Reflections of Canada's 'gutsy architect'
Arthur Erickson laments the repetition of boring designs in several major cities
Maria Cook CanWest News Service
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, CanWest News Service
One of Arthur Erickson's more recent designs is the
Waterfall building on West 2nd Avenue in Vancouver.
Arthur Erickson stops midsentence. He is distracted by a drawing on the wall of a house he designed years ago. "You know, I shouldn't have that there," he chuckles. "I keep seeing mistakes."
At 82, Canada's best-known architect is elegant, charming, opinionated and a perfectionist. "Oh yes, you have to be." Silver-haired, he is wearing an impeccable navy blazer with gold buttons and a silk tie.
Erickson sits with perfect posture in the boardroom of the Vancouver architecture office of long-time associate Nick Milkovich, where he turns up daily for work -- after sleeping in until 9 a.m. "Very lazy."
During a remarkable 54-year career, Erickson has designed some of Canada's most original and beautiful buildings, including the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and Vancouver's Robson Square complex.
Recent acclaimed projects include the Waterfall, a mixed-use building in Vancouver's tony False Creek neighbourhood, the Portland Hotel, a social housing project near Vancouver's Lower East Side and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash.
Erickson is known for his sensitivity to landscape, radical use of concrete, pure and pristine forms, water and light and careful attention to public spaces.
"His work is gutsy," says Janine Debanne, a Carleton University architecture professor. "He dares to make strong decisions about what a building -- be it a house on a cliff or a university campus -- wants to be. The works are propositions about how to live artfully, in nature, or in cities.
"The best of Arthur Erickson's work is deeply respectful. It raises the stakes, offers a strong vision of life, and then drops off to let life take over in its place."
Erickson was born in Vancouver in 1924. At 15, Erickson's drawings and paintings drew the attention of the Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris. In fact, Erickson was influenced by Harris's compositions, which he describes as "very lonely, strong and expressive."
After high school, Erickson studied Asian languages at the University of British Columbia, followed by military service with British Intelligence in India and Malaysia.
He thought he'd be an artist or diplomat. Then he visited the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, his famed Wisconsin studio. "Seeing what he'd done with just wood and canvas was miraculous. I thought if this is what you can do with architecture, I want to be an architect."
Erickson enrolled in architecture at McGill. In 1950, after earning his degree, he declined Wright's offer of an apprenticeship. "I could never follow him and his ideas because I found them much too fussy," he says. "But he was very brave and didn't hesitate to follow his instincts and that's what gives his buildings the uniqueness."
Instead, Erickson spent a couple of years travelling in Europe and the Middle East. Travel, he says, "is the one thing that I think is most important. It's the only thing that shocks you out of your complacency."
A generalist, he has designed everything from elegant houses to university campuses. Simon Fraser University in Burnaby (1963) first brought him international attention and opened the door to a busy career in Canada, the United States and the Middle East.
In the 1980s, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau picked his friend to design the Canadian Embassy in Washington, a controversial decision because it overruled the embassy's design committee.
Perhaps his best known building is the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, a modernist concrete structure inspired by the post and beam architecture of the Coastal First Nations.
"I still think it's one of my best buildings and simply because it's very basic. I've tried to argue that the beauty of concrete is leaving it alone and letting it do its own thing."
Current projects include a curvy building for Vancouver's waterfront Olympic Village, which Erickson says "has the look of adventure which is typically Brazilian, " and a luxury condo in Vancouver named The Erickson, and an "atrociously high skyscraper" (about 167 metres) in Vancouver. The tower will appear to twist 45 degrees from bottom to top, an optical illusion using hyperbolic paraboloids -- the members are straight but the surfaces curve.
He says he's discouraged by some of Vancouver's newest additions.
"The most depressing thing is the echo of similitude everywhere and it becomes very boring. The people who build have absolutely no sensitivity. We have a very low standard of appreciation. I guess the decision of the client to do something is based on either Hollywood or Disney or whatever. It's not a serious judgment."
As for Ottawa, although the capital is home to national cultural institutions, the city itself is not a vibrant cultural centre, he says.
"It's fairly boring as a city. Culturally what does one do when in Ottawa? It doesn't take long to go through all the museums and performances. Toronto is much more significant as the cultural centre for Canada."
The drawing on the wall that had distracted him was of a West Vancouver house designed in the 1960s as a series of wooden terraces stepping down a cliff side. "The person that bought it painted all the wood pink and it's just awful," he says.
He is troubled that some of his buildings are being changed for the worse. Roy Thomson Hall underwent a radical interior refit of which he didn't approve.
Erickson has survived bankruptcy and the loss of a life partner. A sensualist who loves beautiful spaces, good food and parties, he lives simply in a converted garage surrounded by a lush garden.
"Up until this year, I used to ski. I've only given it up because it scares me," he says. It might be a sign of aging, like the softer voice and longer pauses. If anything, the highs and lows of Erickson's life and career have been characterized by fearlessness and zest.
Is he happy?
"Yeah, that's my nature."
His ongoing creative process is an "investigation," he says. "You learn a lot from it, but if you're looking for answers, it's not there."
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007