarity of what to get out of life. Ron loved jazz, nice wines, good food, good conversation, the wonders of the world. Architecture was a joy for him, he used to say ‘ how many people enjoy their job at my age (he was 56 when I worked for him). Most of Ron’s work was repeat work. Everyone liked Ron. He was very professional but with a sense of fun and a smile on his face – it was contagious. Ron didn’t care about money. He enjoyed the simple things in life but he did like nice cars! He drove a red flash sports car (I can’t remember the make) while Brenda put up with an old car. Feeling guilty, Ron bought her a new car as a birthday present. Brenda was a very happy wife (Happy wife, happy life was Ron’s motto) and I am sure the slices of cake got a bit bigger after that.
Ron was born at Longueville, Sydney, youngest son of Roy Swan Purssey, a veteran of World War 1 and a mechanical engineer who later worked in Brisbane for Carrier Airconditioning, and Ellen Adeline Goodwin. After being educated in Brisbane, he was articled to J.P. Donoghue Cusick & Edwards while attending Brisbane’s Central Technical College and the University of Queensland. As the last of a generation of distinguished architects, Ron’s University contemporaries included Robin Gibson, Blair Wilson, Steve Trotter and Alan Comrie-Smith. Concurrently he joined the University Squadron and learn to fly following in the path of his elder brother Ian Goodwin Purssey, DFC (1923-1952), a Flight Lieutenant in the RAAF who was killed in action while serving in the Korean War. For Ron, flying became a life-long and useful passion.
I thoroughly enjoyed the year working for Ron Purssey – it was a delightful time. I worked for Ron in 1985 first at a former farmhouse at Taringa and later a beautiful house at Yeerongpilly owned by Ron’s architectural friend David Legg. David and Ron were always catching up on a Thursday and Friday at Tattersalls and the Greek Club. It was the days of the long lunches and fringe benefits. If ever there was ever a chance to go flying – it didn’t matter what we were doing. Ron would take off and I would hold the fort. I was given a lot of responsibility. Ron would go to Fiji for a 2 week trip and take 4 weeks and I would be undertaking onsite contract administration for the job, having to use my wits to solve issues on site when Ron wasn’t there. I would ask Brenda first, who would point me in the right direction – usually to ask Ted Karamisheff, structural engineer for Ron’s work – Brian Slack was the engineer who worked there was also helpful. We built a lot of pre-cast housing work in Fiji – the existing buildings being badly built. The precast concrete building solved the issues of coconuts going through the roof and structures blowing away. Other work in the office was: the Turrawan Hospital extension, St John’s Ambulance, 100’s of precast housing for the Fijian Department of Housing (one, two, three, four bedroom houses); 1000’s of precast housing in Malaysia for a developer called Doshi (had a $20M house back then – looked like a spaceship); and Ron and Brenda’s new house at Ashburton Street, Chapel Hill. Their previous house at Ludlow St, Indooroopilly shared the commendation for House of the Year in 1968.
Among Ron’s many accomplishments was photography. He astounded the local profession with his winning entry in an Institute self-portrait competition Shoot the Architect, with his photograph taken from a camera held between his knees through the acrylic canopy of a P51 Mustang fighter while he was piloting the plane above the clouds. He used this image for the cover of his autobiographical memoir Apricots at Twenty Thousand.
I remember Ron as a determined, happy natured, man of principles, and a committed architect. He was a joy to work for and I remember that year as one of the happiest I have had in my 35 year career (so far). A great man! He was wise and I listened.
– Brian Mahon