The Latest on A.W. Purnell

A Melbourne office building designed by Arthur Purnell in the late 1950s. Purnell loved flash cars and drove a Studebaker at the time, which may well be the car shown in this sketch.

I’ve just received a $20,000 research grant from the Sidney Myer Fund to continue my work on the architecture of Arthur W. Purnell, an Australian architect who lived and worked in Guangzhou, China, between 1900 and 1910. In 1904 he and American engineer Charles Paget established the firm Purnell & Paget, which was responsible for designing several important buildings in Guangzhou, including a marvellous cement factory that became the headquarters of the Chinese political leader Sun Yat-sen. Almost all of the firm’s buildings over there were European-style. Purnell returned to Australia in 1910 and maintained a busy architectural practice, working either alone or in partnership, virtually up until his death in 1964. He designed hundreds of buildings in Melbourne, ranging from humble garages to huge grandstands. A significant number of these were influenced by his years in Guangzhou: some buildings were for local Chinese clients, some had Chinese-style elements, and some had Chinese names. Unfortunately Purnell has been totally forgotten in Guangzhou and largely forgotten in Melbourne. The grant money will be used to conserve his drawings and to establish a website.

There’s No Place Like Holmes

Following is the front cover for my next book, There’s No Place Like Holmes: Exploring Sense of Place Through the Sherlock Holmes Stories and the text for the back cover. It will be published in March 2008.


‘Derham Groves has had the brilliant idea of considering architecture as a detective story. It is a fascinating thought—that buildings might be crime scenes: in both bodies go missing—and Groves unfolds it in fascinating ways. If modern architecture has notoriously failed to make places where people can live, perhaps it is time architecture was put on trial. If so, the designs of its rooms are vital clues! Derham Groves is on the trail of a particular lost body: the home of Sherlock Holmes. He has students design buildings constructed like brilliant deductions. He designs a Sherlock Holmes Centre where the great man is absent but clues to his presence lie everywhere. An absorbing meditation on the way we read architecture, an engaging challenge to designers and the stories they tell, There’s No Place Like Holmes possesses the rare quality of making what seemed cryptic in architecture elementary, and the obvious once again filled with enchantment.’
Paul Carter, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne.

‘Everybody knows that architecture is a cover job for the messy realities of everyday life. Yet it remains the most taken for granted and everyday of the arts—nobody suspects the architect. The world of crime fiction with its labyrinthine plots and dead ends, its shared interest in ‘place’ and ‘character’, is used here to preface a kind of forensic architectural theory. Buildings tell stories and stories produce buildings. This is an innovative and insightful book, as much about education as architecture. Just as Holmes used a magnifying glass decode the clues to crime, Groves uses Holmes as a lens onto the role of architecture in the everyday and in the construction of the sense of place.’
Kim Dovey, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, University of Melbourne.

You’ve Got to Laugh … or Cry

I’m committed to the notion of everydayness and to recording day-to-day events on this blog. Most things that happen are good, but occasionally you’re served a shit sandwich. My car was stolen in front of our house on Friday night. It is the second car I’ve had stolen in 12 months. I’m not rich, but regardless of that I actually like driving old cars. The first car stolen was Dad’s old Holden. To my surprise I got it back after three weeks when the police caught the drongo who nicked the car driving it in Ascot Vale. In the meantime, though, I’d bought another old Holden, which was the second one stolen. Today I got a call from the police to say that it had been found burned-out in Roxborough Park. It was a nice car. There are some fucking nasty mongrels in the world, let me tell you.


The Travels of Peter E. Sayers: Nandi to San Francisco

More from Peter E. Sayers’ travel diary:

Saturday 14 February, Nandi, Fiji We had about 1 1/4 hours at Nandi then we took off and landed at Canton Is. just before dawn next morning. (Date still 14th.) As Canton is just below the equator (2º) we found that at this time of day it was hot & humid. We had a cool drink in reception room, then took off after dawn to see below us just a coral atol big enough for the airstrip & a few prefab huts. We landed Honolulu about 3.30 pm. (We were to have met Governor Quin at 3.00 pm but he saw us later (5.00 pm) at his home.) We passed through customs (you enter US here) very quickly & went by car (which holds 12 people (3 in each seat)) to the Reef Hotel where some of us swam in the pool, it was great. After our swim we met the Gov. then returned for tea overlooking the Waikiki beach & listening to Hawaiian music & singing. I had a Pineapple boat for tea. At 8.00 pm we lift for Franscisco. Just in the last half hour of our flight some including me got a bit sick.

Sunday 15 February, San Francisco Got in at 6.30 am (1/2 hr. before time) we were met by Australians from the consul, public relations & Qantas. We went to town at 60 to 70 mph (about 12 miles) along the freeway. After a bit of breakfast I rested in room all day while Francisco had a ‘bad storm’ a dull day with a few showers. (It was quite a contrast to Sydney & Melbourne let alone the tropics.) At night I ventured out in my new overcoat with 1/2 the other chaps to see a bit of San Francisco.

P.S. We were at the Clift Hotel a very good pub 2 to a room.

P.P.S. Flag with greatest significance to us Australians was flying for our party. Frisco was cold & wet to me both in weather and in heart but presumed that as time passed everything would turn out fine.

Monday, 16 February Went to consulate & Qantas headquarters (latter best in Frisco). Then went to City Hall & met the Acting Mayor (he met Baron Snyder) (the Mayor was on holidays at Honolulu). Then went to Berkeley Campus (University of California) by taxi (paid by us 25c) and bus (paid by us 50c). I jacked [-up, i.e. complained] here. We had lunch in the caf (50c for good meal, he [presumably Roland Hill] paid). I talked to a student in caf. We then looked over the library (about 1 million books in a building 9 storeys high) on our way back. I met at bus stop a 1956 Games fencer who was engaged to an Australian for two years from when he was in Melbourne (she’s now in England). We talked all the way back on the bus. After a press photo we had tea in Chinatown and had a look around. Shops were open selling Chinese clothes etc. at about 8.00 pm. We packed bags and I got this up to date.

P.S. We had a look at Fairmont & Mark Hopkins hotels before tea but after dark (eg. La…[?] top of the mark).

Men in Hats


So far I’ve managed to contact two of the nine young men who travelled to the USA in 1959 with Peter E. Sayers. Apparantly their fathers had travelled to the USA in 1929 on a tour that was organised by the Young Australia League (YAL). Thirty years later they tried to revive the YAL, but when their plans stalled they organised a trip to America just for their own sons. Roland Hill, a single, middle-aged, very well-connected travel agent from Sydney, arranged the itinerary and led the tour. However, he was an inexperienced chaperon of young men and things got pretty wild by the end of the trip. This photograph, kindly supplied by Richard Blaiklock, shows the eleven tourists on 9 February 1959 at the Dunkley Hat Mills in Sydney after they had received their new Stetson hats.

Back row, left to right: Richard Blaiklock, Phillip Brandt, James Triggs, Roland Hill (chief organiser and chaperon), Jim Black, Ross Hooker and John Hammond.
Front row, left to right: Peter Sayers, Peter Scott, Bob Foster and Trevor Combe.