Concrete poet

A photo essay about the work of late architect Arthur Erickson

The bold lines of architect Arthur Erickson


Renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson died May 20  at the age of 84. This piece originally appeared May 29, 2006, to coincide with a major exhibit of Erickson's work at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Today, Arthur Erickson’s celebrity status has faded into our collective memory; we recall only vague images of the Vancouver architect hobnobbing with stars like Donald Sutherland and Shirley MacLaine or good friend Pierre Trudeau, for whom Erickson designed a getaway in the Laurentian mountains. But at the height of his powers, between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, Erickson was a bona fide superstar, a giant in a field filled with larger-than-life figures.

More than 40 years ago, Erickson found his muse in concrete and the grey skies and watery light of his beloved West Coast. The modernist architect is now the subject of a huge retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

A cornerstone event of the museum’s 75th anniversary year, Arthur Erickson: Critical Works is, according to guest curator Nicholas Olsberg, a summary of Erickson’s resumé and an argument for his legacy. The exhibit highlights 12 key projects, from Simon Fraser University (1963) to the Museum of Glass (2002) in Tacoma, Wash. Stretching across the VAG’s entire second floor – 12,000 square feet in all – the show includes architectural drawings transferred onto huge vinyl hangings, new photographs and time-lapse video projections. It also features a string of unshuttered gallery windows that overlook Erickson’s landmark Robson Square project.

And the argument? Despite a preponderance of masterworks on North America’s west coast, Olsberg suggests that Erickson isn’t just a Canadian visionary; he’s an international figure, an artist who has always known "how to make poetry out of architecture."

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Museum of Anthropology (1972) Vancouver

"Architectural people go to visit the Museum of Anthropology the first time they’re in Vancouver — always," says Olsberg. "It’s one of those reference points; you go to see it like you’d go to see the Parthenon [in Athens]."

In April of 1993, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney used the facility as the backdrop for the historic Vancouver Summit, which brought together U.S. president Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin. In 1994, the locale acted as the office of Richard Gere’s fictitious (and quickly forgotten) architect in the film Intersection.

This commission on Vancouver’s westernmost tip, on the campus of the University of British Columbia overlooking the Strait of Georgia, captures a stunning confluence of cultures and eras: the contemporary simplicity of concrete; a post-and-beam structure suggesting a range of native traditions; and the Great Hall, which Olsberg refers to as "this incredible temple of light" filled with First Nations art and artifacts.

"I think it’s a building that surprised and alarmed [Erickson] when he saw it completed," Olsberg says, alluding to the "divine presence" of the façade. "Some artists can be frightened occasionally by the power of their achievement."

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Simon Fraser University (1963) Burnaby, B.C.

Erickson’s first major commission, completed before he turned 40, was to create the master plan for Simon Fraser University, a compact campus on the top of Burnaby Mountain just east of Vancouver.

"There’s not one scrap of imitation anywhere in the work," Olsberg says. "At no point does he follow someone else. He draws from Le Corbusier, he draws from [Frank Lloyd] Wright, but he’s not in a school, he’s not trying to follow something, and increasingly, I think, as the years go by, he doesn’t even care to look at what his colleagues and peers are doing."

Reflections of Erickson’s extensive early travels show up immediately in SFU’s design. There’s a fascination with the forms of Egypt and Japan and the Native traditions of the Americas. There’s also Erickson’s obsession with concrete, the central material in every one of the Critical Works projects, and sleek, repetitive lines. The severity of SFU’s architecture continues to inspire controversy amongst students and critics.

"It surprises me how many architecturally well-versed people are made uneasy by that one," Olsberg says. "I think they find that it’s a little too fierce."

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

University of Lethbridge (1968) Lethbridge, Alta.

"I think [Erickson] romanticized a very traditional view of how education is made, in this sort of Socratic way – that you walked around the colonnaded space, the quadrangle, and there’s an intellectual exchange possible at any minute," Olsberg says of Erickson’s campus projects.

Grant Arnold, the coordinating curator of Critical Works, suggests that Erickson deliberately designed these spaces "to encourage accidental or unstructured encounters. There is no faculty, for example, that has its own building. So you have a sense of people moving through these spaces together."

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Waterfall Building (2002) Vancouver

Erickson’s early design concepts – spaces calculated to encourage informal encounters; architecture that blurred the line between work and play – were transported many years later to the Waterfall Building, a Vancouver housing complex.

"He’s trying to make an urban experiment there," Olsberg notes. "You don’t know whether your neighbour is occupying that space to work in or to live in … and I think that’s part of the idea he has: to make this sort of enclosed urban village that gives you a feeling of intimacy and community."

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Bagley Wright house (1979) Bainbridge Island, Wash.

What would it be like to live in an Erickson home? Huddled in British Columbia and Washington state, Erickson’s residential projects epitomize his attention to site: pools that reflect water upward, harnessing the light of the region’s typically grey, overcast days; and undecorated concrete, a material that, as Arnold observes, becomes remarkably warm in this context. "[The concrete is] not pretending to be something else," he says. "It is what it is, but it’s also quite beautiful."

The Bagley Wright house near Seattle is, to Olsberg’s mind, among Erickson’s finest works. "If you pushed Arthur against the wall and said you could keep one building, that would be the one he’d keep," the curator suggests, pointing out how the repeated H-form gives the house its resounding strength.

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

MacMillan Bloedel Building (1965) Vancouver

Olsberg calls the MacMillan Bloedel Building "one of the great skyscrapers." Designed as the headquarters for the B.C. forestry giant, "MacBlo" stands on West Georgia Street, near Vancouver’s banking and shopping districts, an environment Erickson once called "a discordant mess." The architect tried to isolate the tower, Olsberg explains, "to make it a lonely building in a crowded landscape."

How does Erickson do it? He pulls it under the street. Its modernist purity – the repetition of identical units; the coarse, dull surface – now feels rather old-fashioned, circled as it is by this shiny new city of glass. That, Olsberg argues, is the source of its power. "It’s got this serenity within the midst of what look like very transitional and temporary buildings … it’s this one unchanging monument."

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

NAPP Laboratories (1979) Cambridge, England

Erickson’s ideas travelled well. The NAPP Laboratories site in England, part of an early science park, has become "the British modern icon," Olsberg observes. With a futuristic effect reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the locale is a favourite backdrop for TV commercials and movies. Says Olsberg: "It’s where Prince Charles takes visitors who want to see how progressive British industry is."

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Canadian Embassy (1983-89) Washington, D.C.

Not every project in Critical Works is considered an unqualified success. Take the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. "I think Arthur sort of betrayed a couple of his own principles in that building," Olsberg says, emphasizing the dearth of a repetitive framework. "I think he was trying to do too many things at once. But what an awesome responsibility, to stick a building on Pennsylvania Avenue to represent your country."

The embassy is a postmodern collage. Echoing Washington’s neo-classical motifs and the National Gallery across the street, the embassy is filled with all kinds of odd angles — a way, perhaps, to show off the property’s stunning sightlines, which point straight towards the Capitol.

Olsberg relates the story of an official who recently attended a reception at the embassy. "‘Now I don’t know anything about architecture,’" the person said, after walking around the ambassador’s quarters on the roof, "‘but nothing ever showed me how imperial Washington was before this.’"

(Ricardo L. Castro, 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Robson Square (1973-79) Vancouver

If Olsberg were forced to choose Erickson’s one essential masterwork it would be the three-block Robson Square complex in downtown Vancouver. The project – which includes a central plaza, the provincial law courts and the VAG itself – was meant to re-imagine the heart of the city. Park and office space blur together; grassy nooks and public spaces sink below and then rise above the street. The courts are housed in a huge concrete structure, a pyramid of sorts, with a glass roof and a massive atrium covered in greenery and bathed in light.

Olsberg mentions Erickson’s close ties to then-prime minister Trudeau and admiration for his legal reforms. "There is a sort of cultural, ideological, political moment in Canadian history which Arthur is totally in tune with [here], which basically says not just that we are not Americans, but that the world is something we look at, that we think about and we treat with respect. And that nothing is invisible, that nothing stays secret."

The court building was intended as a kind of monument to the "transparency" of the Canadian legal system; in Erickson’s vision, a passerby outside is meant to be able to see justice at work. Once you’re inside, that effect doesn’t change. "There’s that wonderful thing you see in the law courts, of the barristers out there on the balconies conferring with their clients," Olsberg says. "No one can hide."

Greg Buium is a Vancouver writer.