Saturday, March 28, 2009

Influences: Arthur Erickson

Graham House (1962) by Arthur Erickson (Ezra Stoller photo).
(Note: Arthur Erickson passed away at the age of 84 on May 20, 2009. I posted a brief eulogy in rememberance of Canada's greatest architect.)

My February 15 blog entry, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who influenced my architectural world view. This is the second post in the series.

Architecture critic Trevor Boddy characterized Arthur Erickson as “the bewildering, infuriatingly gifted ghost who has no serious rival in the public imagination as Canada’s most important architect.” There’s no doubt that Erickson was, at the height of his career, a bona-fide superstar, a giant who strode across the Canadian architectural firmament without peer from the early 1960s to the 1980s. His fame seemed as much attributable to the celebrity company he kept, his jet-setting lifestyle, and, later, the notorious failure of his practice as it was to the critically acclaimed buildings he designed.(1) Elegant and eloquent, Erickson established a well-earned reputation as a pioneering exponent of Pacific Northwest modernism.

Erickson’s genius is his ability to meld culture, site, and program to remarkable effect. A gifted painter as a child, he immersed himself in Vancouver’s art society before being inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright to become an architect. Following military service during World War II, Erickson attended the School of Architecture at McGill University in Montreal, his education greatly enriched by additional studies in Japan, Greece, Italy, and the Middle East. Incurably peripatetic, Erickson assimilated lessons from around the world to develop a design vocabulary eminently suited to the soft, watery light of Canada’s west coast. He established his office in the mid-1950s, teaching at the same time to make ends meet.(2) During the early years of his practice, Erickson designed some of his most noteworthy projects, including the Filberg House, the Graham House, and Simon Fraser University (the latter with his original design partner Geoffrey Massey).

Erickson likened his competition-winning 1963 design (with Geoffrey Massey) for Simon Fraser University atop Burnaby Mountain to the Incan settlement at Machu Picchu in Peru (Simon Scott photo).

Erickson’s sensitivity to place often led him to characterize himself as a landscape designer as well as an architect. In particular, many of his early Vancouver houses are impossible to fully appreciate without understanding the often spectacular landscapes of which they are a part. The finest Erickson buildings are essays on the relationship between art and nature – best experienced in person with all of the senses fully engaged.

Robson Square (1974-79), Arthur Erickson Architects (my photo)

Although his work is undeniably modernist, Erickson has always disdained the more mechanistic or rationalist strains of modernism. He likewise has been strongly critical of the tendencies towards scenographic or “entertainment” architecture, which, he asserts, lacks a purpose other than to enchant and is devoid of meaning. Erickson believes that great buildings move the spirit because they are unique, poetic, products of the heart, with a freshness of view. They show us the way and remind us of our mission to inspire. Great buildings are honest, simple, and stirring. According to Erickson, they reinforce the way of architecture – the quiet voice that underlies it and has guided it from the beginning.

The main studio of Arthur Erickson Architects’ Vancouver office (my photo, 1979)

I had the good fortune to be placed as a practicum student in the Vancouver office of Arthur Erickson Architects during my sophomore year at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.(3) At that time, the firm occupied a three-story building of Erickson’s own design that featured an impressive main studio whose roof, isolated by continuous skylights, appeared to float free of the enclosing walls. The volume of Erickson’s commissions during my practicum was probably at its zenith: he would soon manage separate offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Saudi Arabia, with prestigious projects on virtually every continent (that’s the Kuwaiti flag hanging in the Erickson studio in the photo above). The massive Robson Square and Provincial Courthouse project that occupies three blocks in downtown Vancouver was nearing completion, but its 3/16 inch scale foam-core study model still stretched the entire length of the studio’s north wall. Despite the activity of dozens of staff, I recall the Erickson office as being remarkably hushed and serene. There was a palpable sense that this was the center of Canada’s architectural universe.(4)

I spent much of my practicum experience consigned to the model shop, where, ingesting a lifetime’s worth of foam dust, I churned out iteration after iteration of study models for consideration by Erickson and his staff. I didn’t mind at all: it was exciting work in the office of the most famous architect in Canada, heady stuff for a second-year student in architecture.

Me with a study model I prepared for the Monteverdi Estates project (1979).

Monteverdi Estates (1979) by Arthur Erickson Architects (Christopher Erickson photo).

The common wisdom today is that great architecture can rarely be attributed to a single individual. Buildings are too complex, people say, requiring too much specialized knowledge to be born of a solitary mind. I disagree: it’s the visionary, the talented, and the exceptional individual who remains necessary to inspire the most extraordinary projects. Arthur Erickson may have been a “starchitect” during his heyday, but the acclaim was deserved. I learned that the audacity of his buildings was not capricious; it was grounded in the fundamental elements of architecture: site, light, cadence, and space.

Now in his mid-eighties, Erickson still practices, the star of his celebrity greatly dimmed and his sway in Canadian architectural circles long ago eclipsed. Regardless, his influence upon entire generations of architects in Vancouver and elsewhere, many of whom passed through his office on the way to establishing their own successful practices, is undeniable.

(1) Erickson counted among his close friends such luminaries as Donald Sutherland, Shirley MacLaine, and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He famously would suffer personal bankruptcy as his offices collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, casualties of fiscal mismanagement and recessionary times.
(2) Erickson would come to Eugene in 1955 for a brief stint at the University of Oregon before settling again in Vancouver to teach at the University of British Columbia.
(3) I spent my freshman and sophomore years at BCIT in that school’s Building Technology program (architectural major) prior to transferring to the University of Oregon in 1980.
(4) Former employees of Arthur Erickson Architects include notable Vancouver architects Bing Thom (for whom I worked for a few years before and after my graduate studies at UCLA), James Cheng, and John Patkau.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March AIA-SWO Chapter Meeting Recap

Our March program speaker, Robert Young, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Planning, Public Policy & Management (PPPM) at the University of Oregon, is a man to listen to. His presentation, Towards an American Architecture: Washington D.C., Oregon, and Green Cities, was a thought-provoking essay about the enormous challenges confronting our state and the need to move toward a more self-sufficient economy if our future is to be secure and sustainable. His message is one that cannot be ignored and has attracted attention at the highest levels of our state government.

Governor Ted Kulongoski recently appointed Robert to be a member of The Oregon Way Advisory Group. The group’s mandate is to use Oregon's green advantage to compete and win a share of the $37 billion in grants included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by President Obama. The group will advise and assist state agencies and other partners seeking these grants by developing innovative proposals that create immediate jobs and promote renewable energy, reduce carbon emissions, encourage greater energy efficiency or sustainable development.

Even with such a mandate, The Oregon Way is absent an overarching strategic vision that would lead to a truly sustainable economy, a deficiency that Robert will seek to remedy. He asserts that much more than an influx of federal dollars is necessary to bring the fundamental changes required within the structure of our economic systems. The fact is, even today, Oregon’s economy is primarily extraction-based. Resources and value are too often exploited for export outside of the region. Essentially, we live in a frontier state, critically vulnerable to the whim of whipsawing external forces. Oregon’s businesses are being hammered by the effects of the current recession: Oregon unemployment is amongst the highest in the nation and, according to Robert, two-thirds of our working population is at or below 150% of the poverty line. Jobs may be created or saved by the stimulus package, but many more have already been lost – some of these forever.

Robert advocates moving Oregon toward generating internal productive capacity, self-sufficiency, capital retention, and wealth generation. This cannot be achieved simply by saying the right things. We Oregonians tend to think that we’re leaders when it comes to sustainability, but it may be more a case of finding it comforting to believe our own “greenwashing” propaganda. Likewise, architects have been quick to lean on the crutch of U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification, but LEED’s major failing may be that it undervalues the meta-factors of economic stability and sustainability.

The implications for our profession are profound. Ultimately, a restructured, self-sufficient economy will favor city regions rather than national or international networks. Everything will become more local and internalized. The production of food will mostly occur close at hand. The development of future transportation networks will find emphasis at the city level, rather than at the scale of the interstate highway. Reliance upon imported sources of energy will be greatly diminished. Urban regions will grow more compactly and more responsively to the availability of local resources. An inevitable byproduct, Robert believes, may be a genuinely American architectural vernacular or, perhaps more precisely, a vocabulary of architecture eminently rooted in its place.

It’s important that architects appreciate economic and environmental policy, and the role that governance networks have in advancing the development of sustainable urban regions. Robert Young’s insights on these issues will influence not only how The Oregon Way directs recovery spending, but also the future built environment of the communities in which we work.

* * * * * * * *
This month's winner of our chapter meeting raffle prize, which is a $50.00 gift certificate courtesy of The Green Store store, was our speaker, Robert Young! Not only did he deliver a dynamic presentation, but he was rewarded for his efforts by being our raffle prize winner. For April, we have a very special raffle prize, a cozy fleece blanket courtesy of McKenzie Commercial General Contractors. Remember, your first raffle ticket is free with your paid dinner and additional tickets are only $2 each. However, you can’t win if you don’t attend, so join us at our next meeting!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Influences: Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, November 1937 (photo by Bill Hedrich)

My February 15 blog entry, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who've been most influential upon my architectural world view. This is the first such post:

I’m currently reading Fallingwater Rising, by Franklin Toker, which recounts the genesis of what many regard as Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Kaufmann House in southwestern Pennsylvania. Much of Toker’s book is an analysis of the relationship between Wright and his client, Pittsburgh department store mogul Edgar J. Kaufmann. Neither Wright nor Kaufmann feared the other – Kaufmann elicited the best possible from Wright without meddling, not because EJ was weak but because he was strong. His patronage would rejuvenate Wright’s career. The great architect’s design for Fallingwater would surpass in brilliance anything his European contemporaries were producing, while still hewing to his idiosyncratic brand of organic modernism. It is arguable that it was this single commission that cemented Wright’s claim to being the greatest American architect of the twentieth century.

I well remember my first impression of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Bill Hedrich’s iconic 1937 photograph of Fallingwater immediately caught my attention as I turned to the first page about architecture in a well-worn encyclopedia at the local public library. My assignment was to prepare a report on the subject for a fifth grade class. I’d never seen a house like Fallingwater before. Its dynamism and integration into its setting, particularly the dramatically cantilevered balconies, were remarkable to my young eyes. So too was the striking contrast between the rugged stone masonry of the vertical elements and the smooth plaster of the horizontal planes. But what I really found astonishing was when I read the photo’s caption and realized how old it was. “Holy cow!” I thought to myself. “This was designed in 1934?” The house looked so . . . modern. This couldn’t be right; after all, that would have made Fallingwater almost as old as my mom and dad, and they were really old. The encyclopedia must have gotten the date wrong.

Of course, the date wasn’t wrong. Once I had resolved this cognitive dissonance, I would learn that Fallingwater was designed by the most famous architect of all, and that he was the creative genius and ego behind many other amazing examples of modern architecture. I became enthralled with the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in turn with the idea of growing up to be an architect. The heroic image of the crusading master builder appealed to me, in much the same way that the cocksure arrogance of an astronaut or fighter pilot with the “right stuff” did before I discovered architecture(1). Heck, I could be Wright’s spiritual successor(2), or maybe the next Howard Roark (not that I knew at the age of eleven who Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead protagonist was). I would soon read Wright’s An Autobiography and The Living City, as well as books by other authors about Wright and architecture in general. I was hooked.
Wright was larger than life, an artistic iconoclast and heroic individualist. He left behind a rich legacy of beautiful architecture derived from his personal passions and convictions. He believed that an organic architecture must serve the principles that give order to nature and meaning to the human spirit. He exercised a high-blown romanticism and a mutability that ensured the relevance of his philosophy even as the world changed rapidly around him. His was the promise of a utopian future. He seemed the embodiment of modernity to me.

So, in addition to giving form to a genuinely American modern architecture, Wright also inspired a particular young boy to follow in his footsteps. Of course, he should be heaped upon with praise for likewise turning generations of countless other disciples toward lives in architecture but – hey – we’re talking about me here.

A framed copy of this 1994 MOMA poster hangs on the wall of our guest bedroom.
I have yet to make the pilgrimage to Bear Run to see Fallingwater in person. Of Wright’s projects, I’ve visited Taliesen West in Arizona, the Hollyhock and Ennis houses in Los Angeles, and the Gordon House in Silverton, Oregon. A trip to see Fallingwater is definitely on my “bucket list” of things to do before I die. Given that it was a seminal image of the Kaufmanns’ famous country retreat that set me on my life’s path, it only seems natural that I should someday admire Frank Lloyd Wright’s most celebrated work of architecture from the exact place below the falls where Bill Hedrich set his camera on a sunlit November day in 1937.

(1) Prior to settling upon becoming an architect, I alternately dreamed of being a cowboy, astronaut, fighter pilot (which I quickly gave up when I realized that having superior eyesight was a prerequisite for fighter pilots), professional hockey player, and marine biologist (I imagined embarking upon fantastic voyages of discovery with Jacques Cousteau aboard his ship, the Calypso).

(2) After all, Wright died peacefully on April 9, 1959, perhaps aware and comforted that I had arrived on the scene the very day before to carry the flame (please note tongue firmly planted in cheek).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The annual HOPES (Holistic Options for Planet Earth Sustainability) conference, founded by the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts, works to promote a deeper understanding and broader application of sustainable design principles. Today, it remains the country's only ecological design conference developed and managed entirely by students.

This year's conference will be held April 2-5 in Lawrence Hall, on the University of Oregon campus. The four-day, interdisciplinary conference will feature internationally recognized keynote speakers, panel discussions, hands-on workshops, a 24-hour design charrette, local food, and many other activities.

The conference theme, "Thinking Small," calls for focus in the face of massive change. It reminds us to consider the details and impacts of our actions when we are thinking big – to listen to the quiet voices, and accomplish our visions incrementally. Attend the conference to contemplate the meaning of "local" and "appropriate," to ponder the ripple effect, and to examine nanotechnology and microclimates.

This year's keynote speakers include:
  • Steven Kellert: Professor, Social Ecology and Co-Director, Hixon Center for Urban Ecology, Yale University; Partner, Environmental Capital Partners; Author, "Biophillic Design" and "Building For Life"
  • Bill Wilkinson, AICP: Former Director, National Center for Walking and Biking; Founder, International Pro Walk/Pro Bike Conferences; Former Bicycle/Pedestrian Program Coordinator, U.S. Department of Transportation
  • Anna Maria Orru: Architect, Exploration Architecture, London; Researcher, Arup Global Foresight and Innovation; Collaborator with Grimshaw, Anne Thorne Architects Partnership, and Shigeru Ban
  • Tony Brown: Founder and Director, Ecosa Institute; Designer, Cosanti Foundation; Architect and Illustrator To find out more and register for the conference, check out the HOPES website at

Help plant the tiny seeds to grow the revolutionary change!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Survey says . . . !

Ian D. Parkman is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Marketing of the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. He has asked me to help him spread the word about his current research project, which explores how aspects of design, corporate image and identity affect corporate advantage in creative industries such as architecture. Architectural firms compete on the basis of their knowledge and creativity, and offer services that are judged in part by their symbolic and experiential content. Ian has developed an online survey to further his research on this topic.

The survey is comprised of 60 questions that will ask you about your perceptions of your firmʼs processes relative to image and competitive advantage. Pre-tests that Ian has conducted suggest that completing the survey should take no more than 10 minutes. Your answers will range from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree" in response to each item. Care has been taken to keep the scope of this questionnaire as generalized as possible; in other words, it is not a test of a firmʼs specific operation in terms of fees, profitability, etc. Rather, the survey is intended to measure the aggregated effects of image in the architectural design services industry and how a firm goes about building an organizational identity. Ian’s goal is to obtain a large sampling of responses to better validate the statistical significance of the evidence gathered.

If you are interested in participating in the survey, please follow the following link:

The opening page has a brief introduction of the research questions and expected outcomes.

All responses will be completely anonymous in the survey system and all data will be kept in strict confidence by the researcher on University of Oregon server networks.

In return for participating in the survey, Ian is willing to make his findings available to your firm in either written form or by way of a personal presentation following his completion of the study. Ian would also welcome one-on-one discussions on the subject of corporate identity in architectural practice with anyone who is willing to offer his or her time to him.

The following is Ian’s contact information:

I encourage all of you to take ten brief minutes to complete the survey. The outcome of Ian’s research will no doubt be of great interest to our profession.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

President’s Message – March 2009

When the AIA-SWO Board of Directors drew up plans for 2009 last December, we knew that we were setting an ambitious agenda for chapter activities. Well, three months on and I’m pleased to report that we’re well on our way to fulfilling a number of our objectives. These include:
  • Moving forward aggressively with planning for the 2010 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference
  • Resurrecting the juried Design Awards program for the first time since 2005 (we will solicit entries this summer for jury review in September)
  • Expanding ties with the University of Oregon’s chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students (including co-producing last month’s Reverse Crit)
  • Working in partnership with AIA Oregon to advocate vociferously for the adoption of high performance building legislation (see item below)
  • Seeking feedback from Associate members and other interns on how the AIA-SWO can better address their concerns
  • Generating a predictable stream of non-dues revenue
  • Organizing an educational seminar to be offered in early June
  • Assisting our local public agencies by producing design workshops that advance meaningful and creative solutions to specific design problems.

On this last front, AIA-SWO recently assisted ODOT by organizing and facilitating a successful pair of workshops intended to ensure that the proposed new I-5 Willamette River Bridge will be as notable a span as possible. The knock against so many similar charrettes we have produced in the past is that the results too often gather dust on a shelf. This will not be the case for the I-5 bridge project, as ODOT is committed to integrating many of the concepts generated by the charrette. Look for more information about the results of the “Whilamut Passage” workshops in the near future, as well as news about two additional charrettes we have in the works.

The fact that I’m able to list such achievements is due in no small part to the efforts of our board, as well as AIA-SWO members who have volunteered their time on our active committees. They are also attributable to the cajoling, encouragement, and cheerleading of our executive director, Don Kahle, without whom these accomplishments would not be possible.

The AIA Oregon Economic Resource Center
Each of us has been affected by our nation's current economic downturn. Whether it is construction projects that have been scaled back or put on hold due to the tightening credit market, or the need for firms to make staff reductions, many of us have had to make very difficult decisions as we watch the horizon for signs of a recovery. In difficult times, it is critical that our profession continue to innovate and capitalize on new and existing opportunities while pulling together and looking out for one another. AIA Oregon has developed a web portal designed to facilitate access to a wide range of resources for all architects throughout Oregon during the recession, including links to post your resume and search employment listings, and to keep architects connected to their design communities. My hope is to soon have a direct link available from the AIA-SWO website; in the meantime, here is the AIA Oregon Economic Resource Center URL:

Leadership by Design – April 23, 2009
AIA Oregon has proposed High Performance Building legislation that would require certain state buildings to meet Department of Energy adopted green building design standards and to be certified at the highest standard a 20-year life cycle cost analysis merits. Leadership by Design is a half-day event in Salem to promote this legislation and maintain Oregon as a leader in sustainable, high-performance buildings. AIA Oregon is organizing everything including bus transportation for us from Eugene to Salem, lunch, coaching, and talking points for meeting with legislators. Online registration to participate in the event will soon be available on the AIA Oregon website at the following link:

Please join your fellow AIA-Southwestern architects, interns, and students in Salem on April 23rd for this important advocacy effort.

AIA 2009 National Convention and Design Exposition
This year’s AIA National Convention, taking place April 30 – May 2 in San Francisco, is rapidly approaching. If you haven’t already considered attending the convention, the following are some of the compelling reasons to do so:

  • The Economy and You
    The AIA is addressing how the recession is affecting members’ careers and practices by offering a number of sessions at the convention developed around what actions to take in an economic downturn.

  • Sustainable Design Learning Units
    As of January 1, 2009, all AIA members are required to fulfill four CES learning units in sustainable design. The AIA Convention offers more than 70 workshops, seminars, and tours that focus on sustainability, allowing attendees to choose from a wide range of topics to target their interests and stay competitive in this essential design area.

  • New AIA Members Pay $0 for the Convention
    What a Deal! Convention registration is FREE for all first-time architect, associate, and international associate members who join the AIA between May 18, 2008, and May 2, 2009. This welcoming gesture goes a long way to help new members to begin networking with colleagues and industry leaders all in one location.

For additional information regarding the 2009 AIA Convention, check out AIA’s convention website at:

I hope to see many of my AIA-SWO colleagues in San Francisco!