Frances Bula header image 2

Arthur Erickson 1924-2009

May 20th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Arthur’s friends are calling each other around the city and the world tonight with the news that, after several months of failing health, he has died.

I won’t presume to try to capture his complex and creative life here — there will be much written about him in the next few days — but it does feel like the final punctuation point to a particular kind of force and architecture in the city.

There are many people in Vancouver who love to gripe about the buildings of this city’s most renowned architect: They leak, they aren’t really meant for people, there’s too much concrete. But I just loved them. Unlike some of the buildings that go up around the city today, which look as though the architect couldn’t really decide which style to use so there’s something of everything, Arthur’s designs felt unified and whole.

I’ve spent my share of time in the law courts and I did a graduate degree at Simon Fraser University, and every time I went to either of them I felt this sense of pleasure and tranquillity. They had a grand simplicity and airiness to them, like temples.

Arthur’s last few years were difficult, as he became frailer. But, no matter how much he struggled with some parts of his life, just talking about the line or curve of a building would make his face light up.

Those who drive around the city might want to take a moment this week to look at the public buildings he left to us: the Museum of Anthropology out at UBC, the MacMillan Bloedel building on Georgia, the Law Courts downtown, the SFU campus on Burnaby Mountain. Also, (and I know there’s some debate about these buildings), the community centre under construction on the south side of False Creek and the twisting tower on the Concord land on the north side.

They’re buildings that helped Vancouver move past being a frumpy Victorian outpost to a new West Coast city.

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  • gmgw

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about Erickson; I’ve never shared his love of concrete and I’ve long felt his public buildings were overpraised monuments whose scale and occasional brutishness were achieved at the expense of their functionality (ask anyone who’s had to work in an Erickson. The exception I would make among his public buildings is the University of Lethbridge, which is integrated into the surrounding landscape more skilfully than almost any of his other large buildings; it’s an extraordinary sight from across the river valley (yet, due in part to its great horizonal length, it takes forever to move around inside it, and the university has been steadily adding new buildings to the back of the main structure almost since the bulding opened).

    However, and perhaps paradoxically, I have no reservations whatsoever about Erickson’s private houses. Almost every one of them– at least the ones he designed earlier in his career, when he was still working with Geoff Massey– is a small masterpiece. A friend of ours used to own one of Erickson’s West Van houses– she and her husband commisssioned Erickson to design it– and one of the great regrets of her life is that she was forced to sell it after her husband died. It was a stunningly beautiful piece of work.

    All of the Erickson obits will talk about his monumental public showpieces, as have you, Frances; but I think it will be his houses that will be regarded by architecture mavens as the crown jewels in his ouevre in years to come– assuming no more knuckle-dragging nouveau-riche morons knock any more of them down. If this was Los Angeles (an immeasurably more sophisticated city than Vancouver, architecturally speaking), committees would have long since formed to see to their preservation, and wealthy architecture buffs would be the envy of their peers in being able to proudly brag that they’d “bought an Erickson”.

  • Darcy McGee

    An exceptionally talented man (though it seems like everything he built leaked…). Truly a loss.

  • Joe Just Joe

    I too have mixed feeling about Erickson, I only knew him in his latter years though. His work and students will survive to influence this city for upcoming generations. He was a odd combination of visionary and stubborn as a mule (as the AIBC can attest). In some ways that made it better as he rarely comproised in his work, and conversations with him were always lively. He will be missed.

  • MB

    I find Erickson’s projects, large and small, to be some of the most intellectually honest work I have seen.

    His largest works have been called grandiose, but that is more a function of his unique interpretations of given institutional programs. The Robson Square law courts were about to become a 60-storey black TD tower-like structure until Erickson was given the nod to have a second look at the program.

    The tiny Baldwin House on Deer Lake in Burnaby is one of his early gems and is certainly not the product of a grandiose monument-building ego, yet remains a perfect design response to the site where subtlety has much power.

    He also lived for decades in a modest converted garage on an inward-looking residential site where a pond was the most prevalent feature. That says as much about the man as his works.

    His constant referencing to the importance of things like site and light bring perspective to his works in concrete, where a photographer’s eye helps clarify the elegant simplicity and purity of line. Then he’d add a waterfall. Magnificent.

    His response to the leaky roof accusation was a one-liner: Show me a roof that doesn’t leak at one time.

    I found his comments on the larger world very illuminating too, such as his desire to see Canadian culture break out of its self-imposed shell of insecurity. If we were confident in our own history then we could have avoided much of the Disneyfication brought to our cities by post-modernism.

    Moreover, he said that Vancouver (metro) should plan for 10 million people. With the challenges we face during this century in mind, that was a particularly wise admonition.

    Arthur Erickson will be greatly missed.

  • Lance Berelowitz

    Arthur’s was a prodigious talent. He was one of the very few in the world of design to rise above the provincial parochialism that was (and some would say still is) Vancouver for so long. He insisted on a higher level of response to the natural setting, climate and culture of this place, and produced unique (if often flawed) buildings in response.

    Arthur was also, for those who knew him, the consummate gentleman and elegance personified. He was, in the best sense of the word, a real dandy. And he showed the rest of us how to live a life of quiet dignity, even when his open homosexuality was something that would get him into trouble with Vancouver’s more conservative elite in earlier days. He raised the bar on living large, and insisting on style.

    Arthur’s architectural legacy will long be debated, but that he left one, and a unique one at that, is incontestable. He helped Vancouver grow up. His grace, sense of style and quiet wit will be missed.

  • gmgw

    Let’s give credit where credit is due, MB– that 55-(not 60)-storey provincial government tower (it was meant to contain the local offices of all the major ministries, not only the law courts) was the brainchild of W.A.C. Bennett, who evidently wanted to leave us with a final monument to his own maniacal megalomania. It says something about the kind of city that Vancouver was in 1972 (god, how I miss it) that the populace was absolutely aghast at the thought of such a massive monolith being erected downtown. It would have been by far the tallest building in the city. This was in the golden age before local developers began to be afflicted by the severe penis envy from which they all suffer now.

    Let us further not forget that after the epochal defeat of Bennett and his fellow Socreds in September of 1972, that it was the newly-elected Dave Barrett and the NDP who not only promptly cancelled the Bennett Tower but hired Arthur Erickson and directed him to come up with something more responsive to the site, more human-scaled, and more visionary. Which, inarguably, Erickson did. I think it’s by far the most successful of his local public buildings– at least aesthetically– and it’s a pity that his “hanging gardens” concept for the complex’s north end appears to be doomed.

    In Vancouver at least, that was possibly the most popular decision ever made by an NDP government.