Author Tags: Architecture

Canada's pre-eminent and most flamboyant "philosopher-architect," Arthur Erickson, frequently spoke of cement as the marble of our times.

In 1964, he said, "I think one thing that characterizes what we do [in British Columbia]--whether it is architecture, painting or anything else--is a hangover of being pioneers, and that is innovation. We had no traditions, nothing tying us down, no ancient architecture, no tradition of building materials that stopped us from making a fresh and interesting experiment at that time. I think this spirit still exists here to a certain extent."

Born in Vancouver on June, 14, 1924, Arthur Erickson studied at UBC and McGill, began working professionally as an architect in Vancouver in 1953, and became the only Canadian to receive the American Institute of Architecture's gold medal among his many honours. Although he had a jet-set lifestyle and befriended Pierre Trudeau and Elizabeth Taylor, he eventually filed for personal bankruptcy in 1992 before he died at age 84 in 2009. The Arthur Erickson Garden Foundation has preserved his two-acre residence in Point Grey as a heritage site.

The Architecture of Arthur Erickson (Douglas & McIntyre, 1988) examines and celebrates the career of Vancouver's most internationally renowned and notorious architect, up to 1988. Erickson, who designed Simon Fraser University, Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, UBC's Museum of Anthropology and the Robson Square Complex, is also the subject of Edith Iglauer's Seven Stones (Harbour, 1981), excerpts of which appeared in The New Yorker. In 2006, an overview of Erickson's best work was written and edited by Nicholas Olsberg of Arizona for Arthur Erickson: Critical Works (Douglas & McIntyre, 2006), featuring photographs by Ricardo L. Castro of Montreal.

These studies were to be followed by a biography by David Stouck, to be called Arthur Erickson: An Architect's Life (D&M 2012), but publication was suspended after the publishing company was declared insolvent in October of 2012. Stouck hoped the biography could be called The Weight of Heaven: Arthur Erickson, A Life.

[BCBW 2012] "Architecture"

The Art of Arthur Erickson (1989)
review by George Woodcock

THIS TIME I AM LEAVING A SMALL PILE OF slim poetry volumes I have received and moving laterally, out of the realm of literal poetry into a realm of the visual arts where one can find many perceptions and visions at least analogous to those of poetry.

I am referring to architecture, that public half-art which combines a practical consideration for human conveniences with a sense of the relationship between man and his world that one can often regard as lyrical, an awareness of the intercourse between natural situations and artificial structures that is frequently dramatic, and a vision of the potential grandeur of human achievement that is sometimes epic.

Architecture, at its best, can be seen, without too much exaggeration, as the poetry of mass and space, and that is why I feel people interested in poetry may well find much that speaks to them in The Art of Arthur Erickson (Douglas & McIntyre $65 until Dec. 31/$75 thereafter). In 1981, Edith Iglauer also published a comprehensive pictorial study, Seven Stones: A Portrait of Arthur Erickson, Architect with Harbour Publishing and University of Washington Press.

Arthur Erickson is British Columbia's and possibly Canada's best known and most original architect, and he also enjoys a considerable international reputation which this book helps explain to people less than familiar with his work. The final text in the new Erickson book, in its concision and clarity as well as in a rather formal kind of elegance, seems entirely characteristic of Erickson, so that one can fairly assume he himself polished the end product as well as provided the raw material.

It is really a kind of professional autobiography, constructed as a series of essays on the various buildings and designs for buildings which Erickson considers the important achievements of his career. The personal element is not excluded: Erickson finds opportunities to tell us about the influences of a Vancouver childhood that helped to shape him, about the travels that modified his view of architecture, about the associations and friendships that contributed to his understanding of what architecture should do, and, of course, about the sheer material problems that loom so much larger for architects than for artists of other kinds.

Though there is evident satisfaction with projects successfully conceived and completed, this is a book that pleases with its modesty as much as with its lack of hesitation. The Art of Arthur Erickson is lavishly illustrated with photographs of buildings and models and sketches of those that did not materialize. On the whole the black and white illustrations are good and the coloured ones unsatisfactory, glowing with a lurid intensity that belies the subdued and predominantly grey or earthy tones of Erickson's buildings.

Two things especially impressed me reading this book. One was the astonishing death rate of projects, which would be elaborately developed and then fail to win in a competition or, in the cases of many of Erickson's Middle Asian proposals, be destroyed by unfavourable political circumstances. I can think of few writers with as many unrealized drafts, though in this respect Malcolm Lowry may have qualified as a literary Erickson.

The other thought that occurred to me as I read this book was how far architecture of the kind practiced by Erickson is from the daily life of ordinary people. There are splendid structures that have helped to change our view of what public buildings should be, like the Court House complex in Vancouver and Simon Fraser and Lethbridge universities. But the houses he has designed have all been built for well-off people; they are unrepeatable dwellings because of the special sites into which they fit "SO admirably.

Though I can admire an Erickson house as a splendid artefact set felicitously in its landscape, I still miss in this array of fine unique buildings something addressed to the practicalities of most people's lives: the prototype, for example, of a well-designed and inexpensive home for young people to start their married lives in, or a light-filled cluster of dwelling places for the old.

I think that as time goes on architects will be valued less for the public buildings and show houses they create, and more for the way they help people to live with dignity on modest means in a crowded world whose resources are inexorably dwindling. That, to me, is the modem poetry of architecture. And I encounter few architects producing it.

By George Woodcock

[Winter / BCBW 1989]