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Durban - The family of Graham Downes say they were devastated at the “sudden, tragic” death of the Durban-born architect and former Natal rugby player.

Downes lived and worked in the US, but had planned on coming to South Africa in June for his 40th school reunion, his nephew Michael Downes said on Monday.

The 55-year-old died in a San Diego hospital on Sunday afternoon. He had suffered “major head and facial injuries” in a fight with 31-year-old employee Higinio Salgado - at a party at Downes’s home - early on Friday, weekend reports said.

The man was arrested and Downes taken to hospital.

But exactly what happened while Downes was in hospital was still unclear on Monday.

Michael said the family had been “overwhelmed with love and support”.

“(We) ask everyone to remember Basher (Downes’s nickname) as the legend he was,” he said.

“He was an exciting and adventurous man who did no less than devour life,” said his publicist, Danielle Gano.

“There were no half-measures in his world,” she added, “Those who knew him socially surely have a memorable story to tell in which he is invariably at the centre.”

He was the second of four boys and attended Durban High School, and then went on to the University of Natal, where he studied architecture.

Known as “the Basher” when he played prop for the provincial rugby side in the 1980s, he emigrated to the US in 1986. He played for the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club and represented the country’s national side, the Eagles, in the 1987 Rugby World Cup.

He founded Graham Downes Architecture in San Diego in 1994 and, Gano said, was “revered for his work in revitalising neglected urban areas”.

“He created his architecture firm on a credit card and then grew it into one of San Diego’s most respected and sought-after design firms,” she said.

“Downes’s capacity for work and the intensity he brought to the office and the sports field are legendary, but it is for his vision, talent, generosity and humanity that he will be remembered.”

Pete Smith, chief executive of the KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union, offered his condolences to friends and family.

The Mercury