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.

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