In 1964, the Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, who died on May 19th at age 84, spoke with an unknown interviewer about the ideas that would eventually make him internationally-renowned. At the time, he was completing work on Simon Fraser University, the campus in Burnaby, B.C., designed with partner Geoffrey Massey, that brought him world attention for the first time. In subsequent decades his designs included the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, the Vancouver Law Courts, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C., and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. (Read Frank Moher’s appreciation of Erickson’s work, life, and buildings, here.)
The interview that follows was found in a pile of typescripts at the University of British Columbia, and first published in the anthology Genius of Place: Writing About British Columbia (Polestar, Stouck and Wilkinson, eds.)
Arthur Erickson: I have a favourite theory. In B.C., as pioneers, we didn’t make a significant contribution until a few years ago. As a matter of fact we are the first in Canada to demonstrate contemporary housing. This was about 15 years ago — just after the war. The rest of Canada was a way behind and there was an article in Canadian Art by Bob Hubbard which was written after he had visited the West Coast — just about 1952-53 or 53-54. It was called “Climate for the Arts.” Suddenly B.C. did have this fresh spirit — both in painting, architecture, poetry — all these things — and it was very much on top of the heap at that time — as far as Canada was concerned. There was a time lag in which the rest of Canada, in a sense, caught up, then really took over, because I think one thing that characterizes what we do — whether it is architecture, painting, or anything else — is a hangover of being pioneers, and that is innovation. We had no traditions, nothing tying us down, no ancient architecture, no tradition of building materials that stopped us from making a fresh and interesting experiment at that time. I think this spirit still exists here to a certain extent.
As with the pioneer, you do tackle your new environment with fresh eyes, you are able to innovate, but I think also that when you are asked to make your first spurt, you become a tired old homesteader. I think this happened in B.C. The place settled too quickly. A type of house was built like the post and beam which has been repeated and repeated. This was actually a good solution for the small house. But it was never — and this is the interesting thing — it was never really developed into a fine building type. And I would say that is somewhat characteristic of B.C. — that you don’t have the maturity, at least a maturity isn’t reached. Post and beam was experimented with but it was never refined. Never perfected.
Everyone who came here had to deal with unusual conditions. There were siting problems. You tried to put up a traditional house, but then you found you had to do something else with underpinnings and therefore the whole contractor’s field involved more innovation. And, I think, one of a higher standard than perhaps anywhere else in Canada. I was amazed going up into Capilano Highlands, no matter how awful you think the houses are or out at Bay View, the standard is quite extraordinary. When compared to contractors’ houses elsewhere. Elsewhere in Canada. Elsewhere in the States on the West Coast.
There is a kind of vernacular here that comes from the challenge of using local materials and settings.
We confuse innovation and experiment with the design. We don’t take it as far as we can — but go on to something else.
I think at that time there was a lot of courage in British Columbia in all the arts — architecture included — which does not exist now. Right at the moment, one of my greatest contentions is the lack of courage in B.C. Looking at the history of the city, I am surprised how few people of vision or people of courage have made their mark here. We seemed to be cursed with timidity. And it makes me mad. For instance, the man who built Lions Gate Bridge, A.J.T. Taylor, was not a Canadian. The people who put the C.P.R. into this area were from elsewhere. The people who created Stanley Park . . . had nothing to do with the resident population.
Interviewer: What you are saying is that outside of some superficial things, we are still living on the foresight of other people?
AE: Yes . . . What can develop is a spirit that pervades everything. I think it existed when B.C. was first beginning. I think now it exists in Quebec, maybe brutally, and in Ontario. And I think it is coming back here. Now . . . the degrading of the profession of architecture has had a lot to do with the lack of spirit here lately. It is a disrespect of professionalism. It has been said lately that an architect is no better than a contractor — there is no difference between an engineer and an architect. They will try to get the cheapest thing possible without respecting, basically, that you have a knowledge at their disposal; that you are a professional. We should have the same respect as a doctor has.
I think we are cursed with the do-it-yourself magazines, which is the curse of Western America. I think the home should express the way a person lives, but I think that the creativity which goes into making furniture and things like that, is the wrong way. You should walk into a home and say: this home has character. It represents an attitude toward life that these people have made in it. But not that this is a piece of furniture that the owner made himself — and he is not really a carpenter. This, unfortunately to me, is common to the West Coast. It is all through California right up to here. Not on the East Coast. And I think that this again might be partially due to the wave of settlement across the continent. The people who came to the West Coast were not professionals. They stayed in Quebec, in Montreal, in Toronto, if you will. You didn’t find architects immigrating out here in the very beginning. The people who were here had to solve their problems. The do-it-yourself person is the pioneer. He had to do it himself. Therefore I think we have the values of the pioneer because the arts were late in coming across the continent — painting and music are still a little suspect. The painter isn’t considered as important as the plumber. In Mexico, the painter is an extremely important person and often a Mexican would forego
plumbing to have a painting.
Interviewer: Jessup says we are still in our adolescence.
AE: Don’t forget that sometimes when there are signs of youth there is also disintegration of old age. I am afraid — and this is common to North America and more specifically in the West — that the important things are given the most unimportant places. The fact that the houses are heated and that the plumbing works and the roof doesn’t leak is the most important thing in our lives. But to some people there are other things much more important than these things.
Interviewer: But can you marry aesthetics with the necessaries — like a roof which will keep out three inches of rain such as we had last night?
AE: It is a confusion of fundamentals. The Sicilian would consider certainly that the roof being watertight was essential — but just as important is the place of his native image. It is not something he brings in afterwards to decorate the house. Unfortunately, what happens is that most of the arts including architecture are thought of as decoration. It is not thought of as absolutely fundamental.
Interviewer: In some ways, architecture is thought of as luxury?
AE: Yes, and this is a completely ass-backwards situation.
Interviewer: Now . . . does all this apply to office buildings and plants?
AE: Certainly, because . . . Mind you architects suffer here from lack of training and experience and challenge that creates good architecture. There is a more competitive situation in the East. Certainly they have a much greater sense of becoming better architects. There just isn’t the challenge here in this respect. But whatever it is, factory or office building, you are providing an environment of some kind. I feel this is the most important thing in our lives. We are so influenced by our environment, so conditioned by it, and we are always creating it.
Look at San Francisco which is a much older city than ours. The strongest thing is a pattern of thought, a pattern of acting, a way of thinking, what you have is very difficult to spell out. For instance, I am very conscious when I go east of how different my thinking is from theirs.
Interviewer: What is the reaction of the people listening?
AE: Very responsive, but I find also that they, with their experience, consider things more carefully — that I would perhaps be impatient of a problem, but I am sure that I see the problem freshly and that my ideas are valid. Therefore the response to them is good. I also find that there too is a lack of courage, but it comes from not being able to see a problem freshly — almost being burdened.
Interviewer: You mean they are seeing things in a more limestone-fronted manner?
AE: In modern terms.
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